Saturday, December 26, 2009

Killing Neighbors - Webs of Violence in Rwanda

A book review of Killing Neighbors – Webs of Violence in Rwanda, By Lee Ann Fujii. Published by Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2009.

This is a scholarly tome that investigates individual motives behind the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Professor Fujii started with the premise that ethnic hatred, ethnic fear, or both, were key to enticing individuals to participate in the killings. Although she noted and elaborated on the facts that the overall climate that fostered genocide repeatedly stressed such themes, Ms. Fujii did not find those motivations operating at the individual level. Instead she discovered a complex web of motivations that varied from individual to individual.

The methodology of the research was to interview dozens of people from two separate hillsides (communities); one in the north where the civil war that preceded the genocide was fought and the other in the central zone that saw no violence until the genocide began. Many of those interviewed were prisoners who had plead guilty and were incarcerated for genocide activities. Presumably they spoke the truth because they nothing to hide. Others interviewed were family members of killers as well as survivors.

First there were differentiations by Hutu killers between Tutsi they knew, i.e. friends and neighbors, and those who were not known. Hutu killing mobs were always that - mobs. They were invariably groups that acted in concert where the power of collectiveness was overwhelming. Professor Fujii recorded no instances where one individual killed another. To the contrary when one-on-one encounters were described, respondents said that they warned the potential victim of danger.

Dr. Fujii found that familial and social ties were instrumental in compelling participation in killing groups. Individuals were usually brought in by local authorities or relatives, but some were recruited by peers. Some joined willingly, others were shamed into participation or intimidated into joining. Few envisaged booty and little was realized. Mostly Fujii concluded it was group dynamics that stoked the fires of genocide and kept them burning. Individuals who would not (and did not) act on their own became swept up in the group objective of elimination of the Tutsi.

Overall the book makes an important contribution into understanding genocide in Rwanda, but does it shed light on tribal violence elsewhere, in Kenya for example? Professor Fujii makes no extrapolation to that effect, but I will. First I would argue that the overall climate conducive to tribal violence in Kenya was similar, i.e. a perception of wrongs (in Kenya mostly having to do with land and other favoritisms) on the part of certain tribes with regard to others, plus the fear that such wrongs would only increase. A key difference was that the Kenyan national authorities were essentially seen as those in the wrong (the Kikuyu), thus the state did not advocate “ethnic cleansing.” Nonetheless, Kenyans, I believe, harbored a stronger sense of ethnic fear than did Rwandans and I suspect that was a motivation for participation in violence. However, the phenomenon of group dynamics was probably very much the same. Once enlisted in a mob, individual morals dropped aside and churches were burned, houses torched, people beaten and families chased from their homes and farms.

Overall, the scary conclusion from this study is that we, and our societies, live a lot closer to edge than we might suppose. We do not operate much from atavistic hatreds, but instead in response to current political events. It behooves us therefore to choose leaders that eschew tribal, ethnic, racial or religious differentiation in favor of inclusiveness. We must do so in order that our multifaceted societies can prosper.