Don't stop talking about Rwanda's genocide

In a piece in the Boston Review, Jina Moore complains that

Nearly every story I published from Rwanda in my three years reporting there included a reference to the 1994 genocide. Dredging up suffering can win a busy audience’s attention, but it’s a limited kind of attention. It’s the attention of the kind-hearted stranger from a distance, the reader who stops eating his breakfast or reading her stock quotes to remember just how bad it is in other places.

She’s not alone; most news stories of any kind I’ve read on Rwanda have discussed the genocide. However, I don’t see that as a bad thing: maybe Jina is correct about the reasons for news stories – that to get attention for stories from Africa we need to highlight suffering, but it is entirely right and good that the Rwandan genocide be mentioned in virtually all reporting on the country.

Why? Isn’t it tiresome? Wasn’t it a long time ago? Shouldn’t we move on? While the answer to the first question is “maybe”, the others should be met with a resounding “no”. When accurately considered, the Rwandan genocide not only wasn’t a long time ago, it’s not even over. The mass slaughter of Tutsis within Rwanda did end in 1994, but it touched off a series of wars in the Eastern Congo that, despite a nominal peace, are still being fought today. And Rwanda itself has been governed continuously since 1994 by the hero of the Tutsi RPF, Paul Kagame. Current major concerns over human rights under his regime are directly linked to the genocide, not only because his rule was its direct consequence but also because the paranoia that drives those human rights violations is motivated by the RPF’s experiences from that period.

The other aspect – whether we should move on – fails to consider what a huge deal the genocide was. In the Great Lakes Region, and in Africa more broadly, the significance of the Rwandan genocide is comparable to that of the World Wars in Europe. Out of a long and awful history of brutal conflicts between Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups in the Great Lakes, the 1994 genocide was far and away the most horrible. A vast, popular movement of Hutus slaughtered eight hundred thousand Tutsis in a period of just 14 weeks, or more one in every ten people in the country, distributed across nearly its entire extent. In many ways, even the Holocaust pales in comparison: it was done over a longer period, using sophisticated technology that allowed even the direct killers to displace themselves from the murders. Most of the Tutsis who died in 1994 were hacked to death with machetes; even small arms were rarely used. And these murders were facilitated, if not carried out, by their friends and neighbors. While the typical German was aware and complicit in supporting the Nazi regime, they didn’t see the killings directly and could turn a blind eye to them. In sharp contrast, it’s often pretty tough to distinguish Hutus and Tutsis – the groups look different at the extremes, but it’s quite easy. Since the Tutsis had not been ghettoized before the genocide, friends and neighbors played key roles in calling Tutsis out for slaughter, and even if they were not involved they often saw and heard the killings, which occurred in the victim’s home villages, firsthand.

I don’t mean to make light of either genocide, or to bring up harsh memories for those involved unnecessarily. I’ve listed those points above because I honestly don’t think people are aware of its incredible brutality. In my opinion, it’s the worst single thing that has ever happened (Cambodia’s bizarre terror/genocide is a close second). Is it important to mention it all the time? Here’s a test: read any news story about Germany, and see how often World War II and the Holocaust are still either directly mentioned or implicitly referred to. It has been 77 years since that horror ended, and it still infuses news coverage on the country, especially when politics are involved. A similar pattern holds for many stories about Jewish people, especially coverage of Israel. Inasmuch as its not being brought up, the reason is just that all readers are aware of its details, consequences and importance, which cannot be said for Rwanda. Mentioning the genocide in coverage of Rwanda, then, is not enough on its own – readers need to be brought up to speed on its ongoing significance.

Moore’s overall point is a good one: Rwanda is one country out of 54, and generally peaceful places like Malawi don’t get the attention they should for positive developments like high economic growth, innovative anti-poverty programs, or getting a female president before the United States did. However, the fact that the focus on bad stuff in Africa is getting tiresome doesn’t give us a license to ignore it. Focus more on positive stuff, sure. But don’t whitewash Rwanda’s history.

Hat tip: Chris Blattman

6 thoughts on “Don't stop talking about Rwanda's genocide”

  1. Jason, thanks for writing about this. This is an incredibly important issue.

    Before I get to my main comments, let me start with some nitpicking of your post. First, while the Rwandan Genocide is discussed as a genocide of Tutsis, empirical data that has emerged in the past few years from Allan Stam and Christian Davenport at Michigan actually indicates that more Hutus than Tutsis were killed during the April-July time period in 1994 that the genocide took place in. It is entirely true that there were mass killings of Tutsis, but referring to the events as a one-sided killing does the historical record a disservice. People far more specialized in the Great Lakes region than you make this mistake, so I do not mean to call you out alone on this. A lot of people fail to discuss the event with the nuance it deserves.

