Lessons on the 25th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide

By Nicole Fox & Hollie Nyseth Brehm

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which claimed the lives of upwards of one million people. While many Rwandans actively participated in genocidal violence by killing their neighbors, friends and fellow parishioners, hundreds—if not thousands—made a vastly different decision: they actively saved others who were persecuted. As part of a larger project on the social factors that shape rescue efforts during genocide, we had the privilege this week to speak with those who saved others, 25 years ago.

One of these individuals, Joseph, still lives in the same village he did in 1994. To interview him, we hiked a vibrant green knoll, about a mile from the road, where he lives in a modest home that overlooks the breathtaking views of Rwanda’s hilly landscape. When we arrived, we sat in Joseph’s living room and heard his story of rescue and survival.

In the early weeks of the genocide, violence from neighboring villages diffused into Joseph’s community. One evening, as militias burned the homes of his Tutsi neighbors, a father and son came to his door asking for help. Joseph and his wife opened their home to these friends and eventually to others, engaging in what later coalesced into clandestine coordinated collective action with their neighbors to save Tutsi who were being hunted by the genocidal militia. Joseph and his neighbors warned one another of perpetrators who were suspicious of them, moving persecuted families from one house to another in order to ensure their safety. Food and water were scarce, but Joseph and his neighbors pooled resources to feed the Tutsi they were sheltering.

Joseph attributed his and his wife’s bravery to their strong belief that God loves all people. They believed it was God’s will to save people and that God kept them safe. He said he was not afraid to die because of his faith in God and his conviction that it was okay if he died doing what was right, highlighting the importance of religious socialization. Joseph also remembered the story of his father rescuing a Tutsi family during anti-Tutsi violence in 1973, recalling that his family had many close friends that were Tutsi.

Joseph’s story illuminates several patterns that arose in our 75 interviews with rescuers thus far. First, often first rescue was a case of someone they knew asking for help. That first rescue endeavor seemed to act as a gateway, and then people often rescued strangers. Second, religious socialization (though not a specific religion or simply being religious) and the resulting worldview were described as a source of strength and a reason for rescuing by many of the people we have interviewed. Religion might have also facilitated a low death anxiety, allowing those who have a strong conviction and belief in heaven to take significant risks in the name of doing what they thought was right by God. Finally, a majority of people with whom we have talked relay stories of their parents or grandparents rescuing. Memories of intergenerational rescue flooded their minds when genocidal violence broke out, and they acted in ways that aligned them a collective of people who act bravely in times of social unrest.

Joseph’s story and those like his are vital as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Stories of rescue bring hope to survivors and provide an example of intervention for citizens around the globe. But Joseph’s story is also deeply important to social movement scholars, for stories like his contribute to knowledge on how and why people resist genocidal violence—pressing areas of inquiry given the fact that more people were killed in genocide during the 20th century than in all of the century’s international wars combined. These stories importantly shed light on clandestine collective action as well. Additionally, understanding the social dynamics of Joseph and his neighbors is of particular significance given the specific political moment in the US. We are in a time when the US executive administration has publicly endorsed a Muslim registry, where one in five American college age women are raped, and where public displays of white supremacy are condoned by the United States president. Stories of rescue have the potential to inform policy decisions relating to bystander intervention, violence prevention, and education regarding aggression in times of both conflict and political stability.

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