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!