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How do Individuals Live Together After Mass Violence?

The 1990s Rwandan Civil War, which was fought between the government of Rwanda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), settled into an uneasy peace in 1993. Following a power vacuum caused by the assassination of President Habyarimana on April 6th, 1994, Hutu extremists led the systematic killing of Tutsi and moderate Hutu Rwandans. The RPF restarted its own offensive and was eventually able to seize control of the country, installing the current government for the republic. An estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 individuals were killed during the 100-day genocide. In the years that followed, reprisal and insurgent attacks continued within and just across the borders of the land-locked nation. That prolonged insecurity caused the internal displacement, mass exodus, and mass return of over 2.7 million individuals. With a legacy of violence so deep and pervasive, what does it mean to build peace and community?

Delia Wendel, Assistant Professor of International Development and Urban Planning, focuses her research on how individuals come together and live in small communities, despite their histories of violence. She is particularly interested in what it means to build peace and how we collectively define and shape peace through the built environment. Wendel is collaborating with 36 villages in Rwanda, to better understand how individuals negotiate interpersonal trust, national belonging, and memories of violence in new communities. Her research in Rwanda will form the basis of two new books, the first of which is the forthcoming Rwanda’s Genocide Heritage, which focuses on the first genocide memorials in the country and the labor, ethics, and politics of collective memory that motivated the memorials.

As an urban planner, architect, historian, and cultural geographer, what drew you to Rwanda to study communities recovering and rebuilding after the genocide?

Rwanda is a beautiful place. It is also, like many other places, socio-politically complex and rich in its cultural history. It is a land of steep hills and lush valleys; of potato farming in the north and banana plantations in the south. It is also the most densely populated country in Africa. As a result, land shortages are all the more acute for the majority rural population who rely on subsistence farming and share relatively scarce land.

banana grove, RwandaFig.1 - A view of a banana grove on the hill opposite a homestead in southwest Rwanda. (Wendel, 2013)

In Rwanda, violence took place in the spaces of everyday life; homes, churches, schools, and farming fields across the country. As a result, quotidian spaces are widely acknowledged as critical to post-genocide recovery—as a matter of where that violence occurred, how the RPF government reestablished order and governance after the genocide, and in terms of the lived experiences of Rwandans for whom land is livelihood and also holds memories and grounds one’s sense of self.

My work in Rwanda is both a consequence of my deep appreciation for the country’s cultural geography and a simple question: how do people live together after mass violence? I take this as both a social and a spatial question: how, quite literally, do neighbors live side by side and reestablish trust in one another and what are their expectations of their new communities? How do those places of community shape or burden reconciliation processes? What does peace look like as a socio-spatial endeavor?

Houses in central and northeastern RwandaFig.2 - A house in northeastern Rwanda decorated to “speak” to neighbors of residents’ desires for a prosperous and communal life. (Wendel, 2013)

My research operates at two different scales to try to approximate answers to these questions. At the national level, I’ve been interested in how the Rwandan government employs architecture and planning to define and build peace. I follow four types of spaces that operate in this regard: genocide memorials (places of memory), rural planning (the creation of new villages), a domestic roof replacement program (a program to change the nation’s architectural aesthetic), and a radio soap opera that has created an imagined place of conflict and peace to make connections to listeners’ lives. I follow these four programs at the national scale to understand why built and imagined environments are so central to Rwanda’s peacebuilding. I also follow these programs at the scale of local communities to recognize that previous forms of violence have significantly affected everyday spaces and social relations.

typical habitat pattern contrastFig.3 - Typical settlement patterns before and after the 1994 genocide: (left) pre-1994 typical habitat with homes loosely oriented to a dirt access road; and (right) post-1994 villages with houses uniformly spaced in grid plans. (GOR Ministry of Local Government).

I believe that it is only at the scale of individuals and the homes and communities where they live that we can understand the forms and challenges of actually existing peace. So a good deal of my research has been developed through qualitative social science research—in speaking with people, recording oral histories, and paying attention to the places where people live and the places that are important to them.

This ongoing research has been incredibly rich and sometimes challenging. All communities have stories to tell. I take very seriously my charge and privilege to tell some of these stories. Ultimately, it is my hope that these perspectives can make an impact on how peacebuilding in Rwanda is defined and developed—because it is at the local scale where individuals bear the cost and burden of building peace.

How do individuals’ lived conditions and physical experiences of conflict and peace relate to their more ethereal or less tangible experiences such as memory?

The violence that occurred in the 1990s in Rwanda exceeds direct comprehension. This is perhaps true of any violence; or indeed any series of traumas, whether direct or structural. What I mean by this is that although it is possible to determine the history of what occurred, how, and by whom, it is far less easy to describe the psychosocial impacts and legacies of that violence on diverse individuals and communities.

Partly in recognition of this, in 2004, an international NGO—advised by two American social psychologists and endorsed by the Rwandan government—partnered with Rwandan writers and actors to develop a radio soap opera. The radio program aimed to distribute tools for conflict mediation, violence prevention, and trauma recovery to the majority population living in the country. It did so along with stories on life and love in two villages, separated by a valley, set “somewhere” in Rwanda. Notably, the conflicts between these two hilltop villages do not refer to identity. Conflicts are, instead, over land: over farming access to the fertile valley that lays between them.