    In addition, an important perspective is lost in our current conceptualization of the event as the Rwandan Genocide. This language makes many people think that the atrocities were somehow limited and contained within Rwanda. However, the killings in Rwanda cannot be properly understood without realizing that Burundi has had a history of parallel genocides and political upheavals to Rwanda. The genocide of largely Tutsis by Hutus in Burundi in 1993 was launched immediately after the Hutu president was killed (just like how Rwanda’s genocide was launched immediately after Rwanda’s Hutu president was killed). This regional perspective must be taken into account as well if we are ever going to properly understand the Rwandan Genocide.

    As for the main question of your post, whether we should continue to bring up the Rwandan Genocide all the time, I would argue that we should not. There remains a lot of room for further scholarly work on the subject, but daily news needs to work on getting that out of its system. Kagame and the RPF have gotten too good at using the memory of the genocide to persuade the international community to overlook human rights violations, an increasingly securitized state, and dangerous meddling in the affairs of the DRC. Positive steps have been taken in response to Rwanda’s documented support of the M23 armed movement, including the slight reduction in aid from countries like the United States, but much more needs to be done. Rwanda has done a lot of things right on issues of economic development and environmental sustainability, but the positive aspects of its government’s policy are increasingly becoming overshadowed by the negative. We are a stage where the only way substantial change will come is if the Rwandan people, Great Lakes region, and international community stop allowing the RPF to live in the past to play victim and force it to live and govern in the present.

    1. I’m intrigued about the Stam and Davenport findings – I’ve heard theories of a “double genocide” before but they were mostly obvious hogwash. The fact that you take this seriously means it’s legitimate, though. To clarify, are they highlighting mass killings by RPF forces, or the killing of Hutus as part of the nominally anti-Tutsi violence carried out by the fleeing Hutu government? I’ve definitely heard about the latter, and it fits right into my priors about the nature of genocides and civil wars (I’m a believer in the Fearon-Laitin economics-and-geography hypothesis). I recall reading about one village in which dozens of people were killed, but just one was a Tutsi; the other villagers wanted the rich folks’ land. In that case it was pretty blatant; in others, it resulted either intentionally or accidentally from ambiguity about people’s ethnic backgrounds.

      I not only concede the point about framing the event as the Rwandan Genocide, but I’ve changed my mind: I agree, we should stop calling it that, but we also shouldn’t ignore it. There’s basically a continuous ongoing war with periodic major flareups and sporadic truces, since at least 1994, arguably earlier. Without that as context, most news from the region makes no sense. Indeed, I think that’s how coverage of conflict/rape/violence Congo comes across: “Horrible shit happens in Africa for arbitrary reasons, or maybe no reason at all.”

      The idea of the rhetoric around the genocide empowering Kagame to do whatever fucked up stuff he wants domestically and in Congo is a good one, and it has strong parallels with the Holocaust and Israel. Many people criticize what they perceive as the exact same pattern in Israel, and there’s a decent amount of truth to it. Maybe if the framing were better it wouldn’t be necessary to paint over the Rwandan genocide in order to prevent the country’s government from taking advantage of it: mentioning the genocide plays into their hands, but explaining that they’re interfering in Eastern Congo for the Nth time because of security concerns dating to that conflict, and that they’ve slaughtered tons of civilians as part of this strategy, is somewhat less positive publicity.

    1. That was really interesting. I wish they had broken down the numbers of killings in each area (FAR, RPF, and battlefront) as I’m sure that data exists in their files somewhere. Barring that, their emphasis on ethnicity in Rwanda being local knowledge is consistent with my take on the ethnic dimension, namely that tons of non-Tutsis were swept up the attempted genocide for intentional and accidental reasons.

      The commenter who points out that the pre-planning of the genocide is well-established is right on the mark. I suppose some of this could be lies, but I first-hand accounts document the arrivals of truckloads of pangas for distribution to the Interahamwe and I believe there are receipts for that stuff too.

      The broader question is why their work is not at all accepted by the mainstream. It doesn’t even merit a “controversy” section on Wikipedia.

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