Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Timothy Longman doesn’t go back to Rwanda anymore. Too much of his work has displeased the regime.
“I don’t feel safe to go,” says Longman, director of BU’s Institute on Culture, Religion, & World Affairs (CURA) and a former director of the Rwanda field office of Human Rights Watch. “It’s far too easy for someone to have a tragic car crash or eat something that was ‘spoiled.’ And I have been singled out by the foreign minister as someone she does not like.”
Longman’s new book, Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2017), continues his examination of that country’s long recovery from the genocidal tribal wars that killed more than 500,000 people in 1994. His earlier book Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2010) looks at how the leaders of Christian churches supported the genocide to secure their own power. Rwanda has been rightly praised for its recent successes, but its recovery has not been without cost, and life there now is extremely hard for most, says the Pardee School of Global Studies and College of Arts & Sciences professor of political science and international relations.
“I have friends, students, and researchers who were killed, and in some cases I know who killed them.”—Timothy Longman
As a University of Wisconsin–Madison grad student in political science, Longman planned to do his dissertation research in Congo. But in 1991, two weeks before he was to fly there, rioting targeting westerners broke out. A faculty member advised him to refocus, suggesting Rwanda as “a nice, peaceful little country.” Longman spent much of 1992 and 1993 in Rwanda, watching the country fall apart as it was wracked by extremist politics and fears of ethnic violence.
Different sources offer different numbers, but Longman believes that between 500,000 and 600,000 Rwandans were killed in the bloodbath that began in April 1994—in a country roughly the size of Vermont. Most of the dead were Tutsis massacred by Hutu, who also killed moderate Hutu. Neighbors killed neighbors in a firestorm of violence fueled by ethnic differences, but sparked and fanned by government propaganda. After months of violence, Tutsi rebels known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) overthrew the government and stopped the genocide. Longman returned there as director of the Rwanda field office of Human Rights Watch in 1995 and 1996, charged with investigating what had happened and witnessing the country’s struggles to move beyond the chaos. Much of what he learned is described in his new book.
“It helped to go back to Rwanda as a human rights worker instead of just a scholar, because I felt I was able to do something proactive,” Longman says. He helped to train international criminal tribunal researchers so they could hold people accountable, and he served as an expert witness in trials held in countries around the world to bring people accused in the genocide to justice.
“This is a subject I can’t just approach from an academic perspective,” he says. “I have friends, students, and researchers who were killed, and in some cases I know who killed them. One of the main organizers of the genocide in one of the communities where I worked extensively was someone I knew very well. I’ve eaten in his house; he used to give me rides to the capital. He ended up participating in the killing of some of my friends, and I have friends he raped. That reality is tough to live with, to know that normal, ordinary people, people you would have dinner with in their homes, are capable of such terrible things.”
While efforts to restore justice and rebuild the country often look successful on the surface, Longman says, most of the economic gains have benefited a small and politically connected elite. He made several return trips to continue his research, but eventually decided that it was unsafe. His books describe shades of gray in Rwanda’s postgenocide era, which some powerful Rwandans prefer to see as a black-and-white success story.
Longman acknowledges that the current government is very efficient, is successfully managing development, and has been relatively effective in its fight against corruption. But, he says, RPF leaders are working hard to keep tight reins on power. Ideas and initiatives are dictated from the top. And while the RPF government has done a great job of attracting international investment, economic inequality is widespread, and freedom of speech is treated as a luxury the country cannot afford.
“Prof. Longman does not offer simple or simplistic answers on Rwanda. Because there are none,” says Adil Najam, dean of the Pardee School. “His research stands out not only because it sheds new and nuanced light on transitional justice, but even more because it is undertaken with such care and thoughtfulness.”
“Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda is seminal,” says Fallou Ngom, a CAS professor of anthropology, who succeeded Longman last year as director of the African Studies Center. “The book has set a new standard of excellence for postgenocide studies not just in Africa, but everywhere.”
Longman doesn’t think there’s danger of a return to widespread violence. In fact, the government deliberately reminds people of the horrors of violence, with genocide memorials containing unburied remains, which unfortunately also makes life painful for survivors who wish to bury their dead. In one of the book’s passages, Longman recounts walking through a memorial as fragments of victims’ bones crunched under his shoes.
“But,” he says, “I also don’t think any kind of positive development in Rwanda is possible for the long term unless the government begins to allow its population to speak and to organize and to think for itself.”
Despite the challenges of working in Rwanda, Longman maintains a deep love for the country and its people. He says he has tried to move on to other countries for his research, but he keeps getting drawn back in.
“Given the terrible events that I have seen in Rwanda, the friends that I have lost, the difficult stories that I have heard, I feel a moral responsibility to bear witness,” he says. “I have Rwandan friends that I’ve known for more than 25 years, and I feel an obligation to continue to share their stories and to do what I can to contribute to Rwanda’s development. You can’t walk away from something like the Rwandan genocide. It will haunt me the rest of my life.”