Taylor Krauss discusses the oral history project with Rwandan genocide survivors that he leads, Voices of Rwanda.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Welcome to this week’s episode of Voices on Genocide Prevention. This is Bridget Conley-Zilkic. With me today is Taylor Krauss, who’s the executive director of Voices of Rwanda. Taylor, thank you for joining me.
TAYLOR KRAUSS: Thank you so much for having me, Bridget.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What is Voices of Rwanda?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: Voices of Rwanda is an archive of video testimony of survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And what made you start working on this project?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: Well when I first traveled to Rwanda five years ago and -- I was working on a film in Rwanda -- and there were so many people who wanted to share their stories with me, as an outsider. And I returned back to the U.S. and, of course, there were all these different elements that were sort of swirling in my life at the time, but I couldn’t forget about all of the stories that people had shared with me. And I felt like I was somebody who was trained as a documentary filmmaker and I had watched testimony of the Holocaust survivors in college and I had really-- I was working on a film about the Second World War at the time-- and it was really an important thing for me to contribute to the conversation. And I felt like I needed to return to Rwanda and I needed to participate in the process of recording testimony.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: How many testimonies have you recorded thus far?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: Well we have been filming testimonies in Rwanda for the past three years, and we have thousands of hours of testimony material. These testimonies range from two hours to eight hours or ten hours. And so we’re continually filming and we are still hoping to grow the collection by filming all across the country. But we’re still a small operation in the county. And I think it’s really important actually to not talk about simply numbers, how many individuals. How many individuals have been filmed; how many individuals were killed.
I think it’s really important to focus on the individual story of one individual. So with that idea, each testimony that we film is really somebody’s whole life story, and we really are there to listen as long as somebody wants to talk, and to talk about their childhood and growing up, all the way up until the present. So it’s really the way we’re approaching each testimony; not necessarily the breadth of how we’re filming in the country.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: So you’re getting not only the years immediately preceding and then the genocide and the years after, but actually how the genocide interrupts the lives of Rwandans.
TAYLOR KRAUSS: I think yes, as we listen to some of these testimonies, we recognize the context, we understand the context more, because we are hearing about people’s lives before the genocide, and growing up, and then, of course, as you say, how the genocide completely interrupted life, and how individuals are still living with genocide today.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And what are some of the challenges that you faced working in Rwanda?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: Well some of the challenges of working in Rwanda are as basic as infrastructure; when the electric goes out while we’re filming and the lights go out, or when it starts pouring rain outside. And you can expect that time functions slightly differently in Rwanda than it does in say New York City, where we know that people are going to be coming a little bit late, and you just have to wait until the rain stops. But some of the more interesting challenges have actually led to really great discoveries.
And like the challenge of transcribing testimonies. And as we decided to begin this process of transcribing each word of every testimony, we needed to have a staff of people who could type. And finding people who could type in Rwanda was a difficult challenge because so many people don’t grow up with computers. Of course that’s changing now as Rwanda pushes towards being the IT hub of East Africa. But at the time we didn’t find many, many people who could type. So we had to teach typing courses. And we taught eight weeks of typing, four hours a day. And so it really helped us learn what it was going to take to function in Rwanda; something as simple as typing.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: It’s interesting, because obviously it’s easier to teach Kinyarwanda speakers to type than it would be to teach a typist to learn Kinyarwanda.
TAYLOR KRAUSS: Certainly, certainly.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Are almost all the interviews in Kinyarwanda? Are there some in French or in English?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: Some testimonies are in French, some are in English; depending on what the individual wants to speak. But most of the testimonies in Rwanda are in Kinyarwanda.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And how have survivors responded to the initiative?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: This was something that I wasn’t certain of as we began the process. I knew that people wanted to share with me, because I was an outsider when I was in Rwanda, but I didn’t know exactly how the response would be if we began undertaking this process. In the United States the response was really -- it was really affirming that we needed to do this when survivors in the Diaspora were encouraging us to do this. In Rwanda it was even more so. The kind of trust that survivors give to the organization is really still beyond me. Because these are individuals who have every right not to trust an organization, not to trust an outsider, in the international community, that once failed them. And yet they are trusting.
People want to share. And it becomes really evident to me when somebody sits down to share their life stories and-- say, for example, when 1994 comes around in the testimony process and they speak for two or three hours without even pausing for a sip of water or without even pausing for any word of translation. And that somebody can sit and speak for ten hours long and not even realize that ten hours have passed. And that really underscores the need to share the things that I have to share. There’s also other elements that I’m understanding of the real trust that is involved, when somebody shares with us stories, like stories of sexual violence. And then individuals have said, “I wanted to share that with you, but I don’t want that to be public.” So, of course, we as an organization honor that, and that part of their testimony is not public. And that really is telling to me of the kind of trust that individuals are giving to us as an organization.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And because as Rwanda becomes -- and we have more knowledge about it, outside of Rwanda in particular, people talk about it differently. And even for myself, when you go back and you actually re-read what happened: the extreme violence that survivors suffered, much more than killing them; often torturing in many ways. I can only imagine -- I can’t -- what kind of stories you’re hearing. Are there any that have stuck with you -- that you can’t let go of? Or are there things that are surprising you as you talk with people?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: Well it may sound like a platitude to say that every story is different. And I think every story is very different, and every time I’m involved in the process I am surprised; whether it’s through a specific moment in the individual’s history, or the way somebody is sharing, or somebody’s emotional response to something, I am always surprised. One doesn’t necessarily know how to approach this history. And I think one of the most difficult parts is when an individual is really trying to get through a history that is so difficult for them and really just can’t, and must stop and take time to stop. Because if they don’t stop, then you can see that it could become very difficult for them to actually get through and get up out of the chair and leave. So we try to approach the process as sensitively as possible, as we understand it to be, and we try to be there for the individual.
