Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide. Scott Straus and Robert Lyons. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2006. 192 pp.
The genocide in Rwanda was unparalleled in its transparency, expediency and brutal intimacy. Neighbors slaughtered neighbors, most often with machetes. As a result, Rwanda’s "ordinary killers" have increasingly become the subject of both popular and critical attention: Raoul Peck’s film "Sometimes in April", B.B. Diop’s novel Murambi: A Book of Bones, J.P. Stassen’s graphic novel Deogratias, Jean Hatzfeld’s testimonial collection Machete Season or Yolande Mukagasana’s interview/ photography collection Les Blessures du Silence. In their glossy coffee-table book, Straus and Lyons capitalize on the fascination with mass murderers, while aiming to offer a deeper, more personal and realistic perspective about Hutu killers, culled from their field research in Rwandan prisons in 1998-2002. Straus, a former journalist turned political scientist, concomitantly published The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda stemming from this research. Photographer Robert Lyons previously published the collection Another Africa, which included text by Chinua Achebe.
This volume consists of 60 pages of interview excerpts with incarcerated Rwandan perpetrators, and a section of 50 black and white photographs portraits of Rwandan killers, victims, witnesses and judges. However, the interviews do not correspond to the photographs, as this collection pulls together two disparate projects. As such, this "representational experiment" (p.16) aims to create a series of "accidental encounters that allow readers to confront the genocide in unforeseeable ways." (p.17) As Straus explains, "the book does not make sense of this raw material but allows readers to make their own discoveries." (p.14) To provide some cohesion and context, the primary material is complemented with a short reflection by photographer Lyons, as well as a brief introduction by Straus, which outlines his anthropological methodology and provides a succinct summary of the history of Rwanda.
In his introduction, Straus explains that this project was compiled as a rebuttal to stereotypical, sensationalist media representations of Africa, yet ironically, in this lavish, glossy tome, with heavy virgin paper and wide margins, the reader also consumes morsels of these killers’ chilling experience, as well as aestheticized portraits of Rwandans on display. Lyons’ photographs manifestly counter clichéd images about Rwanda, such as bloated bodies floating in rivers or piles of corpses on roadsides. Moreover, Lyons’ set-up encourages viewers to interact with the Rwandans on display. Since the portraits are without caption, as readers examine the head-shots of Rwandans set against a neutral background, they must discern if this individual is a perpetrator, victim or witness, by reading their facial expression and posture. If they flip to the back of the book, their suspicions are either confirmed or challenged. In so doing, Lyons manifestly seeks to emphasize that physically, killers are "ordinary people." Yet subtly and disconcertingly perhaps, this line-up and mug-shot exercise may also serve to reaffirm the racist stereotype that any Black person could be a threat.
Certainly, the most fascinating part of this collection are Straus’ interviews with these "pedestrian killers" (p.17). As in his critical study, Straus dismisses the genocidal masterminds, the Rwandan elite or intelligentsia, and focuses on mob mentality: "ordinary, unremarkable" folks "swept up in a tide of unanticipated violence" (p.24). In 2002, Straus interviewed 230 imprisoned local killers from various regions in Rwanda, this collection contains excerpts from 23 of these interviews, some 2% of his material (p.20). All of Straus’ interviewees are male Hutu prisoners who have been either convicted or tried. As such, Straus’ explains, they have less incentive to lie. However, throughout the interviews, readers are exposed to a "mix of truth, self-interested reconstructed memory, fantasy, exaggeration, distortion, speculation and lies," as they attempt to unravel the complex and unfathomable question – why? (p.20). Why did these ordinary people become killers?
The killers’ testimonies resist any simple or uniform explanations for the genocide, but rather confirm a multiplicity of scholarly theories (eg. Straus, Prunier, Des Forges, Uvin, Mikondo), including the mob effect, pillaging, obedience to authorities, economics, hate propaganda, personal gain and individual rivalries. Interestingly, the oft-cited roles of the West and the radio RTML are downplayed in these testimonies, as are, manifestly, the inculpatory issue of ethnic divisionism and remorse: all of the subjects claim they had no issues with their Tutsi neighbors, and demonstrate shame and guilt for their actions. All claim to have killed fewer than 10 people, most often admitting to only one or two murders. Most of the accounts are structured in the same way: they typically start with the catalyst for the genocide – the plane crash of president Habiyarimana – and detail the first few days of the genocide. A select few mention previous pogroms of the Tutsi (1959, 1963, 1973) or in the preparatory genocidal campaign in the 1990s. Notably, in contrast with Hatzfeld’s testimonies, very few of the killers describe the killings as "work." Rather they deploy military vocabulary: the Tutsi were "enemies"; they were at "war"; they had to "defend their country." Since these interviews were collected before the release of some 60 000 prisoners after 2002, aside a brief aside there is nothing in this text about gacaca or the return of these killers to their communities. (p.23).
While interested readers will certainly appreciate this volume, sedulous scholars may be disappointed by its brevity, its haphazard assemblage or its marketing aesthetics. Those wishing to learn more are encouraged to read Mukagasana or Hatzfeld. With its photographs and interviews, this compilation closely resembles Mukagasana’s Blessures du silence, a relatively unknown text, because it has not been translated from French. Yet Mukagasana, herself a Tutsi survivor, interviews killers, survivors and witnesses alike. By contrast, Straus and Lyons’ collection reflects the Western, outsider perspective; the interviews are translated thrice (Kinyarwanda, French, English) and we learn nothing about the Rwandan translator’s subject position. Hatzfeld’s impressive Machete Season is an even more detailed killer testimonial collection, and is complemented by survivor interviews (Life Laid Bare) and by interviews by both killers and survivors after the release of prisoners (
Madelaine Hron Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada