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From Macro to Micro and Someplace in Between: Reflections on the Understanding Atrocities Conference

Posted by Ashley DeMartini
5 March 2014 - 11:57am

As a doctoral fledgling, Mount Royal’s recent “Understanding Atrocities” functioned to broaden, reinvigorate and deepen my thinking in and around the field of genocide studies. Most notably, the reflections of Dr. Andrea Smith and Dr. James Waller whose ideas have continued to reverberate with me. My own foray into genocide studies concerned the genocide memorials in Rwanda, specifically how the labour-intensive tasks performed by its employees created a context to interpret the human remains at the sites (DeMartini, 2012). Smith and Waller’s talks offered macro and micro inquiries into the processes of genocide, helping me to return and think freshly about the work I did during my Master’s fieldwork.

Smith’s discussions commanded the audience’s attention as she opened the conference as the first keynote speaker. Her intention was to rethink exclusivist notions of the prevailing definitions of genocide, challenge the assumption that genocide is an aberration, and question the capacity of human rights law to address genocide when some groups of people don’t even attain the status of a human being in their lifetimes (Smith, Keynote, February 19th, 2014). Smith expressed an interest in looking at genocide as both distinct and mutually relational. The lingering reflection that Smith’s discussion has left with me regards the ontological oppression of both black and native people on the North American continent.

The way Smith wove such complex socio-political historical processes within such a short time speaks to her incredible capacity as a leading thinker in the field. Smith contended that under the colonial system, both black and native people had the ontological origins of property, Africa being the property of Britain (Smith, Keynote, February 19th, 2014), and by extension, Native North Americans under the colonial rule of Britain and France. Within the capitalist system, which emerged from the colonial system of rule, Smith made the connection between the ontological oppression of both black and native people based upon the structures and systems of the settler capitalist state: that is, modern Canada and the United States.

I remember hearing this part of the keynote speech so clearly as well as a resounding “yes” inside my own head. In that moment, my thinking had been taken beyond anything I could have previously conceived of in prior contexts. Since Smith’s speech, I have been piecing together further fragments of reflections, which Smith touched upon during her speech.  I will share some of these now in an effort to return to how the conference has lent itself to deepening my own thinking around my work.

The ontological oppression of certain groups, which Smith speaks of, provides a conceptual framing as to how states come to perpetuate genocides on certain segments of their populations. For example, colonial attempts to explain the origins of people in Rwanda, such as the infamous and now discredited ‘Hamitic hypothesis’, racialized social groups and played an influential role in garnering anti-Tutsi sentiment (DeMartini, 2012). The colonialists used the ‘Hamitic’ hypothesis to legitimate the authority of the Tutsi monarchs over the rest of Rwanda’s population. The colonialists referred to these groups of ruling elites as the ‘Hamites’. Rwanda’s connection to the ‘Hamitic’ myth arose in 1863. English explorer, John H. Speke, asserted that the Ethiopian Galla-Hamities, who had conquered Bantu speakers in Ethiopia, migrated southwards and were the supposed ancestors of the Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi (Fischel, 2006, p. 4). The ‘Hamitic hypothesis’ served also to fuel anti-Tutsi hatred among the larger society of Hutu and to an extent the Twa, who more often than not, began to view the Tutsi as not only immigrants but also foreign-oppressors (Buckley-Zistel, 2006, p. 135). For example, in the years leading up to the genocide, politician León Mugesera, used the ‘Hamitic myth’ in a pro- Hutu Power rally. In this rally, he asked his supporters to send the Tutsi back to Ethiopia (Meierhenrich, 2009, p. 15). The example of Rwanda aims to demonstrate how genocide does not arise in a power vacuum, but rather, occurs often in contexts where socio-political and historical processes heavily shape actions many decades later.

Similar to what Smith observed with the status of being human, if the Tutsi under the rule of Hutu-power were made out to be not only foreign-oppressors, but also inyenzi (cockroaches), the possibility to commit acts of genocide becomes all the more palpable due to ongoing processes of dehumanization (both on the Hutu and Tutsi), which can be traced to the days of colonial rule. In this regard, genocide no longer seizes to be a collective act of violence on certain bodies but a system of violent governance that is predicated on the modern nation state. But what is the moment when an individual, a community, or a society chooses to turn on the other half? Whereas Smith provided an illuminating systemic snapshot of the processes of genocide, Waller chose a more focused look at ideas surrounding the perpetrators of genocide. Waller’s thinking concerns the “little things” that bring someone to a place where committing the act of genocide becomes a plausible act (Waller, Keynote, February 20th, 2014).

Listening to Waller speak made me both uneasy and intrigued. How can one ever comprehend the actual act of genocide? I am reminded of Audrey Small’s (2009) reflection on genocide wherein she states, “thinking and writing about the genocide should be an attempt to explore and comprehend humanity’s attempt to comprehend (p. 98).” While I remain uncertain if one can ever understand the “little things” that make us switch into killers, Waller offers some interesting points for further thinking. Waller contends that the most disturbing part of facing perpetrators is the realization that this capacity for violence exists within all of us. Sharon Todd (2009) too contends that, “there is something unsettlingly human about that violence which we live with—albeit against our will” (p. 1).












Photo taken by the Author during fieldwork at Murambi in January 2012. I unintentionally caught my reflection in this photo, which has provided rich reflection on the capacity for violence within all humans.


The great lengths the world has gone to, to either demonize perpetrators or dismiss them as mentally unstable, might be more reflective of how difficult it can be to face the capacity humans have for such atrocious violence (Waller, Keynote, February 20th, 2014). Waller’s thinking reinvigorated the ways I thought about my own work, especially around the function of human remains in making the act of genocide interpretable. These two keynote speakers stood out in the conference proceeding not only because of their pedagogical functions of broadening, reinvigorating and deepening how I think about genocide, but also, they provided both a macro and micro glimpse into the impact of genocidal violence on the human condition.

How do you teach about genocide in your history lessons?