Who’s Responsible for the 1994 Rwandan Genocide?

In Apologetic rhetoric, Rwanda on April 7, 2010 at 2:40 pm

To understand how apologetic exchanges in Rwanda’s gacaca trials negotiate and situate responsibility for the 1994 Tutsi genocide, I conducted a Fantasy Theme Analysis of the kategoria (accusations) and apologia (apologetic rhetoric) in 11 gacaca trial transcripts, totaling 371 pages. In the following paragraphs, I discuss what I found—and why it matters.


Overall, I found evidence of two rhetorical visions that shed light on the symbolic realities constructed by Rwandans to explain the genocide of 1994 and who is responsible for it.

The first vision stresses the collective responsibility for the genocide and human rights violations that took place. In doing so, this vision emphasizes the responsibility of larger groups such as the government, the Interahamwe (or Hutu militia), and even the Rwanda Patriotic Front (that is, the Tutsi military group that fought the government in a civil war prior to the genocide and then swept through the country to end the atrocities). Conversely, a second rhetorical vision portrays the genocide and human rights violations as individual acts committed by specific members of the society.

In essence, the two visions represent competing visions of responsibility: one providing a macro, top-down vision of the national events and systemic roots of the genocide, while the other provides a micro, bottom-up vision of the crimes and the impact of genocide.

Two important subjects of agreement between the visions, however, are that both acknowledge the atrocities of the genocide and portray the people/groups responsible for the genocide as villains. In that sense, both visions place the horrific crimes of the 1994 genocide on the public record and rebuke those events as immoral and unjust.


These competing rhetorical visions consist of a number of distinct characteristics that shape how responsibility for the genocide are perpetuated in the gacaca courts.

Two Competing Rhetorical Visions (Click to Enlarge)

I explore these aspects more in the sections below—including the characteristics, dramatis personae, plotlines, theme categories, master analogues, and values that differ between the visions. I conclude this analysis with a discussion of the broader implications of these visions.

Macro and micro visions of genocide and responsibility

Despite the fact that each gacaca court tries only the genocide crimes and human rights violations committed in its local community, a strong macro vision of the genocide is evident in the trial exchanges.

One of the major characteristics of this macro vision is that it focuses attention beyond the crimes committed in a particular local community and, in some cases, beyond the October 1, 1990 to December 31, 1994 timeframe that is under investigation by the gacaca system. For example, one perpetrator provided an account of his actions and the government’s actions dating back as far as 1959 and as late as 2002. In doing so, such testimonies focus attention on the systemic, historical roots of ethnic tension and crimes against humanity in Rwanda. Moreover, by extending the timeline beyond 1994, such testimonies typically include recent acts of repatriation that are in line with the values of harmony, acceptance of others, and even the defense of Rwanda against ongoing attacks by génocidaires outside Rwanda’s borders (for example, attacks by groups coming into Rwanda from the Congo). While this vision is not constructed exclusively by perpetrators on trial, the evidence suggests that the macro, top-down view is more commonly perpetuated by those individuals.

The micro vision of the genocide differs from the macro vision in its emphasis on local crimes, perpetrators, victims, and implications of the genocide. For example, one witness testified against a perpetrator who was on trial, saying: “This very man ordered that the people be gathered in sectors and cells be taken away to be killed” (emphasis added). In another example, after a perpetrator testified that he was part of a group that hit an old man with a club and “left him there,” a member of the audience interrupted and stated “You ought to say ‘We killed him’” (emphasis added). Two gacaca judges then challenged the perpetrator—one asked “You killed him?” followed by another asking “Or you left him alive?” The perpetrator answered by saying “I couldn’t have that feeling or sense to check whether that person is dead or not. They hit him with clubs, we thought that he was dead.” These exchanges demonstrate the micro vision’s focus on specific details regarding specific actions, victims, and perpetrators. This is in stark contrast to the generalities of the macro vision, which focus on vaguely defined perpetrators and actions.

Dramatis personae

Another characteristic that sets the macro vision apart from the micro are the differing dramatis personae in the two visions. The term dramatis personae refers to the heroic and villainous “characters that are given life within the drama (vision)” (Shields & Preston, 1985, p. 106). The term dramatis personae is used instead of characters to distinguish the qualities that are attributed to a character in the vision from the actual “qualities that may or may not be possessed” by a real person (Shields & Preston, 1985, p. 107).

I stated above that both visions focus on villains; however, I should point out that the villains in the macro vision consist of large groups that influenced national events—such as the Hutu-led government for instigating and sanctioning human rights violations of Tutsi dating back to the 1950s, the Interahamwe (or Hutu militia) for planning and conducting the genocide throughout the country, the Rwanda Patriotic Front for heightening tensions between Hutus and Tutsis by launching a civil war against the Hutu-led government prior to the genocide, vague villains such as the “enemies who shot down Habyarimana’s plane,” and even the foreign countries that refused to stop the genocide.

