At the request of MCC, John and Reinhild Janzen traveled in 1994 to post-genocide Rwanda and Burundi. They sought to give voice to victims and perpetrators of the recent conflict. In the gathering of ethnographic accounts, they wanted to create a larger context to make sense of the deaths of nearly one million people. In addition, they hoped to analyze the fate of social institutions, ethnic polarization and the nature of post war healing. A large agenda for a four-month encounter, but one they were able to accomplish.
To understand their work, it is helpful to review the area’s recent history. Although colonized by Germany, Rwanda came under the control of Belgium from 1917-1960. Belgium ruled through Tutsi kings who created repressive institutions guided by the Belgian agenda. Belgium had used the Bible to make Tutsi groups superior to Hutu groups. The Tutsi designation was applied to all with ten or more cattle; the Hutu designation to those who had less. This policy polarized preexisting social distinctions among groups who had been living as neighbors.
In 1960, Belgium decided to tilt power to the Hutu majority causing thousands of frightened Tutsis to flee the country, awaiting a safe time to return. The 1990 Arusha Accords sought to solve escalating tensions between the groups by providing dual power for Hutus and Tutsis. But in 1990, the Rwandan president, who supported the accords, was killed when his plane was shot down. Within an hour, pre-planned Tutsi mass killings began. As the killing escalated and the United Nations troops withdrew, millions of Tutsis and Hutus fled to neighboring nations, primarily Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The chaos spread quickly to Burundi with similar tensions between Hutu and Tutsi. In the years following, massacres occurred on all sides with minority Tutsis eventually winning control of Rwanda and Zaire.
The opening narrative of Bugingo, a Hutu refugee in Zaire, demonstrates common issues for many refugees. Wanting to return to family, land and work, Bugingo is certain of arrest and detention upon return to Rwanda due to his prior work in the military. Frequent letters exchanged between Bugingo and the Janzens through 1996 offer a rich personal account of the war and its aftermath on the emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being of refugees. The authors show great sensitivity to the cultural and religious traditions of those with whom they interact. They walk with Bugingo as he attempts to make sense of the history of his homeland as well as his own personal history. Through Bugingo’s story, one is able to sense more deeply the genocide and refugee experience.
As the narratives continue inside Rwanda, the Janzens document stories of Hutus who protected Tutsis and Tutsis who protected Hutus as well as Hutus who killed their own people during the genocide. These important stories, left out of the news, help to shatter dangerous stereotypes of savage Africans involved in race warfare. It is clear that there were two phases to the conflict. The first involved the genocide of Tutsis following the downing of the presidential plane and the second involved the genocide of Hutu perpetrators as the Tutsi rebel army advanced from its posts outside Rwanda and eventually took over the country. The authors are careful to listen to all sides.
Further shattering common perceptions of the genocide, the authors relate the story of two Rwandan villages. In the first, the Hutu mayor had supported the genocide and led the way by publicly shooting his Tutsi neighbors. In the second, the Hutu mayor had resisted instructions to kill and calmed the people instead, going door-to-door and building on a broader historical identity that encompassed both Hutu and Tutsi.
One of the consequences of war and genocide that often goes unrecognized is the fate of social institutions. Interviews with surviving church leaders make real the destruction of the hierarchy. Often, during genocide, political, religious, academic and business elites are targeted leaving a vacuum in leadership as the society begins the process of healing. The Catholic Church lost half of its leaders to genocide. Along with this, the church lost much of its legitimacy as some priests had willingly participated in the killing.
Using drawings created by the child survivors of the war, the Janzens explore the impact of war on these young lives. The war left millions of orphans or unaccompanied children. These children must come to terms with images of their helpless parents and relatives being hacked to death before their eyes. The authors note the vital work of non-governmental organizations in providing protection for these children until relatives are located.
Following the narratives, the authors seek to understand why and how such a mass killing could occur. They share diverse
voices in an attempt to understand the complexity of the situation. An important contribution comes from understanding
ethnicization, a process that has occurred in many modern societies whereby all relationships come to be subsumed in an
ethnic rubric. Ethnicity is often a symbol used by leaders when all other forms of legitimacy erode. In order to grab or
maintain power, a leader might claim that all who are not with him are against him. A useful dividing line in this process is
ethnicity and while this is often associated with race, the authors wisely make clear that the concept of
race is no longer
helpful in understanding difference due to the extensive crossbreeding of humanity.
