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  • Writer's pictureSas Miller

When Victims Become Perpetrators: Lessons for Genocide Education and Prevention

In Canada, the month of April is observed as Genocide Awareness, Education, Condemnation and Prevention Month. This April marks the 30th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where more than one million mostly Tutsi Rwandans were systematically killed by their Hutu countrymen. 

Settler-Native Paradigm

In light of this anniversary and the ongoing genocide in Gaza, Mahmood Mamdani’s book, When Vicitims Become Perpetrators: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, is a valuable resource in providing a historical background for understanding the political, identity, and economic forces that propel genocides.

In framing the context for Rwanda, Mamdani first lays out the settler-native paradigm that was created by colonialism. The carving up of nation states by European powers during the scramble for Africa in the 1870s, created new political identities in which persons of the white race and a European cultural background were at the top of the social hierarchy. Non-white persons were separated into ethno-racial groups, and those who were indigenous to the land within state boundaries before colonisation, thus creating tensions within native populations.

The colonial state considered indigenous all those who were resident on the territory it seized at the time of colonisation, and only those. Anyone who came after was treated as a stranger: if they were indigenous to Africa, they were racially branded as “native” but ethnically as strangers;  if they were from outside Africa, they were considered nonnative in race but - and this is the important point - were not ascribed an ethnic identity in law… (Mamdani, pg 58)

The reshaping of political identities based on ethno-racial groups, and European ideology of the Tutsi being the more superior of the local groups because of their distinctive “foreign” features, created a caste system in Rwanda that was akin to the “house slave” vs. “field slave” dynamic seen in North-American chattel slavery. It was a factor in why post independence, long simmering Hutu resentment made “the unthinkable thinkable,” and resulted in large swaths of the Hutu population being willing to massacre their Tutsi neighbours.

The horror of colonialism led to two types of genocidal impulses. The first was the genocide of the native by the settler. It became a reality where the violence of colonial pacification took on extreme proportions. The second was the native impulse to eliminate the settler. […] More of a culmination of anticolonial resistance than a direct assault on life and freedom, this violence of victims-turned-perpetrators always provoked a greater moral ambiguity than did the settlers’ violence. (Mamdani, pg 35)

Post Colonial Legacy

Mahmood Mamdani himself is of Indian ancestry and was born in Uganda. Mamdani and his family were some of the 80,000 Ugandans of Asian descent who fled the country in 1972 after Idi Amin came to power. Amin was a former officer in the African ranks of the British Colonial Army who became President, and oversaw the killing of over 300,000 Ugandans during his presidency. An episode of the podcast Behind the Bastards examining Amin’s life, provides an excellent overview of post colonial legacies of countries such as Britain, Belgium, Germany and France:

  • African leaders like Amin had often been trained by, and served as officers with colonial militaries, pitting natives against natives. 

  • The designation of country boundaries was based on European economic interests, without regard for local cultural, tribal or ethnic considerations.

  • The deliberate undermining of formal and political education meant many colonies were not prepared to be self-governing post independence, which led to corruption and civil war in many states.

Markets for Conflict

It’s no coincidence that the countries with active conflicts are some of the most resource rich in the world, with government and non-governmental forces fighting for control and rights to sell resources to the western world, at the expense of their citizenry.

  • Palestine: natural gas, arable land

  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: cobalt which is primarily used in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries for electronics

  • Sudan: gold, iron, and uranium which is used for nuclear power

  • Haiti: oil, gold, coffee, and copper which is used in the manufacture electrical cables and appliances

Remembrance & Education

To commemorate the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations is hosting events under the theme of “Remember. Unite. Renew.” These events aim to honour the victims and survivors, while also focusing on Rwandan youth growing up in the aftermath, and ways to counter hate speech which can foment future conflicts. A list of activities can be viewed here.

But is this enough? Can remembrance replace reparations for the part colonizing countries played in the destruction caused in these war-torn countries?

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