Three points are important in analyzing the dramatis personae of the macro vision:

First, they consist of large, abstract groups. In other words, they are recognizable names of groups, but they are vague or even unidentifiable in terms of individuals. For example, which members of the Hutu-led government instigated the attacks on Hutus? Who was a member of the Interahamwe? Who were the “enemies who shot down Habyarimana’s plane”? (To date, no conclusive evidence has been found to identify either the individuals or group that committed the act.)

The second important point is that by emphasizing the villainous roles of large, nationally influential groups, the macro vision constructs a reality in which leaders and planners of the genocide bear the major responsibility for the atrocity. The result of this emphasis is that it not only acknowledges the human right violations, but also the intentional design as well as the preventability of the genocide. As one perpetrator explicitly stated: “The genocide of the Tutsi was planned and executed…by the government of Rwanda” followed a few minutes later by “Yes, the genocide took place, but neither the UN nor foreign countries took appropriate measures to punish the perpetrators at that time.”

This leads to the third important point regarding the dramatis personae in the macro vision. By situating responsibility on the national leaders and planners as well as foreign countries, macroists construct the actual perpetrators as victims caught up in a national atrocity they could not control, as victims of false accusations in gacaca trials, and sometimes even as heroes. One accused perpetrator summed up the dramatis personae of victim and hero in his testimony by stating: “I did my best in a bad situation” followed later by “No single individual was attacked… under my command in the cathedral.”

The micro vision also emphasizes villainous personae; however, the villains in this vision are the specific individuals who performed genocide crimes and human rights violations. For example, one perpetrator accepted responsibility for a series of brutal attacks by stating “I participated in those crowd attacks.” He went on to name four other individuals—including their first and last names, the communities they are from, the specific roles they played in the attacks, the weapons used, and where the bodies of the victims were left. This testimony demonstrates the micro vision’s emphasis on individual community members as villains who conducted brutal attacks during the genocide. Interestingly, the micro vision does not include any heroes; the only other dramatis personae in this vision are the sub-characters of victims (community members who were killed during the genocide) and survivors (community members who were attacked or threatened but some how escaped death). These sub-characters are almost always positioned as passive participants—meaning they do not take active steps to influence the events, but are instead acted upon by the villains.


The plotline “provides the action of a rhetorical vision” (Cragan & Shields, 1992, p. 201) or, in simpler terms, describes “who is doing what, to whom, and how” in the vision (Shields & Preston, 1985, p. 107). Here again, the two visions differ dramatically. The macro vision’s plotline focuses on large nationally influential groups who manipulate and lead average citizens to violence against each other for ideological reasons using indirect means such as laws, military orders, combat training, and fear. This plotline can be described as collective and conspiratorial. The micro vision’s plotline, on the other hand, focuses on specific individuals of a community who attack and kill other members of that community for personal vengeance or hatred using hand-to-hand weapons such as clubs, machetes, and spears. This plotline is individual and vindictive.

Theme categories

Another area of divergence between the two visions is the type of theme evident in each. As I mentioned above, the themes in rhetorical visions can take three forms: (1) script themes that focus on the actions of the characters, (2) scenic themes that focus on the stage or setting in which the action occurred, or (3) actor themes that focus on the characters who perform the actions (Duffy, 1997). As I noted, the macro vision emphasized the actions of large nationally influential groups and the long history of hate, fear, and suspicion in Rwanda. As such, the macro vision puts forth a scenic theme that emphasizes the context and backdrop in which the genocide took place. In doing so, this theme minimizes the specific actors or acts of human rights violations that occurred. The micro vision, however, directs attention away from the historical context and instead puts forth a script theme that details the specific actions of genocide, including acts committed in attacks, what weapons were used, and what impact these crimes had on the people and community.

Master analogues

Rhetorical visions can be categorized in one of three competing master analogues that reflect the structure of reality (Cragan & Shields, 1992). The pragmatic master analogue values expediency, utility, and efficiency. A rhetorical vision based on a social master analogue focuses on trust, caring, and human relationships. Finally, the righteous master analogue differentiates between right and wrong, moral and immoral, just and unjust. Interestingly, both the macro and the micro visions are based on a righteous master analogue. They differ, however, in what they judge to be wrong or unjust. The macro vision’s righteous master analogue casts judgment on national leaders and ideological groups throughout the history of Rwanda (such as the Hutu-led government, the Interahamwe, and the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front) who instituted unjust policies or engaged in immoral wars that ultimately led to the genocide. In addition, macroists position inactivity by the United Nations and nations such as the United States as immoral. Like the macro vision, the micro vision reflects a righteous master analogue. Its righteousness, however, denounces the immoral acts of murder and violence committed during the genocide as well as the denial or partial denial of those acts in gacaca trial testimony.


