Monday, December 10, 2012

In the Interim: A Brief Article on Genocide

Hi all,
   Yesterday was the anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and today is Human Rights Day.  In honor of this, I wrote a brief article about the causes of genocide, which you can find here.  I'll be writing again more regularly when I'm in Bosnia this spring.  Thanks!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

So What is Your Dissertation Actually About?

I’ve been asked this question a number of times over the past few weeks.   So, I’ll attempt to explain it briefly, though I’m happy to answer questions or go into more detail.  

For my dissertation, I ask: What are the causes of genocide?  I know it’s a rather depressing topic, but I am simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by the fact that genocides continue to take place.  I like to believe that people are inherently good, though it’s often hard to maintain an optimistic viewpoint when faced with the reality that it hasn’t been uncommon for people to attempt to destroy others based on perceived differences. 

Many believe that those who commit genocide are psychologically ill.  However, numerous people participate in genocide; in the case of Rwanda, well over one million people participated in some form or another.  And, studies have shown that, more often than not, people who commit genocide are not psychopaths but rather psychologically “average.”  Thus, we have to look to other factors to understand genocide, such as the situational context. 

To attempt to understand the causes of genocide, I’m using several methods.  The first chapter (yes, dissertations consist of chapters; they’re essentially books!) is an event history analysis.  This is a type of statistical analysis of the preconditions of genocide in all countries over the last 50 years.   Using statistics, I essentially try to better understand the common factors in states that experience genocide (and those that do not experience genocide).  This includes a variety of factors, such as societal diversity, the type of government, resource scarcity, and international trading patterns.   Overall, I argue that societal, state, and international factors must be considered when trying to understand why genocides take place.

Statistical studies can be very useful to establish general patterns.  However, they do not allow a researcher to take specific histories into account.  Furthermore, myy statistical analysis only looks at causes of genocide leading up to genocide.  But, to understand the causes of genocide, we also have to understand what drives genocide.  How do genocides unfold?  Is there a process?  For these questions, I am working on three case studies.  For my non-social scientist friends, these are essentially in-depth looks at particular cases of genocide—the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan.  For each case, I’m trying to understand how the specific societies, states, and international factors combined to result in genocide.  Beyond this, though, I am also studying the process of genocides.  To do this, I am looking at how genocide unfolded over time and space; in other words, I am looking at temporal and regional variation in violence.  (For example, why were some months or some regions within countries more violent than others during the genocides?)  I am using several different methods, including visits to each of the countries and interviews with scholars, government employees, activists, and other citizens. Thus, if you are interested, next spring I’ll be posting about Bosnia, and next summer I’ll be posting about Sudan.

Thanks to all of you who have been reading this so far; I’ll be taking a brief hiatus but will post every so often.  I’ll also be posting more when I travel for the other two cases.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Some Random Musings on Rwanda

Time in Rwanda is winding down, and there are still so many things to share!  So, the next few posts are going to be a mixture of different ideas and thoughts.  I wanted to share some random thoughts about life in Rwanda, and, due to many questions I’ve received concerning what my dissertation is actually about, I wanted to share a bit about that too (in the next post).  So, here are some random things I have learned about life in Rwanda from my perspective.

Security:  Security is considered a very important aspect of society.  I could literally walk almost anywhere in the city at any time and feel safe.  Why?  Because there are police people stationed everywhere all of the time.  Granted most of them carry very large guns, but overall you still feel quite safe.

Fanta:  I had no idea that Fanta was so popular.  If you go to a wedding, you are always offered a bottle of Fanta.  There are several flavors, such as orange, fiesta (purple), and coca cola.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been given a straw and a bottle of Fanta.

Dessert:  Here, dessert=bananas.  As someone with a sweet tooth, this is a little depressing.  But, I try to remind myself it’s much healthier than my usual choice of doughnuts.

Hired help:  Many, many people hire maids or cooks. I have many thoughts about this, but I’ll leave it at that.

Dowries:  Dowries are paid before weddings.  Then, there is an introduction ceremony where the bride’s family officially accepts the dowry.  

Moto Taxis:  The easiest way to get around is by moto taxi.  They zip in and out of traffic pretty quickly, so it takes a little while to get used to.  I actually burned my leg on one last week, but otherwise riding them has been fairly easy.

Umuganda:  The last Saturday of the month, all Rwandans must participate in mandatory community service in the morning.  They spend time cleaning the streets and making Rwanda beautiful.

Muzungo: As I shared in an earlier post, foreigners are called muzungos here.  It’s quite common for people, especially children, to point at me and yell “muzungo!”  Especially when I travel outside of the city, I soon find myself surrounded my crowds of children who want to touch me, pet my hair, or see my eyes. 

Ethnicity: Surprising in light of the acceptance of blatantly pointing out muzungos, ethnicity is taboo in Rwanda.  Due to the genocide, people are not allowed to differentiate by ethnicity.  Instead, everyone is considered Rwandan.

