Reflections on the Rwandan Conference (April 2008)

I wanted to thank Josias, Callixte, Lisa and the other members of the Great Lakes Working Group for organizing what was a tremendously important 3 day colloque on Testimony and the Rwandan Genocide. I cannot begin to tell you how much I learned over the course of the three days.

What I found most striking about the colloque was the fact that it was the best example that I have yet come across of university-community research dialogue in a conference setting. Most of the presenters – themselves Rwandan – straddled the line between university and community. This was not always an easy task – and there was a great deal of reflection on this. The large community turnout also shaped the discussion in extraordinary ways. There was little of the jargon that typifies academic conferences. The resulting conversation was both inclusive and politically engaged. The strong presence from the Cambodian Working Group of the Life Stories CURA also shaped the conversation in important ways.

The subject of the conference was testimony and genocide. In addition to the scholarly presentations there were two sessions that invited participants to share their own first-person accounts, or testimonials. Friday morning we heard from seven people relate their experiences in Hitler’s Europe, Cambodia, Rwanda and Armenia. On Saturday evening, we formed a storytelling circle and heard from many others. These two spaces of reflection (quite different in many ways), in combination with the other sessions, touched everyone in attendance. They also raised important questions that I think that our project needs to think more about (or at least I do).

What is the purpose of the public testimonial? How does audience expectation shape what is spoken/not spoken? How do testimonies change in different times and places – speaking to one’s own community versus a more diverse audience; speaking to children versus adults? How have these stories evolved over the course of their repeated telling? How do public testimonials compare to life stories told in an interview context?

I am struck by some of the differences between public testimonials and life history interviewing, and by some of the similarities. Testimonials are first person accounts (about 10 minutes in length) that bear witness to the violence. These highly charged personal stories begin and end with the violence – relating what the witness saw and experienced first hand. In so doing, we appreciate the enormity of the violence and its impact on the person in a new way. The appeal is emotive – we feel the loss and the pain in a way that statistics and more abstract discussion of genocide cannot. I think these testimonials appeal to our shared humanity.

How does this differ from life history interviewing, then? I think one difference is that in life history interviewing the focus is on the life story of the individual – we therefore hear about the before and the after as well as the during. To understand the impact of the violence, it is important to understand what was lost and how that person’s life has been shaped by the genocide ever since. Interviews also allow people to tell their stories in different ways. Some will want to discuss why they think the violence happened – providing a political framework for their experiences. Others will want to focus on their eye-witness account. Still others will not want to speak much of the violence itself – but instead linger in the “before”, or perhaps the “after”. Some will describe themselves as “survivors” – thus telling us how the violence has defined them; whereas others may use other words.

I do think it important that the Life Stories project conduct life story interviews with men and women who have provided their public testimonials. What has been their experience? How can they put into words what happened? What can you say in 10 minutes? It would be interesting to hear their reflections on their testimony. Did they have to adapt to audience expectation? I also would like to learn more about the place of this storytelling for survivor communities. When are these stories told and why.

I am reminded of research with Latin American refugees in the US who provided their testimonials in the 1980s in order to influence US foreign policy in the region. Initially, many men and women sought to influence their US audience by making overtly political appeals – speaking of political struggle and collective resistance. They soon realized that these kinds of “leftist” appeals did not work – but Americans WOULD listen to personal testimony about how the wars (and US foreign policy) impacted their lives. They quickly adapted to the situation,embedding their politics into their life story testimonials. I wonder, though, about the political impact of this shift – how do we ask “why” if audiences will only list to our personal witness of the impact.

One of the most controversial moments in the colloque was the showing of a Quebec documentary (actually more of a “raportage”) about the Rwandan genocide. The film repeatedly showed archival footage of the dead. Some audience members were shocked that the presenter would use this documentary to educate young people. Others believed that you cannot do otherwise when reporting on genocide. There was also concern that the film did not ask why the genocide occurred. What was most interesting to me, was that the film incorporated the testimony of three Rwandans living in Quebec to show the impact of the violence. These were powerful testimonials that could not help but touch. Yet whenever the film makers wanted to step back to “make sense” of the violence – to see what was happening across Rwanda – they turned to three white Canadians (two officers and a Red Cross worker) to interpret. This was what I found most concerning about the film – we don’t ask Rwandans themselves to interpret (politically) the violence. Implied in this pattern is the suggestion that only these outsiders have the requisite distance to objectively bear witness on the entire genocide. This is problematic for any number of reasons.

Thinking about this, I was reminded of some research on Vietnam War film documentaries that incorporate interviews. When the film-makers wanted to know what it was like being “over there” – they asked ordinary American soldiers. But when they wanted to know “why” – they asked the generals.

I could go on, but enough rambling. I wanted to document my thoughts in base camp as we hope to make this virtual project space an archive of not only our activities but our thoughts.

All the best, Steve