There I was, sitting in one of the most peaceful scenes you could imagine. Birds chirping, leaves rustling in a gentle breeze, the warm sun shining on my face, not a car noise in earshot. And yet, it was absolute emotional agony. I had found myself in a place of the most unexpectedly horrific display of human suffering that is surely possible.
And I thought to myself, why have I put myself through this? Was it a morbid curiosity? Was it an altruistic act in acknowledgement of this country’s darkest moments? And why do places like this even exist – tourism? Really?
This, my friends, is dark tourism – which Google defines as “tourism that involves travelling to places associated with death and suffering”.
Sound morbid? It is a bit. You’ve done it though – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ground Zero, the Killing Fields, Hiroshima, the Anne Frank house, Sarajevo. The list goes on, and will include sites of famous murders, plane crashes, war massacres and prisons.
It’s growing more popular by the year (and by the atrocity), and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s simply incredibly intriguing to visit places you’ve read about in history books, watched documentaries about or seen all over the news. It’s all about curiosity, and, I’d like to assume, with an empathetic motive.
As travellers seeking experience and cultural diversity, we want to see, and feel, and understand. But do we really need to stand inside a gas chamber to be able to reflect on the horror of genocide? Maybe we do, maybe it’s only at the point of hyper-personalisation that we can establish the purist empathy we’re striving for. And does that make us better people? Does the experience change us enough that we remove all prejudicial thoughts and predetermined judgements we have of others?
Sitting under that tree, after I had lasted only about 30 seconds inside the rural Rwandan church, I was suffocated by sadness.
There were about six of us, and we had been warned by our tour guide that we would stop to pay our respects for victims of the Rwandan genocide, that this church held hundreds of Tutsi men, women and children who were taking refuge before being horrifically slaughtered. We were warned that the bones of these people were preserved and a mass grave was on site for us to see. But I didn’t even make it to the bones, it was enough to see the bloodied clothes of those hundreds of men, women and children covering the church pews and floors.
It was too much for me, it was too grotesque, and I couldn’t believe this spectacle was maintained in this way. In my mind, the genocide museum we had just seen in Kigali was enough – even that site was moving, horrifying and intensely eye opening. But others might find this brutal scene important, that our personal discomfort in the experience doesn’t bear comparison to the suffering of Rwandans during that period of history, and for that reason we should share in this small piece of it for the sake of compassion and humanity.
Each to their own, I guess.
For me, the outtake of these dark tourism experiences is all about our combined reflection on how crazy it is that humans can do this to each other. That massacres and genocide and horrible violence not only happens, but are rife. That things like the Rwandan genocide (which, by the way happened only 20 years ago) can be allowed to happen by the largest powers in the world. And hopefully, with more and more shared experience, we’ll slowly realise just how crazy it is to the point that it stops happening – yup, I’m talking about world peace here.
I sit on the fence a bit, because I can see both sides of the coin. Ultimately, dark tourism can verge on economically driven voyeurism. But when it’s done in a way that helps preserve the memory of victims, offer education on significant historical events, or realistically provide a vehicle by which to better humanity, it absolutely has its place.
What do you think? What is the correct way to pay our respects? Is dark tourism just exploitation either of the victims or of the emotions of visitors?