In the end, both rhetorical visions demonstrate basic convictions that are reflected in their rhetorical constructions of the 1994 genocide. The macro, top-down vision values complexity, history, and hierarchical responsibility. While the micro vision also values responsibility, it emphasizes individual responsibility. Additionally, it values specificity over complexity.


Using Fantasy Theme Analysis, I have uncovered two rhetorical visions that reflect the symbolic realities of Rwandans regarding the 1994 genocide. As Bormann (1972) stated, rhetorical visions function as a lens through which members of the group view their world. But in the case of the gacaca trials, these visions do much more.

The accusations and apologies in gacaca trials are witnessed by judges, families of the victims and the broader community. They’re also recorded on film, trial transcripts, and an official Gacaca Jurisdiction document entitled “Record of Confession, Guilty Plea, Repentance and Apology.” In that sense, the dramatis personae, plotlines, theme categories, master analogues, and values of these competing rhetorical visions put the events of the 1994 genocide on the public record.

Two points of agreement that the rhetorical visions place on that public record are important to reiterate. First, both visions acknowledge that the genocide occurred. The macro vision acknowledges that the genocide was planned and carried out nationwide, while the micro vision records the individual brutal atrocities that took place in each community or village. In doing so, they place these aspects on the public record, making denial by opposing or future groups that much harder. Second, both visions value responsibility for the genocide. The macro vision places that responsibility on the national leaders and influential organizations, while the micro vision places responsibility for the genocide on the specific individuals who committed the atrocities in communities and villages throughout the country.

These aspects shape how the community—and ultimately the country—remembers the genocide, how responsibility is situated, and what the members of post-genocide Rwanda value as they move beyond the terrible events of 1994.

In other words, the rhetorical visions discussed above are not only symbolic constructions of reality, but they are also the basis for the collective memory of post-genocide Rwanda.

In areas torn apart by genocide and human rights violations, collective memory “invokes shared emotions and consciousness” that become important parts of the “healing, reconciliation, and reconstruction” (Chirwa, 2000, p. 111). An important element of collective memory, however, is collective forgetting. As Paul Connerton (1989) stated, “It is not because thoughts are similar that we evoke them; it is rather because the same group is interested in those memories, and is able to evoke them, that they are assembled together in our minds” (p. 37). This raises the question of “how collective are ‘collective memories’? Whose memories are they?” (Chirwa, 2000, p. 111).

Gacaca courts are only mandated to address crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity that occurred between October 1990 and December 1994, which is the time period immediately preceding and during the 1994 genocide. Moreover, gacaca courts do not address war crimes committed by the Rwanda Patriotic Front against Hutus during the civil war leading up to—or in the fighting to end—the genocide. In other words, by mandate, the testimonies and documents of the gacaca system provide a narrow view of history that “fail[s] to take into account the long history of human rights abuses in Rwanda in which both Hutus and Tutsis have been perpetrators and victims” (Sarkin, 2001, p. 161).

The result of this narrow view is that the accusations and apologies, as well as the rhetorical visions constructed in those exchanges, are equally narrowed. That is, crimes committed by the Tutsi government long before the Hutu government gained control—as well as opinions that the attacks against Tutsis were one part of a larger civil war—are not even included in these exchanges. The entire discourse is shaped by legal mandate, documentation, and cultural expectations to only include apologetic exchanges that acknowledge wrongdoing (and, as a result, place genocide on the public record) and provide the details of crimes committed during a specific time period (which, as a result, shapes the rhetorical visions and collective memory of that public record since the time period only includes crimes committed by a specific group).

This narrow focus may help explain why both the rhetorical visions identified in the apologetic exchanges explicitly acknowledge the genocide and value responsibility for the genocide—rather than refute the term “genocide” or deny that any one group or person should be held responsible.

Finally, the rhetorical visions above have implications on post-genocide Rwanda that go beyond placing the 1994 genocide on the public record and shaping the collective memory of Rwandans. That’s because, in constructing a rhetorical vision, members of a community essentially “build a shared identity” that differentiates them from outside groups and creates “a shared understanding of the group and what it means to be a member” (Duffy, 2003, p. 293). As Bormann (1985) explained,

People create a common consciousness by becoming aware that they are involved in an identifiable group and that their group differs in some important respects from other groups…. Once the sharing of fantasies identifies the group and distinguishes between insiders and outsiders, the members have clear rhetorical and symbolic boundaries to serve as guidelines…to force members out. (pp. 11-12)

In other words, the rhetorical visions described above partially determine the identity of post-genocide Rwanda. As a result, a person’s standing as a valued member of society hinges, in part, on whether that person subscribes to the rhetorical visions reflecting acknowledgment of and responsibility for the 1994 genocide.

  1. Exceptional piece!!!

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