Accepted paper:

How "ethnicity" mattered during the Rwandan genocide: understanding the participation in and intimacy of the violence


Lyndsay McLean (University of Sussex)

Paper short abstract:

This paper re-considers how “ethnicity” mattered during the Rwandan genocide. It argues that the specific way the categories “Hutu” and “Tutsi” were constructed in Rwanda can help to explain the significant civilian participation in the violence, as well as its intimate and sometimes brutal nature.

Paper long abstract:

This paper engages with longstanding debates about the role of "ethnicity" in the production of "ethnic" violence by re-considering how ethnicity mattered during the Rwandan genocide. Although the genocide resulted from a complex culmination of factors, it argues that the specific way the categories "Hutu" and "Tutsi" were constructed over time in Rwanda was significant and can help to explain some of the more troubling aspects of the genocide - in particular the significant levels of civilian participation in the violence, the killing of social intimates, and the brutality of some of the killing. Drawing on a range of theoretical and comparative material, the paper highlights five ways in which ethnicity mattered during the Rwanda genocide. Firstly, the definition of the enemy as "ethnic" was significant given the imprecise, malleable meanings of "ethnicity". Secondly, the genocidal propaganda reworked various pre-existing, potent "ethnic" myths and narratives about the characteristics of and differences between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. Thirdly, the "ethnic" discourse used in the lead up to and during the genocide specifically invoked fear and a sense of victimhood among the Hutu population. Fourthly, the precise nature of the "ethnic" stereotypes deployed mattered- especially the notion of accomplices (ibyitso) that had infiltrated Rwanda society that created paranoia. Finally, there was a critical gap between the "conceptual" Tutsi constructed through "ethnic" discourse and the "concrete" Tutsis of people's everyday social words, which intensified the sense of uncertainty and made the killing of social intimates both thinkable and doable.

panel P074
The massacre and its intimacy: violence among neighbors