Food: Bananas, beans, and rice are core staples in almost every meal.  Rwandans don’t eat much meat, which is useful for a vegetarian!

Obama: Many, many people have asked me if I think Obama will win the upcoming election.  From what I can tell from my conversations, he’s quite popular here.  And, I’m continually amazed by how much people know about U.S. politics.  This weekend, I was talking with an 8-year-old.  When I told him I was from the U.S., he said, ”Ah, so your President is Obama.”  Wow.

School fees:  Education here is not free (though as a universal human right, it should be!).  Instead, students pay fees for uniforms and other services.

Sibling support: After 1994, many young people were left without a parent/parents.  In part due to that, the oldest sibling in each family bears much responsibility.  Most of the people my age I have met work so they can pay for their siblings’ school fees.  For example, the girls who clean and cook at my guesthouse work so their younger siblings can attend school (even though they do not attend school themselves).  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Nyanza Memorial

When killing started in Kigali, between 2000 and 3000 people took refuge at the Official Technical School (ETO), located on the outskirts of Kigali.  The school had quickly earned a reputation as a safe haven because some United Nations Peacekeeping Forces were stationed there.  However, just a few days after the genocide started, many United Nations (UN) troops were withdrawn. 

At the ETO, the Rwandan government soldiers spoke with the UN forces and assured them that the displaced peoples gathered at the school would be safe.  Then, the UN forces, as ordered by their superiors, left Rwanda. 

However, the Rwandan soldiers who had assured that they would protect the people gathered at ETO had actually planned to kill them.  An interviewee working at the memorial told me that almost immediately after the UN forces left, the genocide perpetrators marched the displaced peoples to a location near the school.  There they ran into reporters and, afraid of international attention, decided to bring the people to a secluded forest nearby.  The forest was also the site of a dump, and as the Tutsis were considered “waste,” it was seen as appropriate to bring them to the dump to die. 

The killing started in the evening on April 11th, and after three hours of killing, those perpetrating the genocide went home.  As an interviewee noted, they decided they had done a good job of killing (killing was referred to as “work” and was literally a day job for many people during the genocide) and that they would return the next day to kill anyone who survived and also search the bodies for valuables.

The next day, though, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (an army comprised mainly of Tutsis who had been fighting with the Rwandan Government for several years) arrived and prevented killers from returning. 

Today, the memorial site is located where the victims were killed.  The site is also the headquarters of IBUKA.  The word "ibuka" means "remember," and IBUKA is an umbrella organization that gathers organizations dedicated to helping genocide survivors.   

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Rescuers

 Well, I promised a more uplifting story.  And while it’s not about a wedding (I'll share that some other time), it is about people who risked their lives to save others during the genocide.

“Rescuer” is the term usually used here to describe someone who was Hutu who risked her or his life to save someone who was Tutsi.  The last few days, I had the privilege of interviewing several rescuers in Kibuye, a gorgeous town in the western part of Rwanda.

When the violence started, interim government officials said that anyone caught helping a Tutsi would be killed (often along with her or his family).  But, some people risked their lives anyway. 

In order to visit the first Rescuer, my translator and I rented a moto and drove to a small village outside of Kibuye.  We parked the moto when the road became too narrow and then hiked up to his house in the mountains, past goats, cows, and many children waving at us. 

Once at his house, we sat on benches in his living room, and he told us about how people came to his house to ask for help when the genocide started.  He decided to help them and allowed them to hide in his home.  Eventually, perpetrators found out that he was hiding Tutsi, and they came to his house. They chopped off his leg with a machete and left him, thinking he would die shortly afterward.  He crawled into a ditch and waited until they were gone before going to the hospital, where his leg was amputated.  He survived, though, as did many of the people he hid at his home.

The second Rescuer with whom we spoke lived very close to Lake Kivu, which is a lake that also borders the Congo.  During the genocide, she helped Tutsis find boats and make their way across the lake in order to escape.   Each time, she risked her life to walk them to the lake at night. 

The third Rescuer also hid many Tutsis in her house, which was very, very small.  They hid under beds and in the bushes outside, and she and her husband brought them food when they thought no one was looking.  Once, she even found a baby abandoned in a group of dead bodies—the Interahamwe (milita) and other soldiers had killed everyone and left the baby to die.  So, she took the baby home and treated her as her own child, who she regards as a daughter to this day. 

I asked each person how s/he found the strength to help others, and they all said that it was simply what was right.  Each also noted that they found their strength in God and that they weren’t heroes.  But, they truly are.  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Murambi Memorial

Huge raindrops pelted the old school building, and my translator held an umbrella by the door while I walked around the corpses.  We were at the Murambi Genocide Memorial, which is unique for preserving and displaying over 800 bodies of people who were killed in the genocide. 

