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Rwanda: How Does Brother Kill Brother?

Rwanda: How Does Brother Kill Brother?

American woman studies social dimensions of the Rwandan genocide

By Bruce Greenberg
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- How do neighbors become killers of their neighbors, friends -- even family members?

This was the central question raised by Africanist and doctoral candidate Lee Ann Fujii, who, during a recent stay in Rwanda, explored the societal ramifications of the 1994 genocide.

The slaughter, which pitted two tribal groups, the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority, against one another, resulted in the deaths of close to a million people. Most of those who perished were of the Tutsi minority, or were Hutus sympathetic to Tutsis. The mass murder wiped out nearly 30 percent of adult and teenage males, leaving a population that was nearly 70 percent female.

Fujii, who is studying political science at George Washington University in Washington, presented her findings August 25 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in that city.

The scholar said that without the participation of the larger population, the genocide would not have occurred. “Close clannish ties that exist in Rwanda, and in African villages in general, seem to mitigate against violence by fostering greater cooperation -- not less,” she said. “It’s difficult to kill intimately, especially to kill someone you know.

In her presentation, Fujii outlined the factors that allowed the killers to overcome that natural repugnance.

“Like most genocides, it was led by the elite few at the top, then mass-implemented -- and the killers: they were ordinary farmers, Hutu men between the ages of 30 and 40. They were often married with children, and most had Tutsi connections, either casual or familial.”

Fujii said that many of the killers also knew their victims, killing them at close range with machetes, clubs, and hoes. They killed in very large groups, in broad daylight, and the killings took a ritualized form, with chanting and the donning of paramilitary costumes. She said that there was a whole series of commonly repeated practices like hunting the victims, encircling their homes, driving them out and killing them, and then performing mass burials.


During her nine months in Rwanda, she garnered most of her data from fieldwork, focusing on interviews she conducted in two villages, one in the northern province of Ruhengeri, and the other in the southern province of Gitarama. She sampled some 85 respondents over the course of several hundred interviews, seeking a broad spectrum of participants, from what she called “the rescuers, at one end" to "the profiteers -- those leading or organizing the killings." In the middle were "the collaborators, those who denounced or informed on their victims," and "the joiners, the majority of participants -- these are the people who went along with what others were doing.”

As to the mechanisms for joining, she said they boiled down to “the pull of social ties -- people go along with what others are doing. There is the construct of power, of engaging in group acts.” She added that some largely external forces allowed for disengagement from the killings, including the invasion of the country by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front rebel forces, and the presence of United Nations observers on the ground.

Fujii cited one respondent, whom she called "Stephan," who was an apolitical participant, “one who just ended up being there.” "Eduard," another joiner, told her that he was compelled to participate because of the diatribes broadcast against the Tutsis on local and state radio, and the public speeches of so-called "authority figures." “He really did believe what he was hearing [about] what was going on,” she said.

"Gustave," on the other hand, was a resister, according to Fujii. “He took a very clear stand in response to the same conditions. He said that he refused to do anything related to politics."

“I was asked to do night patrols [often an activity that preceded killings], and I refused,” Gustave told Fujii during an interview. He explained that his conscience would not allow him to do that.

Fujii said that the acts of killing provided a form of acceptance, of belonging. “So groups kill; individuals do not," she said. "In groups it was impossible to save someone.” Alone, she said, the killers did not kill.

One respondent whom she called "Olivier" actually helped a Tutsi boy escape from the mob. He considered himself a part of the killing group, she said, but when he was away from the group, he was no longer a killer, he had ties to the greater community.

Summarizing her findings, Fujii said that profiteers, joiners, collaborators, rescuers, and victims all came from the same family. “Joiners and victims were often friends," she said. "Ties could help a person survive, but often were a liability. The difference between the rescuer and accuser could often tip because of a grudge or unintended hurt.”

Participation in the Rwandan genocide, Fujii concluded, occurred through a process of social interaction and not by calculation.

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