From neighbors to killers: Book explores the personal horror of Rwanda's genocide

March 21, 2006

Scott Straus became a foreign correspondent stationed in central Africa in 1995, one year after one of the most unspeakable crimes in modern history: A swift genocide campaign in Rwanda that killed a half-million people.

Straus says what he saw as a journalist left him with many questions about how and why genocide happens. Straus later returned to Rwanda in 2002 as a graduate student and conducted scores of interviews exploring how such a mass crime became possible.

The first of what will be two books based on those efforts - "Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide" - was published this month by Zone Books; the second book will be available in fall 2006.

In 2002, Straus interviewed 230 perpetrators who were serving out sentences for genocide crimes. "Intimate Enemy" combines transcripts of some of the most revealing interviews Straus conducted with a series of personal photo portraits by photojournalist Robert Lyons.

The book deals head-on with one of the most disturbing aspects of the genocide - that it was carried out, in essence, by everyday people, who quickly transformed from neighbors to killers.

"One of the things that's very disarming about studying perpetrators is you go in expecting to find a monster, people who are not like us," says Straus, now a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

What he found was quite the opposite. The perpetrators looked like a composite sketch of Rwanda's adult population - farmers, school teachers, fishermen and carpenters. Straus teaches a comparative course on genocide at UW-Madison, and he says the mainstream, "intimate" nature of Rwanda's violence was more pronounced than other historical cases.

Both a civil war and the April 1994 assassination of Rwanda's president, Juvenal Habyarimana, precipitated the wave of violence between the majority Hutus and the Tutsis, an ethnic minority that made up about 15 percent of the population. The genocide began as a formal response by the Hutu-controlled government and military, but soon spread into manhunts and killing sprees of civilians.

In the end it became "a true extermination campaign," which killed 75 percent of the Tutsi population. The war also created millions of refugees and overwhelmed the nation's justice system, which by 1996 had more than 100,000 detainees held on genocide-related charges.

"The violence was also very public," he says. "Unlike the gas chambers during the later stages of the Holocaust, this was right out in the streets. People would flee to churches and schools for safety, and those places would become massacre sites."

"This book is an exploration of how 'normal citizens' can take part in an extermination of people who were once their neighbors," Straus says.

Straus deliberately chose convicted prisoners who had confessed to their crimes, since they were more likely to open up without fear of implicating themselves. Straus found a range of responses. Some were genuinely remorseful about what they had done, but many others deflected blame.

"A lot of the time it was expressed as, 'I'm here to serve out a jail sentence. I'm just a low-level guy and those responsible are the leaders of our government. I didn't want this to happen.' "

In his academic studies of genocides, including the Holocaust, Armenia and Cambodia, Straus says there are frequently some common denominators. They are usually in countries with a history of ethnic nationalism, a sense that the nation belongs to one ethnic group and not to others. They also occur during times of heightened existential threat - during a war or period of extreme economic hardship.

Rwanda had all those things, Straus says. But the country also has a very tightly structured political system, from the national to the local level. It has a long history of "mass mobilization of the population" for a variety of causes. That matrix of organization fueled the flames of violence.

"Once the government told people it was their duty to go out and attack neighbors, it happened very quickly," Straus says. "It kind of snowballed. People committed violence and wanted others to do the same thing, and a kind of group conformity swept through."

Straus' second book on the topic, which will be published by Cornell University Press, will take a more scholarly analysis of the genocide. "Intimate Enemy" presents words and images in an unmediated, documentary fashion, letting readers "see through their words how perpetrators of genocide rationalize and justify what they did."

What went wrong in Rwanda is as relevant today as 1994, Straus says, given what is happening in the Darfur region of Sudan, where a systematic ethnic cleansing is continuing. "How many times have we heard the phrase, 'Never again?'" asks Straus. "We are still very far away from having a coherent response to these problems."

For decades, the United Nations and other international groups have nominally worked to prevent large-scale violations of human rights, with mixed results. Progress has been made since Rwanda, Straus says. For example, President Bush very early in the Sudan conflict labeled what was happening in Darfur a genocide. "It took a lot of courage to do that." On the other hand, he says, the violence in Sudan continues.

"These are not simple issues," Straus says. "These are the kinds of events that shock the conscience of humankind, but so far we have proven that we are not willing or capable of stopping them."
- Brian Mattmiller, (608) 262-0930,

PHOTO EDITORS: A high-resolution image is available for downloading at

EDITOR'S NOTE: Straus is organizing a March 31 national conference about the concept of "humanitarian intervention," or using military force to stop genocide and other mass violations of human rights. The event is free and open to the public. Read more at

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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