A public lecture by Jennie Burnet (Georgia State University)
In 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans died in a genocide that nearly wiped out Rwandan Tutsi. During the genocide, the civilian population was mobilized to search for people in hiding, to denounce neighbors who were protecting people in their homes or providing assistance to people hiding elsewhere, to kill their neighbors in their homes, and to kill people at roadblocks or in the churches, schools, and government offices where they sought refuge. Amidst this atrocious violence, some courageous people chose to do good: they risked their lives to hide people in their homes, to smuggle people to safety, or to fight against the militias, soldiers, and civilians who came to kill the Tutsi kin, friends, neighbors, and strangers they harbored. Drawing on several years of ethnographic research and over 200 interviews with Rwandans in ten communities conducted between 2011 and 2014, Dr. Burnet found that there is no structural model of rescuer behavior since successful rescue is the end result of thousands of moment-by-moment decisions unfolding over time. Research on rescuers during the Holocaust has emphasized altruism as the primary factor setting rescuers apart from bystanders. In Rwanda, the compulsion to help was the beginning but not the end of rescue. Rescue was a decision made repeatedly, in rapidly changing contexts, and sometimes under intense pressure. To succeed, rescuers had to persist in their decision to help and be courageous in the face of increasing risks to their own and to their kin’s safety. Many rescuers who hewed faithfully to a path of moral rectitude were killed along with those they attempted to save. Rescuers who succeeded in saving people often wended a morally dubious path through the grey zone of genocide to achieve good outcomes.
Jennie Burnet is Associate Professor of Global Studies and Anthropology and Associate Director of the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Her book, Genocide Lives in Us: Women, Memory & Silence in Rwanda won the 2013 Elliot Skinner Award from the Association for Africanist Anthropology. She has held several prestigious grants and fellowships, including a National Science Foundation Senior Research Grant, a Rockefeller Visiting Fellowship at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and a United States Institute of Peace Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar Dissertation Fellowship among others.