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The Humanity Of Evil: Interviewing Genocide Perpetrators

By Kjell Anderson

I first encountered genocide perpetrators in Rwanda in 2007.  I was working for a local NGO that assisted victims of sexual violence and torture.

Most of the people who visited us for psychological counselling were survivors of the Rwandan genocide.  They sat in our waiting room, arms clasped tightly in their laps. I would nod respectfully or offer a few words of greeting in Kinyarwanda.  My memory has rendered most of them shapeless, but one face stays with me still.

“Josephine” was a slight woman in her thirties, with close-cropped hair, and a broad smile.  I would pass her often with a mwaramutse (“good morning”) but she never responded.  In fact, she had not spoken since being raped during the genocide, thirteen years earlier.  Her mutism wasn’t a physical disability; rather it was a psychological response to the trauma she had experienced.  She struggled anxiously to speak with me, her lips moving, almost forming sounds, but her words died before they left her mouth.  I was haunted by my encounters with her, and wondered what kind of person would harm another so profoundly?

Several years later I returned to the green hills of Rwanda.  I spent much of my time in crowded buses, then on motorbikes lurching down dirt tracks to visit remote prison camps, and urban prisons to interview perpetrators.  I adjusted surprisingly quickly to this gruelling life with its twelve-hour days, isolation, and singular focus on listening to stories about murder, torture, and rape.  I wanted to understand why they did it.

My first interview was in “1930” – Kigali Central Prison – a crumbling brick fortress settled in the dust of a bustling neighbourhood in Kigali.  After presenting my credentials to a skeptical guard I made my way to the visitor area to await the prisoners I had selected to interview.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the diminutive figure who shuffled into the room on green plastic sandals wasn’t it…

“Ignace” regards me cautiously as I slide an informed consent form across the wooden table.  His eyebrows knit as he squints at the paper covered with bullet points, email addresses, and officious stamps.  I turn to my interpreter Kassim: “just explain to him that it’s his choice.  He doesn’t have to do this, and he can leave at any time.”   Kassim nods as I place my recorder on the table.

And so, we begin, slowly.  I thank him for meeting me and begin with basic biographical details.  Like most Rwandans he was a farmer in 1994.  He didn’t think much about politics.   He was a Hutu, but he had Tutsi friends.

I am biding my time.  The conversation is friendly, but I sense his hesitation.  He’s not quite sure what to make of me.  “Before the genocide [before everything changed] would you have had any objection to your daughter marrying a Tutsi?”  He shakes his head.  And yet I know that he was convicted for killing Tutsis at a roadblock.

Sitting in that small grey room with its crumbling plaster, I wonder what he is thinking?  I want to ask him questions about murder, I want to know “What did you do, Ignace? What did it feel like to kill?”  This is why I’m here, but it feels unfair and impolite.  We ease into it bit by bit before I ask him “how did you become involved in the killing?”

He answers cautiously, wringing his hands.  He was drunk, his friend came to his house, and so he went with the Interahamwe.  He didn’t have a choice.  I’m waiting for the grand declarations of genocidal ideology – what he’s said so far is all so mundane.  How could the ending of a life, or the torture that rendered Josephine permanently speechless be the product of moral lassitude?

The next time I meet Ignace is on the pages of my notes, the rain bleeding down my office window in Ireland, as I try to make sense of everything I had heard.  Living in Galway I sometimes felt like living on the bow of a ship – on stormy days the waves would roll right across the road, and my windows would be caked in sand.  Flipping through my battered notes I reach another interview in Cambodia.  I remember being lulled by the sound of cows there, and the sight of a former Khmer Rouge executioner bouncing a baby on his knee all the while disclaiming any knowledge of killings.  It brought to mind Hannah Arendt’s much used (and abused) phrase “the banality of evil.”

But the phrase “the banality of evil” is really a critique of metaphysical and pathological explanations for evil, rather than an explanation for perpetration.  The more useful, albeit unsatisfying, explanation is that it’s complicated.  Why should we assume that perpetrators are different than we are?  None of our actions are singularly motivated, and neither are those of perpetrators.  Perhaps there is some comfort that comes from believing perpetrators are nothing like us.  People like us don’t do things like that.  And yet we do.  I feel safe speaking to people like Ignace precisely because he isn’t a monster, even though he’s a man who did monstrous things.

My book Perpetrating Genocide argues that genocide perpetration is best explained as a personal response to the moral context.  In other words, perpetrators align themselves with power and peers, often in ways that seem to advance their own interests.  As one Rwandan perpetrator told me: “If you saw your friend killing people, you also felt you had to get in front…Sort of like a game. Nobody understood the consequences, until later.”

Perpetrators and perpetration are not always banal, but they are recognizable and grounded in our social existence.  The humanity of evil is something that I recognize, but banality doesn’t really get at the consequences of killing.

Interviewing perpetrators about crimes they committed years before is often an oddly detached experience.  While it is true that the crimes themselves are atrocious, perpetrators usually speak in a disconnected manner, dropping the personal pronoun (the “I”), and minimizing their own role.  It often seems that they struggle to explain their actions to themselves.  Even while they justify their murders in terms of constrained options or a misapprehension of the situation, they also emphasize their personal transformation since the genocide.  They had no choice, but they are much better people now; redemption offers a path to self-acceptance.

They argue that the version of them that committed genocide was misguided, swept away by a tide of madness, or possessed by Satan.  These denials echo popular perceptions of genocide as an incomprehensible evil.

But the evil in Rwanda was more human than supernatural.  I can feel it in Ignace’s shame.

Ignace and I are both relieved when it’s over. We smile as we shake hands.  As I step back onto the street I wonder which of the people I see was a perpetrator, or a victim, thirteen years before.

Kjell Anderson is an affiliated research fellow at the Centre for International Criminal Justice of the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, and the author of Perpetrating Genocide: A Criminological Account (Routledge 2018). 

Photo: Trocaire/Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/trocaire/13690977775/


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