Remembering to Forget: Chosen Amnesia as a Strategy for Local Coexistence in Post-Genocide Rwanda

By Buckley-Zistel, Susanne | Africa, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Remembering to Forget: Chosen Amnesia as a Strategy for Local Coexistence in Post-Genocide Rwanda

Buckley-Zistel, Susanne, Africa


More than a decade after the genocide, Rwanda's local communities remain severely affected by the experience of the violence and horror. This is reflected in the way people remember their past, as well as in what they choose to forget. During fieldwork in Nyamata and Gikongoro it became apparent that even though the memory of the genocide as such, its pain and suffering, was essential for all interviewees, a clearer picture of the causes of the genocide had disappeared into oblivion. In this article I argue that this forgetting of pre-genocide social cleavages reflects less a mental failure than a conscious coping mechanism. What I shall refer to as chosen amnesia, the deliberate eclipsing of particular memories, allows people to avoid antagonista and enables a degree of community cohesion necessary for the intimacy of rural life in Rwanda. While this is presently essential for local coexistence, it prevents the emergence of a critical challenge to the social cleavages that allowed the genocide to occur in the first place and impedes the social transformation necessary to render ethnicity-based violence impossible.


Plus de dix ans apres le genocide, les communautes locales du Rwanda restent profondement marquees par l'experience de la violence et de l'horreur. On le voit dans la maniere dont les Rwandais se rememorent leur passe, ainsi que dans ce qu'ils choisissent d'oublier. Dans le cadre de travaux de terrain menes a Nyamata et a Gikongoro, il s'est avere que meme si la memoire du genocide en tant que tel, avec sa douleur et sa souffrance, etait primordiale pour toutes les personnes interrogees, l'expose precis des causes du genocide etait tombe datas l'oubli. L'article affirme que l'oubli des clivages sociaux qui ont precede le genocide est moins le reflet d'une deficience mentale que d'un mecanisme conscient de defense. II decrit sous le terme d'amnesie voulue l'action deliberee d'occulter des souvenirs precis, qui selon lui permet d'eviter l'hostilite et rend possible un certain degre de cohesion communautaire necessaire a l'intimite de la vie rurale au Rwanda. Bien qu'actuellement essentielle pour la coexistence locale, cette amnesie voulue empeche l'emergence d'une mise en question critique des clivages sociaux qui ont permis au genocide de se produire et gene la transformation sociale necessaire pour rendre impossible la violence ethnique.


After a violent conflict, the experience of bloodshed and terror leaves deep scars amongst the parties to the conflict. In cases where violence was perpetrated in the intimate realm of a community, such as during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, future cohabitation is profoundly affected by the experience. Coming to terms with the past is a major challenge.

The division of Rwanda has a long history. Central to the Hutu-Tutsi conflict lies the interplay between ethnic realities and their subjective reconstruction (or manipulation) by political entrepreneurs (Lemarchand 1994: 588). Over time, ethnic belonging has become meaningful for many Rwandans, even more so since a section of the population was exterminated because of its ethnic identity. In today's post-genocide environment it is therefore necessary to address these cleavages through changing the way the members of a community relate to each other. Failing this, violence and aggression may remain a mode of solving inter-community problems.

In this article I shall illustrate how processes of post-conflict social transformation, or the absence thereof, are reflected in the way the past is remembered. In Rwanda today, people who lived through the 1994 genocide of Tutsi and moderate Hutu, as well as the 1990-4 war between the Habyarimana government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front/Army (RPF/A) insurgents, have different recollections of the past, depending on their roles at the time and their situations today. Rwanda's society is highly diverse, reflecting various experiences of the genocide as victim or participant, bystander, absentee or saviour.

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Remembering to Forget: Chosen Amnesia as a Strategy for Local Coexistence in Post-Genocide Rwanda


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