September 19, 2016

Iconic Stories in the Aftermath of Genocide

Erin Jessee, University of Strathclyde

As oral historians, we often find ourselves drawn to uncovering the stories of ordinary people that are previously untold—at least in public—and which offer insights on historical events and actors that complicate the narratives that tend to circulate in more official settings. Yet as experts who’ve written on the symbiotic nature of collective and individual memory have noted, there are some stories that resonate so deeply with individuals that we incorporate and adapt them as part of our broader life histories, making them an integral part of our personal narratives.1 I’ve encountered this phenomenon repeatedly throughout my research in Rwanda, where in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide (in which an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 civilians, most of whom were members of the nation’s Tutsi minority population, were murdered by extremists affiliated with the Hutu majority population over approximately three months), certain narratives have taken on an “iconic” quality.2

The concept of the “iconic story” was first introduced by Linda Shopes who used it to encapsulate ‘concrete, specific accounts that “stand for” or sum up something the narrator reckons of particular historical importance’ that are ‘presented as unique or totemic events and are communicated with considerable emotional force.’3 To better express their personal importance, Sherna Berger Gluck later expanded this term to include any ‘anecdote that resonates so deeply that the narrator adopts it as her own.’4 In a forthcoming article with Memory Studies, I’ve highlighted four iconic stories that I encountered in Rwanda during fieldwork conducted since 2007 that were recounted by Rwandans from a range of ethnic, regional, political, economic, and social backgrounds. Of critical importance for analysis, the narrators who recited these iconic stories as part of their broader life histories often imbued them with subtle variations in their meaning and intent.

Considered individually, each iteration of these iconic stories was used by the narrators to promote personal political agendas, most frequently aimed at either legitimizing or discrediting the current controversial Rwandan government led by President Paul Kagame.5 However, taken together and in conversation with the narrators’ broader life histories and ethnographic data that surrounded my fieldwork in Rwanda at different points in time, probing the subtle variations between different narrators’ versions of the same iconic story revealed the ethnic and political tensions being negotiated by Rwandans in their everyday, post-genocide lives. It also made visible the ‘amplified silences’ that Rwandan negotiate on a daily basis to ensure they remain in good standing with the government.6 Indeed, I argue that such analysis is often a necessity in modern Rwanda—as well as in other post-conflict, authoritarian settings—given how difficult it can be for ordinary civilians to speak about the complexity of genocide and national history more generally amid concerns of government surveillance and interference, as well as persecution of those perceived to be political subversives. Failure to do so places the researcher at risk of naively reproducing the power dynamics in which they are embedded, for example.

1 See for example, Thomson, A (1994) Anzac memories: Living with the legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Ryan, L (2010) Memory, power, and resistance: The anatomy of a tripartite relationship. Memory Studies 4(2): 154-169; Shahzad, F (2012) Collective memories: a complex construction. Memory Studies 5(4): 378-391.
2 For more on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, see Des Forges A (1999) Leave none to tell the story: genocide in Rwanda. New York: Human Rights Watch; and Guichaoua, A (2015) From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda, 1990-1994. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
3 Shopes L (2002) What is oral history? History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web: 2-23. Available at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/ (accessed 30 July 2016), p.9.
4 Gluck SB (2013) Trust, betrayal, and ‘truths’: reflections on what we do/don’t say about our oral histories – and why. In Sheftel A and Zembrzycki S (eds) Oral history off the record: toward an ethnography of practice. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, p.12.
5 Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) are often heralded as the saviors of Rwanda for having halted the genocide. Since the genocide, the international community remains impressed by the high degree of political stability and the RPF’s commitment to rapid progress in education, health care, and national unity and reconciliation. However, several human rights organizations and experts have produced damaging reports detailing the lack of civil liberties and democratic reforms in Rwanda. The Kagame regime is criticized for muzzling genuine political opposition, tampering with election results, limiting freedom of expression and freedom of the press, harassing, torturing, and assassinating suspected political dissidents, and waging a proxy war in the DRC. Rwandans who speak out against the RPF’s human rights abuses risk government harassment, illegal detention and imprisonment, and in extreme cases, assassination, resulting in a growing political opposition in exile.
6 Jennie Burnet has introduced the term ‘amplified silence’ in reference to the ‘intense public silence’ that exists ‘surrounding RPF-perpetrated violence experienced by Rwandans of all ethnicities.’ Burnet J (2012) Genocide lives in us: women, memory and silence in Rwanda. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, p.111.


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  • Thank you for this informative and useful blog. I agree that historians have much to gain from looki… by Alexander Freund on this entry
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