The memorial is located in the southern province of Rwanda.  My translator and I spent about 3 hours on a bus in order to get there, followed by a few minutes by moto.  Finally, we arrived at a large building situated among rolling hills.

Inside, we first toured the small museum, which tells visitors a story of the genocide as well as what happened on those very hills.  According to the memorial, between 40,000 and 50,000 people died on April 21, 1994, at what was then a high school under construction.  People from the town of Gikongoro and neighboring communes had congregated there, as authorities directed them to the school and told them they would be safe. 

Actually, the area where the school was located (the southern province) saw much higher levels of violence than other regions of Rwanda.  Explaining regional variation in genocidal violence is part of my dissertation, so I have been exploring reasons for this difference.  While there are many potential reasons (for example, more Tutsi were living in the southern region), the influence of political leaders is key.  On April 18, there was an attack on the school, but the displaced peoples gathered there were able to resist the attack.  The very next day, the interim President of Rwanda visited the area and distributed new guns and machetes.  Two days later the attack started again, and this time resistance was not successful.

Today, visitors at the memorial can see corpses of those killed there arranged on tables within what should be classrooms.  I won’t show pictures, as seeing the looks on peoples’ faces as they were killed is not something to be seen if you aren't expecting it.

Thanks to those of you who have been reading this so far!  I realize it has been depressing at times, but it is important to know and better understand genocides and other mass atrocities.  However, next I’ll share what I’ve learned about traditional weddings to depart from such sad topics and add some light.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Life and Death

Yesterday brought me to two very different locations.  The first was an animal sanctuary that an American veterinarian created.  She originally came to Rwanda to work with the gorillas, and she is now working on the sanctuary with the hope that someday people will visit in order to appreciate the beauty of life.  While there, I was able to spend a few hours holding baby goats and baby bunnies, which was simply wonderful and a nice change from my usual days in Rwanda. 

After leaving the sanctuary, I went to the Nyamata Genocide Memorial.  Located close to the sanctuary, this memorial is about 30 kilometers south of Kigali.  Like the massacre at Nyarubuye, the massacre at Nyamata took place in a church just a few kilometers off the city’s main dirt road.  Again, people sought refuge because they thought the church would be safe and because, during past dangers, they had found refuge there.

Starting on April 14, 1994, an estimated 10,000 people were killed in the church and on the church grounds.  Today, the church is dedicated as a memorial, and the pews are filled with clothes from the victims. 

The guide took more around the church, where she pointed out bloodstains from babies being thrown against the wall.  She then led me behind the church to the mass graves, which I was allowed to enter.  The tombs somewhat resemble a library, with rows of shelves spanning from the floor to the ceiling.  But, rather than books, you see coffins, skulls, and bones. 

Back outside, the church grounds are decorated in purple and white ribbons.  A school right near the church had just let out, and the children all waved and yelled as they walked past.

Friday, September 7, 2012


"Mzungu! Mzungu!”  As our car drove past groups of children, they waved and shouted.  I’ve learned this term means something along the lines of “foreigner” in Kinyarwanda, and I’ve already heard it more times than I can count.

Three friends and I were on our way to Nyarubuye, a rural village located east of Kigali.  We had spent several hours driving through the lush countryside, past rice paddies, countless people walking to and from church, and even a monkey crossing the road.

Finally, we pulled up to the sign “Nyarubuye Urwibutso Rwa Jenocide,” or Nyarubuye Genocide Memorial, marking the entrance to a large Catholic church.  During the genocide, many people sought refuge in public places they regarded as safe, including churches.  But, even churches were not safe from genocide.  At Nyarubuye, an estimated 20,000 people who had sought refuge were killed on April 15 and April 16, 1994.

As we pulled up to the church, it was almost hard to believe that anything terrible had happened there.  A service was taking place, and the congregation was singing.  The sun was shining and bright flowers and plants filled the scene with color.

I turned to Placide, who was gracious enough to be acting as our tour guide.  Placide is a dear friend of the family I am staying with, and he had offered to take us to Nyrarubuye and share his story (and also gave me permission to briefly share some of it here). 

He explained that he was 6 years old in April 1994, and he and his family had gone to the church to take refuge.  His mother was killed, but against all odds, he and his sister were able to survive the massacre.  His sister’s story is actually the subject of the PBS Frontline Special Valentina’s Nightmare, as she survived amidst corpses on the church property for 43 days.  Placide was badly wounded by a grenade but managed to crawl away from the church in order to escape the massacre.

As he spoke, we walked around the nunnery, where much of the killing had taken place.  He pointed out the last place he saw his mom and where he was hit with shrapnel from a grenade.  When the killing started, the army first threw grenades at the church.  Then, the Interahamwe (a paramilitary organization) came with machetes and other tools. 

