Lessons From Rwanda

by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow

December 10, 2014

The commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide should prompt reflection and debate on the causes of genocidal violence and the role played by Western powers in that terrible conflict.

Every week, students who are taking the Human Rights, Violence and Justice course taught by Professor Erica James are required to deliver a presentation on the set readings for that week.

I chose to do my presentation on Rwanda, on October 30th, for which I had to read “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: stories from Rwanda”, by Philip Gourevitch.


A must-read book if you want to understand the inner workings of genocide and its aftermath | Credit: elleyphotography.com

Gourevitch is a staff writer for The New Yorker and in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide he spent over nine months in the country trying to understand how it happened and how Western powers could stand by and watch such terrible events unfold.

Without sensationalizing the stories of violence that he came across, Gourevitch bring to life the horror of genocide in an extremely compelling work of creative non-fiction.


Philip Gourevitch | Credit: Andrew Brucker

Whilst reading the book, I was struck by a number of underlying and recurrent themes such as the role played by narratives in terms of constructing identity, the role played by European colonial powers in terms of perpetuating myths about racial superiority, and the nature of mob violence.

“Even mobs and riots have a design, and great and sustained destruction requires great ambition”, writes Gourevitch.

The book is full of powerful anecdotes that reveal the inner workings of genocidal violence and one of the stories that I found most striking was that of a Hutu man who referred to his own mother, of Tutsi origin, as a “cockroach” that deserved to be eliminated.

Only by understanding how a perceived enemy is re-constructed as the “Other” in the collective imagination and is stripped of any traces of humanity, even when that person is a close family member, can we understand how human beings can commit atrocities on the scale of the Rwandan genocide.

It is worth remembering where this “us versus them” rhetoric can take us when undocumented immigrants are referred to as “aliens” rather than people and when the Western discourse on “the war on terror” refers to Islamist combatants as “a cancer”.

The latter part of the book addresses how Rwandans today are striving to overcome this legacy of violence. Perpetrators are living alongside the victims of the genocide, fostering a deep sense of injustice, which I found very striking, as I have encountered similar situations in Guatemala, in the Mayan communities that were worst affected by the country’s 36-year-long civil war.

One of the lessons I have learnt by examining different conflicts during this course, is that each society has its own unique way of dealing with the aftermath of violence and issues such as justice and reparations.

Rwanda created the “gacaca” tribunals, which evolved from its communities’ own ancestral practices. War criminals appeared before an assembly that was often held in an improvised outdoors setting rather than a courtroom, the victims came forward and testified, and the community then decided whether the accused should be set free.

This system is reminiscent of the Mayans’ traditional justice system in Guatemala, which is also community driven and has an emphasis on reparations and on the reinsertion of the wrongdoer in the community as a means of restoring harmony in society.

Transitional justice mechanisms vary from one society to another. Whatever shape or form that justice system might take, whether it is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a gacaca tribunal or an international court, what is important is that war-torn societies can deal with the horrors of the past and that victims feel that justice has been done, so that those wounds can eventually heal and lessons can be learnt.

In the case of Guatemala, the historic verdict against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, accused of genocide against the Ixil Mayan ethnic group during the early 1980s was overturned by the nation’s highest court based on a technicality. The trial is supposed to be held once again in 2015 but it is likely that the ageing former dictator will die a free man.

However, although the sentence was overturned, the fact that wartime atrocities were exposed for the first time in a national court and that victims were able to testify and tell their stories, marked a turning point in Guatemalan history. “Guatemala never again”, chant those who seek to expose the truth so that the horrors of the past are never repeated. Will Guatemala be able to reconcile itself with its own history and build a brighter future for itself? That’s a story that has yet to be told.