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. In addition, in present memory, some aspects--most notably past tensions between Hutu and Tutsi--are eclipsed from the discourse. This form of chosen amnesia, I shall argue, although now perhaps essential for local coexistence, bears the danger of not challenging the social cleavages that rendered the genocide possible in the first place, and so obstructing their transformation in the future.
At first sight, what is remembered and what is silenced in post-genocide Rwanda seems paradoxical: while the event of the genocide was constantly evoked by my interviewees, the causes of the genocide and the decades of tension between Hutu and Tutsi were ignored. Despite earlier pogroms against Tutsi in 1959, 1962 and 1973, the past was portrayed as harmonious, and the 1994 genocide as a sudden rupture that took everybody by surprise. In the course of fieldwork, however, it soon emerged that the absence of certain memory, this chosen amnesia about past divisions, is less a mental failure than a conscious strategy to cope with living in proximity to 'killers' or 'traitors'.
This article is part of a two-year research project on the potential for reconciliation in Rwanda. (1) It is based on substantial field research in 2003-4 in Nyamata district in Kigali Ngali province (in particular around Nyamata town and Ntarama) and in Gikongoro province (around the districts of Gikongoro Ville, Karaba and Nyaruguru); these locations were selected for their proximity to mass graves and genocide memorial sites. (2) Its qualitative approach draws on in-depth interviews with individuals as well as group discussions conducted mainly in Kinyarwanda with the assistance of one or two Rwandan interpreters. (3) The interviewees were selected on the basis of the proximity of their homes to the memorial sites. Moreover, we actively selected people with particular backgrounds, including relatives of people accused of participating in the genocide, individuals who had been released from prison, Tutsi returnees who were brought up in the diaspora, survivors working in survivor organizations or at genocide sites and individuals seeking to contribute to the reconciliation processes.
NARRATING THE PAST
In order to understand processes of post-conflict coexistence it is paramount to focus on how group identities are constituted in memory discourses. As argued by Pierre Nora, remembrance has a coercive force, for it creates identity and a sense of belonging (Nora 1993: 11). In this article I shall therefore focus on the stories people tell to refer to their past and ask whether they facilitate or obstruct group cohesion between the former parties to the conflict.
However, collective identity is not merely produced through remembering but also through forgetting. As Ernest Renan has famously pointed out with reference to the nation: 'the essential element of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common but it must also have forgotten many things' (Renan 1822). In a similar vein, Stanley Cohen suggests that whole societies may choose to forget uncomfortable knowledge and turn it into 'open secrets' which are known by all, and knowingly not known (Cohen 2001: 138). He introduces the term 'social amnesia', which refers to
a mode of forgetting by which a whole society separates itself from its discreditable past record. This might happen at an organized, official and conscious level--the deliberate cover-up, the rewriting of history--or through the type of cultural slippage that occurs when information disappears. (Cohen 1995: 13)
In Rwanda, the deliberate, public rewriting of history is part of the government's effort to unite the country (Buckley-Zistel, forthcoming). It is based on an idealized representation of the country's pre-colonial past as being harmonious, glossing over significant social complexities and intellectually justifying a system of Tutsi minority rule (Pottier 2002: 110-11). Hence, a more cynical view suggests that the government's playing down of ethnic differences serves to mask today's monopoly by Tutsi of military and political power (Reyntjens 2004:187).
Nevertheless, although the official rewriting of history is relevant for Rwanda, it is the notion of 'cultural slippage' which is of interest to us in this article. At a local level, why are some things chosen to be remembered whilst others are subject to forgetting? What function does this selectivity serve?
While conducting research in Rwanda it became apparent that, although memory about the genocide was considered to be very important, some aspects of the past were eclipsed from the discourse. Interviewees frequently made their omissions explicit, stating that, despite their public attitude and occasionally even their participation in reconciliation projects, in their hearts it looked different. Although I felt that it was important for my interviewees to communicate this reservation, how it 'really' looked in their hearts was never revealed. (4) Moreover, some of my interviewees, in particular those …
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Publication information: Article title: Remembering to Forget: Chosen Amnesia as a Strategy for Local Coexistence in Post-Genocide Rwanda. Contributors: Buckley-Zistel, Susanne - Author. Journal title: Africa. Volume: 76. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2006. Page number: 131+. © 1998 Edinburgh University Press. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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