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Book Release: Webs of Violence in Rwanda: A Conversation With Lee Ann Fujii

September 23, 2009 // 9:30am11:00am
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Fifteen years after the end of the genocide, the events of 1994 still loom large in both the Rwandan and global conscious. The failure of intervention on the part of the international community remains a source of fervent debate, particularly in light of similarly alarming crises currently taking place in the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the other hand, investigations of the motivations behind the genocide have conspicuously waned and many observers remain comfortable with the explanation that ethnically-based motivations drove Rwandan Hutus to brutally murder their Tutsi counterparts by the thousands. However, there is an emerging circle within academia that is challenging this commonly held notion. On September 23, the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion focused on George Washington University Professor Lee Ann Fujii's recently published book, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda. Fujii was joined on the panel by H.E. Robert Gribbin, former U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda from 1995 to 1999, and Lars Waldorf, former director of Human Rights Watch's office in Rwanda from 2002 to 2004. The discussion was moderated by the consulting director of the Africa Program, Steve McDonald.

Gribbin introduced Fujii and her work by giving a chronicle of the events leading up to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. He described the country's two major ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis, as peoples that lived alongside one another peaceably for hundreds of years, frequently intermarried, and shared a common language and religion. The arrival of colonial authorities in the late 19th century, however, introduced a foreign system of indirect rule that attached itself to the existing hierarchical social structure of Rwanda. Both German and Belgian colonists fostered a divided Rwandan society based on perceived racial differences between Tutsis and Hutus. The minority Tutsi group, who comprised roughly 15 percent of the total population, were given preferential treatment over the Hutus, a group constituting almost the entirety of the remaining 85%. This inequality in status created a great deal of interethnic tension that profoundly altered social dynamics within the country.

When Rwanda attained independence in 1962, politics assumed a distinctly ethnic character, leaving the majority Hutu population in prime position to dominate elections and claim superiority over the Tutsi. Over the course of the three decades of independent Hutu rule that preceded the genocide, there were a number of incidences of organized mass Tutsi killing, prompting emigration and armed retaliation from the persecuted group. The assassination of Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana in 1994, compounded further by the invasion of the country by the Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, aroused security fears on the part of the Hutus. In response, roughly 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were killed by groups of armed Hutus. The genocide devastated Rwanda, commanded the attention of the international community, and set the stage for Fujii's penetrating study into the dynamics of group violence.

Fujii's project seeks to explain why ordinary people participated in the genocide, advancing a thesis that rejects a solely ethnic lens when examining the event. The two ethnic groups lived, for the most part, in harmony throughout their long interactive history. Therefore, according to Fujii, there must have been other factors at play in the mass slaughter. Utilizing an alternative approach, the study aims to answer three main questions; first, how did ordinary people come to participate in the killing? Second, why did they continue their participation over time? And third, did ethnicity always determine people's fates both with regards to their actions and what happened to them? These inquiries are put forth in an attempt to counter two prevailing explanations of the genocide: the "ethnic hatreds" and "ethnic fears" theses. Fujii finds that the notions of genocide as a result of discrimination and security concerns respectively are inadequate and that they overlook the agency of ordinary killers. Moreover, she maintains that they ignore the dynamics of the act of mass violence, assuming that ethnicity is a fixed identity and served as the most important factor that animated the genocide.

Killing Neighbors proposes a unique framework with which to examine the Rwandan genocide that counters previous ways of conceptualizing the event. The first element in this approach is to view genocide as a dynamic process. Rather than seeing identities and incentives as fixed, Fujii presents them as mutable influences that change according to context. The second part of the framework casts ordinary Rwandans as strategizing agents that act in accordance with personal desires rather than with the national government's agenda. Thirdly, Fujii rejects the notion of ethnicity acting as a prime motive for the violence. She contends that instead of ethnicity serving as an incentive in and of itself, it functioned as a "national script" for the violence that was acted out by the genocide's participants.