There are other kinds of surprises that happen in the testimony too, sort of on the contrary, and those kinds of things are the joyous moments in the testimony process. So coupled with these horrific and deeply saddening, tragic histories, you have some of the most joyous stories that are coming out. And even I was surprised the first time somebody started singing in their testimony, and this was the most joyous thing to have somebody break out into song in the middle of a testimony. So I think each testimony is really incredibly unique, and every testimony is very different.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I wanted to also ask you a little bit about timing. It’s 15 years since the genocide happened. I’ve heard from -- some of the friends that I know in Rwanda, some of them are doing really, really well. Their strength astonishes me. And I’ve heard others say that they feel that it’s actually getting harder, as time passes, to deal with the memories; that all the work that they had to do to rebuild the country, to just put things in order, that energy carried them for awhile, and now it seems to be getting harder. Are you hearing both of those stories, or hearing more on one side or the other?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: I can’t speak to sort of the general effect of that. But I could say that I have heard that from some people. And if you ask me to kind of understand why that is, maybe it’s the same understanding as you said, people-- there was a need for people to put one foot in front of the other and simply to move forward at the time, and now 15 years later, perhaps the function of time, or the conversations surrounding their own history, has allowed them to take a step back and a chance to look at it, and the fact that there are so many other people engaged in conversation about their history.
Maybe one of the most difficult things for survivors is that question why? And as time moves forward, people may not have any more answers than they had yesterday. And I think even as individuals who lived through the history, who are trying to understand why, when those answers don’t come, I think that becomes even more difficult. Now in Rwanda, of course, one of the most difficult things, I think, would be to wake up every day next to the killers of your own family. And perhaps there’s a realization of that, especially now that perpetrators are being let out of prison, and that that is something that’s becoming more a reality in Rwanda.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Also, I did one interview with a survivor from Rwanda, and she was amazing. She told her entire story with great focus and intent. She didn’t cry. The only time she cried was when she talked about asking the question, “Why did I survive and not so many others?” So not only the question of why did it happen, but why am I the one who’s left? How has the response of official Rwanda been to this? Are there any efforts inside Rwanda to do this kind of archiving of the history, or have you gotten support from the Rwandan government?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: There have been officials like Louise Mushikiwabo who have been incredibly supportive of the project. And even parliamentarians like Anne-Marie Kantegwa, who is the owner of Chez Lando Hotel, and who gave us a room in her hotel for six months to film, because she, as an individual, felt that this was an incredibly important process that was happening. And so there have been individuals who have been very supportive of our work.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Do you know of any other projects, any comparable projects, to do video interviews with survivors?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: One of the reasons that I felt like it was critical to begin this process was that when I first traveled to Rwanda five years ago, nobody else was systematically filming testimony. There have been a few filmmakers who’ve passed through to film interviews for specific film projects, but nobody was systematically doing this. And to my knowledge nobody has engaged in the kind of filming that we do, which are these life stories, as I spoke about, life stories, filming individuals sharing their whole life stories, which sometimes lasts ten hours long. And so that I think demonstrates the real need for this process.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And how will the interviews be made available -- or will they -- to the public or to researchers?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: We’re still working on trying to determine how the archive will be made available to the wider public and to researchers. Certainly the archive will live both in Rwanda, as well as the United States, and repositories will be located all over the world, in places like Holocaust museums and libraries. But what kind of access online is a question that we’re still trying to ask ourselves, given the security of individuals in Rwanda. There are times some survivors are still being targeted. And so that’s a real question for us.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Do you have a host organization in Rwanda that you’re working with?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: In Rwanda we are working with different organizations as part of the process. But in terms of a host organization, no, we are still an independently run organization, and independent to be able to continue to do our work with the kind of integrity we think is necessary for the long-term, so that in 50 years, in 100 years, nobody can say, in Rwanda, “Oh, this is a mouthpiece of X organization; this is a mouth--”; that simply we exist as an organization filled with the voices of each individual that shares their testimony.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What led you to become involved, not only involved, but to lead and to remain committed to this project?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: You know, I ask myself that when I look back and try and understand why Rwanda is so much my life right now and why this project has become my life. And when I look back, there are different elements that do make sense to me and one of those of course was that first visit to Rwanda in 2004 when I went to Rwanda and 20 people were sharing their stories with me.
I came back to the United States and realized that I couldn’t simply continue on working on different projects; that I had to return to Rwanda because there were -- you know, perhaps it’s partly an obligation as a Jew inheriting history, as a Jew inheriting the burden of the Holocaust or a burden of the history of the Holocaust that I felt personally I needed to be involved somehow. And I think my involvement now, you know, I have all sorts of goals for what the organization can do and contribute to, but on a real personal level, I want to take part in this listening process. I feel it’s our obligation to listen to survivors and to listen with our whole selves, not simply because the testimonies can mean something to the world, but because the listening process actually means something to the survivor.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And are there any ways that people who are listening to this interview can get involved to help support the project?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: Certainly. In the same vein, I think people outside of Rwanda can do many, many different things. The first is to listen to these testimonies and to help us bring the testimonies to schools and to develop these materials into curriculum and to try to help support our organization financially so we can continue this project.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And the website is?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: The website is www.voicesofrwanda.org.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Taylor, thank you very much for speaking with me?
TAYLOR KRAUSS: Thank you so much, Bridget, for having me.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.