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If you were raised in America, with American parents, are you American? What if your parents were from Germany? Are you German-American? Does your citizenship define your nationality? Your ancestors’ citizenship? What if your family was forced to immigrate to a new country to avoid war, famine, or persecution? What makes you a national of a country? Given the difficulty of defining something as seemingly clear cut as nationality, it should surprise no one that defining roles in the civil wars and genocides is also much fuzzier than the official government narratives would lead us to believe.

Leaving the binary behind allows for people to be honest about their trauma, their lived experiences, and allows true healing.

The official story of the Rwandan genocide, as relayed in national memorials and the government’s records, is that Hutu extremists killed 1.1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and 3 million people participated in the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis. Citizens, if not direct witnesses of the genocide, get defined in this frame through family connections. This gives the impression that everyone in Rwanda was either a victim or a perpetrator of genocide. Whether as victim or family of victim, perpetrator or family of perpetrator, there is a sense that everyone is locked within this conceptual binary.

Currently, Rwanda is focused on creating a nation without divisions, without Hutu or Tutsi, where “there is no ethnicity,” and “everyone is Rwandan.” This story of victim or perpetrator is undoubtedly meaningful for some people, but it fails to capture the nuances of others’ lived experience. Even in our short time in Rwanda, a number of personal stories were relayed to us. We learned, for example, of

  • A family of farmers who spoke Kinyarwanda, and considered themselves Rwandan, but whose land was now technically in in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), despite the farm being considered Rwandan land (and literally existing within former Rwandan territory) for generations
  • A person whose family was wealthy and able to leave Rwanda in the 1950s, escaping relatively unscathed, thus enabling their children to attend schools abroad and free from violence and teachings of ethnic hatred
  • A person whose parents were both Hutu and Tutsi, leaving them with one surviving parent after genocide, having witnessed immense violence and trauma, but unable to consider themselves a victim or a perpetrator
  • A person who killed their neighbors, for fear of being seen as moderate and therefore becoming targets of the Interahamwe, who would kill not just them, but their entire family as well
  • A child who was encouraged, if not forced, to kill their half-siblings at the command of their parent, and
  • A child who was essentially orphaned because their parents were both jailed as perpetrators.

I kept wondering, as we heard such stories, where do these folks fit in the official narrative of the genocide? Who are the victims in these scenarios? Who are the perpetrators? In a country so focused on memorialization and healing, what does the erasure of their narratives do to the people who don’t fit into the clean lines the government wants? How does this impact someone’s identity?

The desire for clear answers is something I personally relate to, as I’m sure many others do. No one wants to think that ordinary people can do terrible things—that your neighbor could kill your children, that your father could command you to attack your mother, that you could be so swept up in rage and violence that you too might participate in genocide. Expecting everyone to fit into the binary victim/perpetrator narrative makes it easy to define who is good and who is bad. It makes it easier to answer the impossible questions. Genocide happened because bad people took control. But, as simple as that sounds, it’s not true.

There were multiple generations of people raised in a society that taught everyone that one group was inherently inferior, they were cockroaches, dangerous pests, and that everything wrong with their country was because of this group. Sounds familiar, right? Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany used pretty much the same language. This type of dehumanizing language precedes every genocide. It allows people to commit violent acts against the persecuted group and feel they are morally right, that they are defending themselves and their nation from evil, while themselves committing evil acts. No one wants to think of him or herself as bad, as capable of genocide, but we all are. That’s probably the biggest takeaway from my time in Rwanda. Evil can come from anyone and everyone. We are all capable of violence when pushed far enough, when faced with enough fear, when taught hatred and when burdened with generations of resentment.

When trying to reunite a country after more than 100 years of conflict and infighting, clear lines are intended to make it easier to overcome historical divisions and unite a nation. Leaving room for nuance leaves room for people to justify their actions, to continue to preach hatred and violence, and to continue teaching their bad ideology to the next generation, and the one after that, and the one after that. This is the justification used to explain why the binary narrative must exist, why it must be enforced, and why dissent is seen as a slippery slope towards a renewed cycle of violence. It makes sense. No one wants to see him or herself as bad, so when they know they weren’t good, they consider themselves in the middle area, in the grey between good and bad.