My research on the radio program follows my interests examining how these imagined spaces and situations form connections to listeners’ actual lives and approaches to coexistence. To explore this dimension of the program, I studied episode scripts and audio in the local language to understand how these places and characters were described and enlivened by the writers and actors. I also conducted ethnographic research in two villages that identified themselves as the real-life equivalent of the imagined places in the radio drama.

Fig.4 - A young boy holds a prized radio in south-central Rwanda. (Wendel, 2012)

In short, what I learned was that the radio drama was engaging what I call a “metonymic peacebuilding process”. Metonymy is a literary trope that emphasizes exchange or interaction by developing a relation of similarity between one thing and another. In the case of the radio drama, metonymy forms a bridge between existing Rwandan society and an analogous imagined society through conceptual exchanges in the minds of listeners. A world of peaceful coexistence is co-constituted by both imagined and actual semantic worlds—by the radio drama and the diverse lived experiences of Rwandans. At these intersections, peace does not exist a priori. It is instead approximated by metonymic exchanges that require both displacement -- transference of the radio drama narratives to reality -- and emplacement -- seeing oneself in the lives of imagined others. Spaces structure these exchanges. In the fictional narratives, archetypal characters are associated with specific hill communities, conflicts develop from land-based relations, and peace is ritualized in spatial practices. Through processes of displacement and emplacement, listeners and characters alike build worlds that constantly shift in their constellation of references to fictive and real contexts.

The radio drama’s spaces and those of the rural residents that I interviewed can therefore be described as liminal: they operate at the threshold of the imagined and the actual, to imagine new perspectives on the past and future and recast real relationships between self and community. The imagined is incomplete because it needs the consensus of actual individuals to legitimize the relevance of the radio drama’s peacebuilding tools. It also needs listeners to fill in gaps between what is and is not represented. The actual is incomplete because of the lingering effects of the genocide and the challenges that exist to peaceful coexistence. This very incompleteness––this mode of approximating and relating––characterizes the metonymic peacebuilding strategy activated by the radio drama.

When we discussed ‘Rwanda’s Genocide Heritage’, you discussed the era of testimony, and the rise of a new era, that of heritage. Could you elaborate?

My book puts forward the concept, “era of heritage,” to identify a late 20th century emergence of material and spatial practices that arose primarily from the Global South to expose otherwise hidden, egregious violence. The concept refers to diverse contexts—including Argentina, Cambodia, Chile, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and South Africa—confronted with struggles for independence from colonial powers, the consolidation and overthrow of regimes from communism to apartheid, instances of sectarian violence and civil war, and the widening gap between rich and poor. In response, opposition activists, artists, human rights workers, and forensic anthropologists mobilized to bring recognition to the unacknowledged, marginalized, and oppressed victims of foreign and state sponsored violence. They employed heritage practices to recover material memory from hidden histories in these places and acknowledge victims in public. An era of heritage is evident in the contemporary boom in human rights museums, memorials in places where violence occurred, the “forensic turn” to find and reveal the disappeared in exhumations, and transnational art practices of Global South artists like Boubacar Boris Diop, Alfredo Jaar, and Sebastiao Salgado. These forms of conflict heritage are distinct from the broader genre of cultural heritage sponsored by UNESCO.

Fig.5 - View of a new cemetery for genocide victims nearby Ntarama Church, October 1995 (Harvard Andover Theology Archive, United Universalist Church, Folder “BMS 16201/7”. Photographer: Shalini Nataraj)

In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, public exposure to witness accounts of such deeply personal experiences of violence carried a moral imperative to speak and take responsibility for the truth, impressing violent truths upon a world of listeners – creating an era of testimony. The era of heritage, reflects a shift from testimony as a medium and genre for bearing witness to material evidence of violence and to material representations and spaces of violence from the last quarter of the 20th century to today. There are similarities to the era of testimony in function and affect. In both conceptualizations, the argument is not that there is an exclusive form of memory in a historical period but rather a predominance or growing reliance. Relatedly, the conflict heritage ascendancy that my book describes is not in direct competition with or in any way seeking to contest the value of testimony as cultural practice or evidence.

The processes that produced genocide memorials, are currently omitted from contemporary analyses of Rwandan memorials. Including a broader theoretical framework to situate late 1990s Rwanda as an extreme representation of an ascendant era of heritage with political and ethical paradoxes embedded within early genocide heritage development, opens discussion of Rwandan landscapes of memory to the tensions between marginalized and authorized memory, human rights discourse and dehumanizing representational strategies, and the effects that Rwanda’s aftermath landscape has had on genocide historiography.

Header Image Credits: Delia Wendel (Takeo Kuwabara 2018) and photographic documentation of massacre sites and injuries sustained by the genocide, 1994-98. (“LK” Personal archive, Kigali)