Rwanda (2007) – Lily Yeh first toured Rwanda in 2004, a decade after the brutal genocide that claimed as many as a fifth of the country’s citizens. While visiting a village in the Rugerero Sector where people lived near a crude mass grave, Yeh was struck by the absence of adults outside: “They were suffering alone and in isolation in their own houses.”
In the beginning, Yeh said, “I didn’t just go directly, ‘Tell me your story, I am going to help you heal.’ No, not like that. It was just helping them get through the day—the deep trauma.”
But eventually, Yeh began to sketch and ask herself, “As an artist, what can I do?” Her vision of turning the mass grave into a beautiful mosaic monument eventually brought the villagers out of their individual houses. For a proper burial, they insisted the bones needed to be buried underground, which turned out to be a major construction challenge as the village sits on hard volcanic rock.
When the Rugerero Genocide Memorial Park—one part of Yeh’s Rwanda Healing Project—was completed in April 2007, people walked from many surrounding villages to attend the dedication. For the genocide survivors to descend into the “bone chamber,” Yeh says, was “like touching the nerve of the national grief. People were screaming and shaking, so they had to take them to places of rest to comfort them.”
Yet the experience was ultimately cathartic. “I felt most grateful to have the opportunity to design a space where people would feel welcome enough to look at the deepest wounds and then be able to pour out their grief and deepest sorrow and give it to the space,” Yeh says. “When they saw the monument, they said, ‘Our loved ones can come home because there is this beautiful place to come to.’”
Yeh has continued yearly visits to the village, as she defines her art not just as attending to the past, but creating hope for the future. And that requires providing economic opportunities for the villagers in the form of sewing machines, as well as basic necessities such as rain barrels to catch fresh water.
This article appeared in issue 48 of Public Art Review with the headline “A Beautiful Place To Come Home To.”