I couldn’t sleep last night. It was around midnight, and going to bed seemed like the last thing on my mind. I decided to find a free, on-demand movie to watch. I noticed that one of the free movies available was Hotel Rwanda. I saw this movie once before when I was a bit younger, but I wasn’t mature enough to understand it, and I did not watch the entire thing. Hence, I decided to re-watch it last night. For those of you who haven’t heard of this movie, it tells the story of the heinous genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. Although Hotel Rwanda is an incredible film, it is also incredibly difficult to watch. I struggled to process it both mentally and emotionally.
For archivists, the darker sides of history come into our presence on a regular basis. As we strive to document the stories of humanity through records, we are forced to confront stories that we wish didn’t exist. While watching Hotel Rwanda, I couldn’t help but notice the integral role that recordkeeping played. Records both assisted the genocide and helped resist it. Here are a few examples from both sides. . .
- The Hutu militia (the force committing genocide against the Tutsi people) tried to use the guest list records from the Hotel des Mille Collines to find Tutsi refugees and kill them.
- The Hutu militia used identity cards to commit murders. During this time in Rwanda, each citizen carried a card that identified the individual as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. The Hutu militia used forced people to show their cards and would subsequently murder anyone identifying as Tutsi.
- Paul Rusesabinga – the protagonist – orders the destruction of records from the hotel, including the guest lists, to protect the lives of the Tutsi refugees.
- An American reporter goes against his supervisor’s orders and captures footage of the carnage produced by the genocide. This footage revealed the undeniable tragedy that was taking place in Rwanda despite the ignorance and nonchalance of citizens in other countries.
- Paul and his wife frantically search for their refugee nieces using a large poster filled with pictures of displaced children.
Records have the ability to both perpetuate evil and fight against it. If we bring this into the twenty-first century, it is even more interesting to consider digital records and how they influence the darker sides of history. For instance, I wonder if the Rwandan genocide could have (or would have) been stopped earlier if social media had existed. Perhaps countries like the United States would have learned of the atrocities faster and would have been more inclined to send help earlier. Maybe more families could have been reunited; maybe more of the murderers would have been brought to justice. I suppose we will never know.
I hope I didn’t make anyone feel depressed with this post. I just think it is important to revisit difficult periods in human history and explore how archives and recordkeeping influence these events. Leave comments below and let me know what you think. Consider other examples of human tragedy and ask, “What role did records play during the tragedy and in its aftermath?”