Unearthing, untangling and rearticulating genocide corpses in Rwanda

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This paper is concerned with the mass graves and exhumed bodies of victims of the Rwanda genocide and war of the 1990s. A government-led programme of exhumation of mass burials and individual graves has taken place over the last decade. The exhumation of mass graves has been undertaken, in the main, by Tutsi genocide survivors who work under the supervision of state officials. Post-unearthing, these bodies are unravelled, and the remnants of soft flesh, clothing, personal possessions and bones are separated from each other. Skeletal structures are fully disarticulated and the bones pooled into a vast collective, for placement within memorials. The outcome of these exhumations is that remains almost always lack individual identity at the point of reinterring. A productive analytical comparison is found in examining exhumations of Spanish Civil War graves, where the fates of individual dead are closely entangled with the lives of survivors. Here there is a clear contrast with exhumations in Rwanda, in the possible re-articulation of identities with specific human remains. But a similarity is also critical: in both cases the properties of human remains, as unsettling materials, garner specific 'affects', which drive forward national political projects that aim to consolidate particular collective memories of conflict, albeit that this kind of 'material agency' is mobilized to very different ends in each case.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)164-181
Number of pages18
JournalCritical African Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jul 2015


  • mass graves
  • exhumed bodies
  • Rwanda genocide
  • disarticulated
  • bones
  • collective memories of conflict
  • memorials
  • post-conflict


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