We stopped at a small museum, where piles of clothes and shoes from the victims are displayed on tables.  There are also piles of bones and skulls, as well as tools from the genocide. 

We also stopped to pay our respects to the mass graves.  They are covered in purple flowers, the symbolic color of mourning in Rwanda.  While they are small, it is said that there are 52,000 people buried there (people from the church massacre as well as massacres from surrounding areas). 

Placide shared that he likes to tell his story because it keeps the memory alive.  He still doesn’t know what happened to his mom, and he hopes that one day his story, and the stories of others, will help prevent genocide. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Background Part II

After 4 days in Kigali, I can officially say that I love it.  Everyone has been incredibly welcoming, my internship (more on that later) is going smoothly, and the scenery is absolutely beautiful.  If someone were to visit the city for a few days, she or he might never even guess that, just 18 years ago, genocide had just taken place. 

Trying to summarize the causes and events of a genocide could take hundreds of pages (if not more!).  Nevertheless, before explaining my study, my internship, and showing you pictures of different memorial sites and sites of major massacres that I’ll visit around the country (as well as some more cheerful pictures of weddings and maybe even gorillas), some more background information is necessary. 

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the President of Rwanda and the President of neighboring Burundi was shot down as it was preparing to land in the capital of Rwanda.  At the time, Rwanda, a land-locked country in Central Africa that is roughly the size of Maryland, had experienced decades of violence and war, political unrest, and economic hardship.  Members of the government had deliberately engendered animosity between the two main ethnic groups at the time—Hutu and Tutsi—and strife between Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi had further exacerbated inter-ethnic group relations. 

The plane crash killed the occupants of the plane immediately, and that same night, targeted killing of Tutsi and those associated with them began.  Over the next 100 days, between 500,000 to 1 million people (estimates of those killed vary widely; the official government figure is slightly over 1 million) were killed in one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century.  In addition, over 2 million people fled the country, creating the greatest refugee crisis in history. 

It’s important to note that this genocide was not tribal warfare, as much of the Western media portrayed at the time.  Rather, decades of colonial history, economic inequalities, and many, many other factors were at play—far too many for me to get into, but I’d be happy to provide some resources for anyone interested.

 While the international community was slow to react to the genocide, several post hoc mechanisms were enacted to hold those who planned and participated in the genocide criminally responsible.  In late 1994, the United Nations Security Council created an ad-hoc international tribunal, known as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), to prosecute individuals who were responsible for the genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Rwanda during 1994. 

As the ICTR was created to prosecute those most responsible for the genocide, the Rwandan government sought additional measures for justice and reconciliation within Rwanda.  In 2001, the Rwandan Government created Gacaca courts, which were semi-local courts specifically designed to prosecute individuals involved in the genocide.  The Gacaca courts were established at all administrative levels and, after several pilot phases, were in operation until their official closure on June 18, 2012.   

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Some Brief Background

Explaining that I study genocide has resulted in many awkward conversations, especially at light-hearted parties.  No one likes to be reminded of horrific events, and talking about such a serious topic in causal conversation seems to breech all sorts of social norms.  Yet, these conversations have also revealed that many people don’t know much about genocide beyond what they learned in their high school history courses.  So, before I share more about Rwanda (and since I haven’t even been here for two full days yet!), I wanted to share some background. 

During the Nazi Holocaust, the word “genocide” didn’t even exist.  Rafael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who had fled persecution in Poland, coined the term “genocide” during the early 1940s to describe what he saw as unique events taking place in Germany and Poland.  He combined the Greek word genos, which means people or nation, and the Latin suffix –cide, which means murder.  In 1948, this United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which defines genocide as the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a racial, ethnic, religious or national group (etc.). Scholars have proposed many variations of this definition, but essentially genocide is the destruction of members of a group because they are members of that group.  It often takes the form of killing, though it can also involve rape, pillaging/looting, the destruction of culture, forced internment, and other forms of victimization.  

While most people are aware of the Nazi Holocaust, some do not realize that genocides have continued to take place.  For example, in 1994, between 500,000 and 1 million people were killed in the genocide in Rwanda.  (I’ll share more about that later.)  This and many other genocides have provided a stark contrast to narratives of progress and human rights that are often promoted in the 21st century.  But, at the risk of completely depressing any of you reading this, I do believe there is somewhat of a silver lining.  Genocide is a social phenomenon that is influenced by the social context.  In other words, while it is terrifying on many levels, its root causes can hopefully be explored and understood.  Scholars around the world have been working toward better understanding these causes, and I hope to contribute to this conversation.  This brings me to why I'm in Rwanda, which I'll share shortly! 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Start of an Adventure

Hi everyone!
   I'll be in Kigali, Rwanda, from August 26th until mid-October.  I'll be working with the government genocide prevention commission and conducting dissertation interviews, and I'll try to keep the blog updated as much as I can!  Thanks for sharing my journey with me!