- Rwanda Since the 1994 Genocide
Rwanda Since the 1994 Genocide


Rewriting History without Essentializing Ethnicity

By jessical on February 10, 2013

In the readings thus far we have seen that there are a multiplicity of interconnected, reinforcing patterns of interaction between those of different ‘ethnicities’, regional associations, economic statuses, lineage ties, and genders that contributed to the outburst of violence in 1994. However, one observation about the source of violence during the genocide that I believe to be particularly astute was Erin Jessee’s identification of evidence of fear rather than genocidal intent for the average Hutu imprisoned for genocide. I believe that fear, varying in magnitude from the all-encompassing to the minute, is likely one of the most powerful driving forces behind the motivation or pressure to engage in the violence of 1994. In numerous of our readings, as well as in Jessee’s lecture, we have learned that economic disparities, restrictions to social mobility through the denial of education for certain individuals, different regional political or social histories, as well as other institutionalized inequalities determine life chances. These factors may be seen to play into minute rarely recognized fears, such as fear of missing an opportunity to gain economically and socially or fear of losing existing power or means of survival. The fear of death by one’s ‘enemy’ is the all-encompassing fear, which has historically been more widely purported by historians. A consequence of understanding the violence solely through this conception of fear is that it frames the genocide as an all-against-all conflict in which the Tutsis fell victim to the Hutus.

Theorists such as Pottier assert that this history needs to be rewritten, that “reconciliation will not be possible without a nuanced, shared understanding of history” in which the designation of victimhood is not so clear cut along ‘ethnic’ divides (126). This all-against-all conception is not only misleading, but serves to reproduce a specific social memory that is detrimental to the goal of a cohesive Rwandan identity. While the Rwandan government professes the desire to establish a national identity, one can see in documents such as the The Rwandan Conflict: Origin, Development, Exit Strategies published by the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004 how they consistently undermine such state objectives. Statements such as “tribal associations changed automatically into politically parties” as well as “primacy of identity has excessively dominated ideologies of political parties” lead one to believe that conflicting ‘ethnic’ or ‘tribal’ groups is a long-lasting, pre-colonial issue and rules out the potential for conceiving of any collaboration between ‘types’.

It appears from our readings and class discussions that, in order for national unity to be achieved, social, political, economic, regional, and gender equality needs to improve. While I think Pottier’s demand is crucial, his assertion seemed to still be framed around the controversial issue of identifying either Hutus or Tutsis as victims. Such a framing of the discussion only serves to reify the ‘ethnic’ divisions. I wonder, how does one reach a more nuanced understanding of who fell victim to whom and under what circumstances without inciting the notion of ‘ethnicity’?

1 Comment

  • Professor Thomson said:

    Your comment on the need for a mutually agreed upon “social memory” is an important aspect of our course that has only been discussed implicitly thus far. If this line of inquiry interests you, it might make for an interesting IRB project that is required for this class. There is a growing literature on the impact of history on memory (collective and individual). We can discuss off-line if this interests you.

    How might current Rwandan definitions of victimhood and perpetratorhood change if we take ethnic identity out of the mix?

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