Jennie Burnet Lecture Summary
"Good Amidst Evil: Rescue During the Rwandan Genocide"
Jennie Burnet (Georgia State University)
March 1, 2018
Georgia State University professor Jennie Burnet lectures on the moment-by-moment changing landscape of the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda that resists efforts to formulate a structural model of rescuer behavior.
Jennie Burnet, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Georgia State University, gave a public lecture at the Center for Advanced Genocide Research focusing on the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that influenced rescuer behavior during the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. Professor Burnet argued that a great deal of research focuses on why perpetrators participated in the genocide. Not much research delves into why people did not participate in the genocide. She presented data about rescue from hundreds of interviews in ten communities in Rwanda where she and her team conducted ethnographic research between 2011 and 2014. She led the collaborative research project with her co-investigator Hager El-Hadidi of California State University Bakersfield. A number of other collaborators in Rwanda and the United States contributed to the project, which the U.S. National Science Foundation Cultural Anthropology Program funded.
After a brief introduction to her previous research on war and genocide in Rwanda, Professor Burnet opened her lecture with the question: “How and why do some people put themselves at great risk of harm to rescue others in instances of communal violence or genocide?” Professor Burnet reviewed the established genocide studies paradigm that divides actors into categories of victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers. Professor Burnet noted that, while useful in clarifying the motivations of each of these groups, this widely-used paradigm also carries with it the danger of essentializing involved actors and depriving them of their complexity. She continued by narrowing her focus on the rescuer, and detailing the parallels between the understandings of the rescuer in the contexts of the Holocaust and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In particular, she relied on the data from the 2009 “Ibuka” pilot study conducted in Rwanda that resulted in both a preliminary list of rescuers, or “indakemwa,” and a definition of the rescuer. Professor Burnet then reflected on the research methodology employed during the project, including the geographic distribution of data and their sampling strategy. The team’s intention was to include cases from eight communities in Rwanda, but also to explore whether religion played a role in rescuer behavior. For this reason, they paired predominantly Muslim neighborhoods with predominantly Christian neighborhoods, and they conducted semi-structured interviews with community members, including genocide survivors, genocide perpetrators, genocide rescuers, government officials, religious leaders, and others.
Professor Burnet moved on to provide a brief overview of ethnicity in Rwanda and the timeline of the 1994 genocide. She stressed that the ethnicity in Rwanda is complicated, and is not marked by differences in language, culture, or religion. In fact, all major ethnic groups in Rwanda – Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa – share the same language and culture. In Rwanda’s history, the politicization of these social categories began even before colonialism -- as early as the 19th century – but under colonialism, the distinctions took on even more weight as colonizers projected their own ideas about race and ethnic difference onto these groups. The significance and meanings attached to the differences between these groups changed over time. In various points throughout Rwandan history and certainly in 1994, what category someone belonged to could decide whether he or she lived or died.
Professor Burnet reviewed the trends and characteristics of the violence undertaken by the Hutus against the Tutsis during the 1994 genocide. For example, she noted that violence came in waves, that military and police forces played contradictory roles – sometimes working to prevent the chaos and the killings and sometimes participating. Perpetrators’ actions included killing, rape, sexual enslavement, looting, extortion, and theft. She explained the complexities of the genocide’s wider context and relation to the Rwandan Civil War that started in 1990 and emphasized the fact that the genocide was not due to ancient “tribal” hatred.
Professor Burnet continued with a closer examination of the actions undertaken by the perpetrators and those undertaken by the rescuers and the ways these categories shift as people are confronted with thousands of moment-to-moment decisions over time. Professor Burnet noted that both rescuers and perpetrators had to repeatedly decide how to act, and their respective actions were dependent on situational contexts. She explained that some people would act as rescuers up to some point and then might perhaps decide to participate in the killings. Some perpetrators would end up saving people. Some rescuers ended up perishing alongside those they were attempting to save, shifting them to the category of victim.
Professor Burnet offered excerpts from interviews with rescuers about how, why, and in what contexts they helped others, and she pointed out how their statements, although sometimes reflecting a standard narrative about rescue, offer no structural model for rescuer behavior.
In the final part of her lecture, Professor Burnet returned again to the genocide studies paradigm. She argued how the Rwandan case complicates this paradigm by challenging the clear-cut division of participants’ roles during the genocide. She further elaborated that the participants’ decisions changed over time, their actions often shifting between the categories of perpetrators, rescuers, and bystanders. On that note, she called for a focus on “acts of genocide” and “acts of rescue,” and concluded with a closer examination of decision-making among both perpetrators and rescuers.
Professor Burnet’s lecture was followed by a long and lively discussion that focused on the questions of individual vs. collective rescue; the lack of institutional initiative for the study of rescue in Rwanda; the influence of gender and family history on rescue decisions; initial vs. sustaining impetus for rescue; the effect of colonial history on the understanding of ethnicity in Rwanda; and discussion of the role of Rwandan Muslims in the 1994 genocide.
Summary by Badema Pitic