However, I was raised in a nation which idealizes free speech even when it endorses hatred and violence, (also a nation which was founded on genocide) and while I understand why this binary is helpful and necessary, it still doesn’t sit right. Much of the justice system in Rwanda emphasizes truth-telling as a way of healing a community. Maybe truth isn’t really true unless you acknowledge many different angles, and the violence that oversimplifying can do. Denying the lived experiences of people who don’t fit into clear categories is denying their truth. Denying someone’s truth is an act of violence. On the other hand, peace is a lofty goal, as is undoing generations of hatred, resentment, and oppression. Maybe nuance isn’t always a good thing. Adding shades of grey to a story make it easier to justify reprehensible actions. It makes it harder to draw a hard line in the sand between good and evil.
When I got home to the U.S., I did some more research on other categories of people affected by the genocide, beyond the victim/perpetrator binary. These include witnesses who did and didn’t intervene to stop killing; repatriates, who lived abroad before and during the genocide and moved back afterwards; soldiers; and children. Although there were places in some of the memorials that did capture some of these categories, such as Hutus who intervened to save individual Tutsi lives or to sabotage genocidaires’ objectives, the official narratives tended to reify the binary framing.

In the spirit of compromise between easy answers and absolute truth, I would propose that the government narrative be changed to better encompass more of these categories. Victim would be considered anyone killed, maimed, or harmed during the genocide, regardless of which “side” they were on. Perpetrator would be anyone who directly killed, maimed, or harmed others. Witnesses would be the roughly 50% of the population that was not killed or become killers. Soldiers would be anyone, on either side of the conflict, who were ordered to commit violence as part of their role as a soldier. Children are the ones who were raised with ethnic hatred and who were forced to witness the horrors of genocide, who might have also perpetrated genocide, but were not yet adults when this occurred.

These categories shouldn’t be exclusive, and people should be able to fall into multiple groups. Leaving the binary behind allows for people to be honest about their trauma, their lived experiences, and allows true healing. It allows us to recognize the suffering that comes from killing another person, from being raised with hatred coming from every side, from being torn from your identity. A child who was told to attack their friends and family is as much a victim as the people they attacked. A solider who was trained to believe they were on the right side of things, that they were doing their civic duty in killing rebels, who later realizes that they were perpetrating genocide, has still experienced trauma and pain.

There is not a binary yes/no answer to the questions brought up. There is no clean way to remember history, to heal from trauma, to unite a nation colonized with hatred. If these methods of storytelling and categorization work for Rwanda, if they allow the nation to heal and unify, then maybe that result matters more than the process. If lasting peace is a result, then maybe that’s all that matters. Maybe in a few generations the binary will be forgotten and a true Rwandan identity will be achieved.

Maybe the binary narrative is essential to draw the line between good and evil, to eradicate generations of hatred.

Maybe we want the binary so we don’t have to see ourselves in the nuance.

Maybe the binary is necessary so we don’t have to recognize ourselves in the grey, capable of hatred and violence, capable of perpetrating genocide.

Britta Petersen

Britta Petersen

Senior, Political Science

Lessons that Will Stay with Me

Professor Nancy D. Wadsworth
I hope to continue refining the class in coming years, but I know that the profundity and sense of emotional community that marked the first time with this remarkable group of students will be forever impressed on my memory.

Tuyisenge Narcisse

Austin Clapp
In Narcisse’s story, this truly seems to be what has caused him the most suffering: the feeling of having everything that was once his being ripped away with no ability to control the outcome.

The Catholic Problem in the Rwandan Genocide

Tom Oexeman
As we learned, some of the deadliest massacre sites were Catholic Churches, most notably Ntarama and Nyamata, and partly because their priests abandoned their own parishioners or actively enabled genocidaires.

When People Resist Genocide

Lauren Yehle
With so much emphasis on survivors, it’s difficult to understand what inspired some Hutus to murder and others to resist.


Anne Pogoriler

There were many echoes of the Holocaust in our tour of Rwanda’s more recent trauma.