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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Guest lecture tells story of Rwandan genocide

Students and faculty gathered in McCardell Bicentennial Hall this past week to listen to a lecture, “30 Years of Reconciliation in Rwanda: Alice’s story” by Colgate University Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Susan Thomson. Narrated through the life experiences of a single individual referred to anonymously as Alice, Thomson discussed the nation’s rebuilding following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Throughout the talk, Thomson aimed to address the question of who reconciliation processes have served since the genocide. After the talk, student feedback centered on criticism of the narrative as a single story, which some felt left out critical historical context. 

The event was organized by Academic Coordinator Heidi Sullivan and John Spencer Professor of African Studies Jacob Tropp, and co-sponsored by the Rohatyn Center for Global Studies and the History, Political Science, African Studies and Anthropology departments. 

Tropp described the collaborative process of coming up with the idea for holding the lecture. 

“Back in the fall, a number of us faculty who research and teach about Africa got together and discussed ideas for organizing a public event this spring on an African topic that would be of wide community interest,” Tropp wrote in an email to The Campus. “We eventually decided that it would be great to connect with the fact that this spring is the 30th anniversary of a major event in African and global history — the Rwandan genocide.”

Prior to becoming a professor, Thomson was trained as a human rights lawyer and political scientist. She later served as a Human Rights Program Officer in the justice sector for the United Nations Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda, spending time in the region studying how individuals live through and rebuild after violence. 

The talk focused on the single story of Alice, the daughter to a Hutu dad and Tutsi mom from a wealthy, land-owning lineage. Alice was 10 years old when the genocide began, and due to her family’s status, was able to flee. 

The Hutu and Tutsi are the two major ethnic groups in Rwanda. During the genocide in the spring of 1994, extremist elements of the majority Hutu population planned to kill the minority Tutsi population and anyone who opposed their planned violence. 

Thomson began the lecture by recognizing that she was sharing important history through a single story, but defended it as an ethical choice. This decision later came into question, as students in the audience with connections to Rwanda had different experiences than those of Alice. 

In an interview with The Campus, a student with connections to Rwanda explained their belief that Thomson took advantage of Middlebury students’ disconnection to and lack of knowledge about Rwanda in just telling the story of Alice and her family. 

“She’s an academic, she’s invited to a school with people who, Rwanda is so small, nobody knows about Rwanda. All they know, if they know anything, is the genocide, and the hollywood movie with the hero,” the student told The Campus. 

The choice to narrate reconciliation through one family’s story left out contextual details that may have broadened student perspectives about a nuanced but horrific tragedy, the student added.

Thomson began by framing her talk around the question, “For whom has reconciliation worked since the 1994 genocide?” She explained that it has not worked for people like Alice and her family, which she stated she would prove over the course of the lecture. 

Walking the audience through a history of the Rwandan Civil War, genocide and the different historical periods that led the country to where it is today, Thomson addressed failing peace accords, a power vacuum and a systematic approach to genocide that left upwards of 500,000 dead across a 100-day period. 

Thomson told the story of a Tutsi man who asked his Hutu neighbor to kill him to avoid being separated from his land. According to Thomson, the man claimed he wanted to die on his property

“You hear of civilians actually being brought into the violence, in these kill or be killed situations,” she told the audience.

Returning to the story of Alice and her family upon which Thomson framed the lecture, she described how Alice’s family fled to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where they lived in refugee camps until they were forcibly returned to Rwanda in 1997. 

Upon returning home, Alice’s Hutu father was accused of genocide ideology — the belief that someone has contributed to a genocide —  a crime Alice was later accused of in 2014. Alice then moved to Cape Town, South Africa, to avoid the charges leveled against her.

According to Thomson, the Rwandan government became increasingly authoritarian following the genocide, and dissenting political speech was outlawed.

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“There was a belief by this time that anyone who was Hutu had obviously committed acts of genocide, and it goes along with this imposed narrative in the ways that individuals became beholden to the narrative, in part because of Rwandan political culture,” Thomson explained. 

Thomson spent a large portion of the lecture focused on the failings of the Rwandan government, discussing their limited infrastructure and a consolidation of authoritarian control that attempted to create “model citizens.” While criticizing the government’s handling of the topic of ethnicity as erasure, Thomson described the narratives established by the government like laws restricting how genocide and relevant ethnicities are talked about.  

Some student audience members pushed back on Thomson’s presentation of the story, mentioning other factors that contributed to the genocide. The students expressed that Thomson neglected to emphasize the role Belgian colonialism played in forming the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic categories, and the work done by individual Rwandans to rebuild their society. 

“You have to understand that Rwandans have actually really done a lot of work to get where they are,” one student shared. 

Students also criticized the use of a single narrative perspective, as some audience members said she did not fully acknowledge how choosing the story of a wealthy subject from a small, elite social class would not best represent how reconciliation efforts in Rwanda have affected the everyday citizen. 

Editors’ note: News Editor Ellie Trinkle ’26 contributed reporting.