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Preserving the Clothes Worn During Rwanda’s Genocide

Over the past five years, Ms. Brennan has also taught herself to conserve another kind of fabric — the clothes left behind by mass atrocities. She has salvaged thousands of garments from a notorious Khmer Rouge prison in Cambodia, and a shipping container’s worth of bloodstained clothing collected from victims of the Rwandan genocide. “Textiles are so often forgotten,” Ms. Brennan said over a recent video call, but even a simple T-shirt can lend human specificity to an unthinkable act of violence. Ms. Brennan found an even more daunting challenge in the garments worn by thousands of Rwandans when they were massacred in 1994, in a church where they had taken refuge. Survivors commemorated the victims by piling their clothes on the pews, and in 1997 the bullet-riddled church became the Nyamata Genocide Memorial. Two decades later, the remaining shirts, pants and skirts were rigid and unrecognizable, caked in red dirt and bat droppings. “It looked like a building fell on top of them,” Ms. Brennan said.