Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the University of Marburg Centre for Conflict Studies conference “On Collective Violence: Actions, Roles, Perceptions.” It included three jam-packed days of presentations by scholars and practitioners approaching the study of collective violence in different settings from a range of (inter)disciplinary backgrounds. In addition to being expertly organized by Kristine Avram, Melanie Hartmann, Miriam Leiberich, Philipp Schultheiß, and Timothy Williams, the overall format of the event resulted in many excellent papers and fruitful conversations between those in attendance.
In addition, I was honoured to be asked alongside my exceptional colleagues, Alette Smeulers and Christian Gudehus, to give a keynote presentation related to my forthcoming book, Negotiating Genocide in Rwanda: The Politics of History. The title of my keynote presentation was “Beyond victims and perpetrators: Complex political actors surrounding the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.” It focused on civilians’ experiences surrounding the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 civilians, most of whom were affiliated with the nation’s ethnic Tutsi minority population, were murdered by Hutu Power extremists affiliated with the nation’s ethnic Hutu majority. In the immediate aftermath of the genocide, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)—much like the governments that preceded it—has invested in a simplistic official history. In the case of the RPF, however, their preferred official history prioritizes recognition of the genocide according to the terms of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, and categorizes the population as either Tutsi victims and/or survivors, and Hutu génocidaires (perpetrators). Drawing upon nearly a decade of oral historical, archival, and ethnographic research conducted among survivors, bystanders, ex-combatants, convicted perpetrators, government officials, and other parties to the conflict, I discussed how this official history has impacted Rwandan civilians from different sides of the conflict. I spoke about the difficulties many Rwandans face in making sense of their diverse actions surrounding the genocide, as well as those of their compatriots, solely in terms of the false dichotomy of Tutsi victims/survivors and Hutu perpetrators. As a first step toward better understanding and representing the complexity of people’s experiences of the genocide, I suggested—building upon the work of Erica Bouris and Erin Baines—approaching Rwandans as “complex political actors.” This framing better captures the individual circumstances that informed Rwandans’ actions surrounding genocide, and the manner in which people frequently switch between presenting themselves as victims, survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators, for example, at different points surrounding the genocide in response to the broader social, political and historical circumstances that surround them in any given moment.
I am grateful to the conference organizers for the opportunity to speak about my work in more depth, and for the opportunity to engage with such a dedicated group of scholars and practitioners. Congratulations on a wonderful event!