The theoretical model used to analyze the findings of Fujii's nine months of research in Rwanda is based on the "social embeddedness" theory; a concept that posits that human action is embedded in networks of social relations. This helps to identify key sets participants in the genocide, primarily local leaders and collaborators, and helps in coming to the ultimate conclusion that the mass killings were based on prior social relations. Her research focused on "joiners," a term she uses to describe ordinary Hutus from various communities throughout the country that participated in the violence. These actors were principally cultivators that were linked to their communities in various, complex ways, often overlapping with and being tied directly to Tutsis.

This social dynamic triggered the first part of Fujii's investigation, explaining why joiners partook in the genocide. Drawing from scores of interviews and first-hand testimony, she contends that recruitment for death squads was targeted and primarily took place through family ties. This method, in combination with the unifying effects of collective violence, created a self-reinforcing, incremental process in which group ties were fortified and the violence gained momentum. A situation thus arose in which agency was on the group and individual choice did not matter. Individual participants were, however, able to determine their level of participation in acts of violence.

While this explanation sheds light on why joiners initially participated in the genocide, it does not illuminate why they continued to do so. A significant discovery on Fujii's part was that in almost every instance, the killing of Tutsis was performed by groups of Hutus, not individuals. Therefore, the immediate social context of the killers proved to be of paramount importance in determining their actions. In the presence of groups or authorities, joiners went along with and even participated directly in the violence. Alone, however, they acted differently; rarely performing solo acts of violence and even, in some cases, aiding Tutsis in escaping persecution. As a result of these findings, Fujii determined that ethnicity did not, in fact, always determine one's fate during the Rwandan genocide. The immediate social context of both killers and victims played a prominent role in determining the outcomes of Hutu-Tutsi interactions over the course of the event. The constitutive power of killing in groups ultimately motivated and further perpetuated the violence. The policy implications of these findings are that in genocide and incidences of mass violence, context matters. Moreover, they also indicate that identities and interests can shift and change and that explanations of collective killing based on group identities may be insufficient.

After Fujii presented her work, Lars Waldorf provided a short appraisal and critique of her arguments. Additionally, he contributed some suggestions for further research toward which Fujii is directing her study. First, Waldorf questioned whether or not the study of social networks could potentially serve as a predictive tool in determining future patterns of violence. Second, he suggested that the role of greed and opportunism in convincing locals to participate in the violence was essential in the event and thus warrants further inquiry. Finally, he believes that the expressions of violence throughout the genocide are indicative of a further need on the part of Hutus to de-humanize their Tutsi neighbors. The particular brutality of many of the killings, according to Waldorf, seems to indicate a need on the part of the génocidaires to separate themselves from their victims through vicious brutality. The suggestions for further research would, in his view, provide a powerful supplement to Fujii's work and potentially bolster the cogency of her arguments.

From a policy perspective, Waldorf believes that Fujii's research effectively refutes the "ethnic hatred" thesis that was so influential in the Clinton administration's dealings with mass killings in both Rwanda and the Balkans. He views her work as an important contribution that helps bridge the distance between state-sponsored genocide and how it is actually performed at the local level. International law regarding genocide is heavily based on the "ethnic hatreds" thesis in explaining the crime and thus, according to Waldorf, must be revised accordingly. Moreover, in the specific case of Rwanda, a number of measures were taken to uproot genocidal ideology, ranging from press censorship to criminalizing certain behavior and language. Since ethnicity did not figure into the thinking of many of the local courts and trials in the post-genocide era, a notion that is supported by Fujii's findings, Waldorf indicated that these policies may be misdirected and unnecessarily repressive. He posited that identities are fluid and thus approaching incidents such as genocide from an ethnicity-based, limited perspective is impractical and ultimately flawed. Fujii's work is, therefore, a useful text that can help make the necessary alterations to current international genocide policy.

Though numerous questions surrounding the issue of genocide remain, studies such as Fujii's Killing Neighbors serve a purpose that extends beyond the academic realm. By seeking to clarify the complex processes that lead to and perpetuate organized mass violence, genocide scholars provide valuable insights that can further inform preventative and interventionist policy measures. The inclusion of such material into the legislative process could improve the flexibility of such measures and thus bolster its effectiveness in dealing with the problem of genocide. Only through a revision of current international policies can the world's promise of "Never again" be truly fulfilled.

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