PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide

by Robert Lyons and Scott Straus

New York: Zone Books, 2006

192 pages. Illustrations, map, glossary, and acknowledgements

$37.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-890951-63-3

Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide, authored by photographer Robert Lyons and political scientist Scott Straus, “departs from a standard model of scholarly analysis, policy recommendations, and journalistic reportage” (14). It grapples with the challenge of how to represent the unimaginable in such a way that readers may “see and contemplate the violence” of genocide “in a manner that stimulates, rather than stifles, reflection” (15-16). We are not asked to gaze upon a neatly packaged description and explanation of the events of 1994, but are required to “contemplate” the intimacy of violence by reading personal testimonies of perpetrators and observing portraits of Rwandan people, who are not easily located as survivor, perpetrator, or prison bureaucrat. We are presented with artifacts of the genocide arranged with as little intervention as the authors can muster. Deliberately rejecting authorship, the “introducer and interviewer Scott Straus”—previously a journalist, now political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has written a “standard” academic book on the genocide (Straus 2006)—explains: “Combined, the testimony and images offer a largely unmitigated and intimate view of the Rwandan genocide” (14). Intimate, yes; unmitigated, no. The book’s blurb tells us that “the images and words are raw and unanalyzed, leaving the reader to make sense of the killers and their would-be [sic] victims.” Of course there are no “raw,” “unanalyzed” images, as Straus in fact concedes (16-17); the artifacts in this book—transcripts of interviews and photographic images—are all manufactured, selected and arranged by the authors. We can only contemplate the genocide through their selections and arrangements.

In contrast to many other representations of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the authors repudiate the use of iconic and sensationalistic images so often associated with this genocide—images that come with violent meaning pre- inscribed (15). In this book, the reader will find no images of skulls piled high, no mutilated corpses or skeletal remains in churches or along roads: there is no Nyarabuye here (Gourevitch 1998). Instead, the book opens with unexpected representations of living body parts: hands clasped, a scarred leg, the back of a head, a torso and arms, wearing a cross. (Thus Catholicism is referenced, but we are not told why this particular man wears a cross, or what this signifies for him [does it mark him as perpetrator?]). We are invited to view the artifacts of the Rwandan genocide not as human remains, but as human survivors: this book challenges generic categories of “perpetrator” or “victim.” Photographic portraits are juxtaposed of each, forcing the viewer to confront his or her own desire to distinguish between them, to judge and blame, to impose order onto genocide. There is a deliberate disconnect at various levels: not only are we confronted with portraits without captions (although we are able to confirm our suspicions by consulting the list of plates), but images and stories do not connect directly. Each stands as a living artifact of a multicausal, multifactorial human story that is presented in such a way that we are forced to recognize that the parts do not easily fit together. Straus notes that “[t]he questions the genocide raises…are among the most complex and pressing of our time” (13). Here we find no easy answer, no neat theory explaining the genocide. In this book, the authors refuse to explain, interpret or overtly guide the reader. Intertextual analysis itself is apparently the task of the reader: we make connections and manufacture meaning; the task is to “stimulate reflection” (16).

By bringing the parallel stories together, the book creates accidental encounters that allow readers to confront the genocide in unforeseeable ways (17). We do not see the faces of the specific men (women’s voices are not here) who tell their stories, in translation, via an interpreter. We do not read the stories of those whose eyes seem to meet ours, as they look directly at the camera.

The introduction contains a very brief overview of the “historical background to the Rwandan conflict” and of the genocide. More time is devoted to the book’s methodology. The book is divided into two sections: A collection of edited interviews and a series of caption-less photographs, which deliberately exclude images of overt violence. The interviews were deliberately chosen because those interviewed were not notorious. In fact, the interview selections are often “banal”— “most are pedestrian killers: the farmers, fishermen, and carpenters from all around Rwanda who made the genocide possible” (17). But as Straus concedes, “the written testimony is partial: the words are those of convicted male genocide perpetrators, not a cross section of Rwandans” (16). The respondents were selected from a pool of 230 perpetrators interviewed for a “multistage investigation” in 2002. Straus explains:

In chosing whom to interview, I sought primarily to generate a representative sample of prisoners… . [Certain] constraints led me to interview people who already had been sentenced (rather than those awaiting trial) and those who had confessed to their crimes (rather than those who denied their guilt)… . I wanted a random sample (17).