Ethnicization is a modern phenomenon. There is a correlation between the process of ethnicization in a society and the
fragility of the particular nation-state, but on a wider scale with the introduction of international human rights values since
World War II and the hopes for democratic representation around the world. The formation of nation-states introduces a
valuable new prize over which leaders will fight. Human rights and democracy have given self determination a new
legitimacy. The Theory of Signs has given scholars a new tool for understanding how societies move from ethnic
categories to heightened emotional states where groups are willing to kill neighbors and even members of their own family
(where inter-marriage has occurred). Elites play the ethnic card when they wish to grab or hang onto power. They simply
label a citizen with a weapon
a Hutu militiaman and thereby justify an attack on an entire community. Elites build on
historical myths that are highly self serving as they attempt to ignite old fears and divisions.
Although the Janzens offer many important elements that help the reader to understand the roots of this genocide, one
coherent model would be helpful. I have found this in the work of Ervin Staub (The Roots of Evil) as he examines multiple
and diverse cases of genocide over the past 50 years. He describes the first level of societal vulnerability to genocide as
difficult life conditions. This might be experienced as economic recession, high levels of discrimination and crime, or as
rapid social change. Staub further describes a condition of cultural conduciveness whereby societal norms permit violence
to be perpetrated on the vulnerable. This often includes an authoritarian family and societal structure, little tolerance for
difference and an acceptance of violent behaviors toward those perceived as enemies. Third, Staub’s model describes the
additional role of perception of direct threat from
the other as instrumental in mobilizing large groups of people to a
defensive posture that in the case of genocide becomes offensive. Finally, he points out that for people to kill their
neighbors, they require a process of desensitization. This involves time to distance oneself from
the other, to internalize
the other as less than human plus the authority and tools to carry out the killing. Many of the Janzens
explanations fit well in this developmental model. Neither explanation, though, includes the role of absence of social
control to discourage the massacre. It is important to note that the United Nations ordered their troops to vacate the region
as conditions of genocide were escalating thus leaving thousands of unarmed civilians open to attack.
As the Janzens have experienced, genocide leaves a tangled legacy of trauma, denial, thirst for revenge, and the danger of continuing cycles of violence. Healing and justice must occur at two levels, the individual and the collective. Each requires different approaches. At the individual level, divination as a primary African mode to explain misfortune might be useful in the attempt to understand. And yet, interestingly, in the personal narratives gathered, divination was nowhere to be found. The atrocities seemed to defy this traditional interpretation. Thus, the authors conclude, people must discover how to live with the images of what has happened and to answer the question, why me? Before healing can occur, both victims and perpetrators must tell their stories, have God’s presence affirmed and move toward a stronger reading of current history and God’s word to confront the facts of evil in the world. The Janzens’ Christian faith and understanding of context offer rich insights in this area.
At the communal level, they suggest that communities need to hold memorial services for the dead. Due to the importance of ancestors in African cultures, part of the healing from war is to reestablish memory of prewar ancestors and to put in place those who died a violent death with a proper burial. The church and other non-governmental organizations must help to maintain the political middle ground until the most traumatized can find a place for reconciliation.
Just as the church suffered major casualties during the war, so did the judiciary. A functioning and legitimate judiciary is a
precondition to peace. To this end, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established by the UN in
1994 to hear cases. In addition to hearing individual cases, the Janzens emphasize that the Tribunal must convince people
that impunity is not possible. The authors suggest that national reconciliation will only be possible when justice is
perceived to be accomplished. It is important to note that some nations, such as South Africa, have designed a system of
reconciliation that emphasizes amnesty or forgiveness following admission of guilt versus
justice in the sense of
punishment. Perhaps the authors could explore further this avenue for healing. To use
justice as punishment to the
thousands behind bars could paralyze the healing process for decades to come. Whatever the approach, the task of
reconciliation is daunting.
The Janzens’ task in this book is also daunting. And yet they combine the tools of good social scientists with the sensitivity of people of faith to make a significant contribution to our understanding of the Rwandan and Burundian genocides, their causes, their consequences and their prospects for healing.