The interviewees represented in this book are all male. Straus explains that there were too few women who “had been sentenced and confessed to their crimes—too small a number, in any case, to randomly sample” (19). Moreover, “while in some cases elite women had played an important role…overall women played a minor role in the typical attacks on Tutsis. Therefore, I focused on male perpetrators” (19). Those readers searching for primary sources that reveal deeper insight into women’s participation, and the gendered nature of the genocide, may gaze at a few photographs, but otherwise will be disappointed.

The photographer, Robert Lyons, wanted “not only to construct a context in which to view the actual event but also to find new ways of seeing and thinking about the very idea of genocide” (32) He had previously worked with writer Chinua Achebe, and was disturbed by the media representations of Rwanda:

It was difficult to look at my work on West Africa while listening to the news from Rwanda… the media depicted the genocide as “tribal.” Print and television news focused constantly on the horror of the killings without contextualizing them… . I felt that there must be a way to show the horror of genocide without making sensationalistic imagery. I wanted to explore the space between the victims and perpetrators and the outside world—not to simply demonize the perpetrators (31).

Through his portraits, Lyons brilliantly captures the humanity of those engaged in the genocide, and the absence of captions with the images equally brilliantly shines a stark light on the viewer, whose automatic response may be to look for evidence of evil, to find a way to dehumanize the perpetrators and evade “the questions required of each of us as individuals” (31). Straus argues that “[t]he genocide is…impossible to narrate in any detail…[it] is an aggregate category, a composite of thousands of acts that occurred throughout Rwanda from April to July 1994…” (15). Intimate Enemy reflects this analytical position, providing some of the parts from which a greater whole may emerge. It presents a series of individual narratives and photographic portraits; there are no collective stories, and no group portraits. Thus we confront the people in this book, whether photographically or in interview transcript, as one individual to another: we are all human, and we could all “do this.”

A key question in this book, then, is how to imagine the unimaginable. An answer seems to be to humanize it, and to draw the reader into as intimate a relationship as possible with Rwandans. To restore the humanity, the book adopts a number of strategies. There is no “good,” and no easily delineated “evil.” The faces that gaze at us are not easily classified as perpetrator or victim; the stories are, as Straus intended, overwhelmingly banal. First, this work avoids the “usual” presentations. Second, it asks us to set aside ideas of collective, mass violence, to focus on individuals. The genocide is an aggregate of thousands of acts: we are asked to contemplate a few of the actors, and through images, those acted upon (but who survived). A third aspect of this approach is to allow the people to tell their own stories, largely unmitigated, although the interviews were structured, and the conditions under which they were conducted begs the question of how “unmitigated” they can be.

Straus suggested that beyond the “accidental encounters” with people in this book, “readers may not need to know much more” (17). This reader disagrees. Ironically, given Lyon’s concern for the ways in which the conflict has been represented in the media, this book too lacks sufficient context. There is too little historical and contemporary context, and too little discussion of how other scholars have represented and interpreted the events of 1994. However, because of its concern with humanizing the unimaginable, and the way it forces readers to reflect not only on genocide, but on our own relationship to it, Intimate Enemy is an excellent introduction. It provides an intimate frame from which readers may begin to search for deeper understanding of genocide, in general and in particular, through the encounter this book provides, in however flawed a manner, with human beings, not simply “perpetrators” and “victims.”

References Cited

Gourevitch, P. 1998. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Picador.

Straus, S. 2006. The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


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