Few events in history are more subject to controversy than the mass killings commonly designated as genocide. This is hardly surprising considering the lack of anything like a consensus of scholarly opinion about the precise meaning of the term, the different interpretations of the phenomenon offered by social scientists, and the enormous emotional charge it carries. Rwanda is no exception. There are few parallels for the sheer depth of the discords and disagreements the 1994 genocide has generated among observers, survivors and perpetrators.
This is a commentary on the hurdles that stand in the way of a dispassionate discourse about its roots, the responsibilities involved, and its ultimate implications, moral and political. Some are traceable to our still inadequate knowledge of certain critical events and circumstances leading to the carnage; others to the biases and preconceptions of individual analysts, and persisting denials of the facts, including the fact of genocide; others to the uncritical parallel drawn with the Holocaust; others still to the character of the revisionist agenda offered by certain key actors, scholars and journalists. No attempt to critically review the state of research on the genocide can overlook these challenges to our understanding of one of the most monstrous crimes of the last century.
Compounding such difficulties is the enormous volume of literature it has generated. The least that can be said is that it is of uneven quality. It ranges from journalistic accounts to scholarly works, from first person testimonies by survivors to interviews with convicted killers, from travel writing to in-depth investigations by human rights associations, from official inquests by aid agencies and international commissions to UN reports. To do justice to this massive body of evidence is beyond the scope of this review. Selectivity rather than comprehensiveness has guided our choice of sources. By and large the works discussed here have been selected with an eye to the most significant and contentious issues around which revolves much of the ongoing debate about the Rwanda bloodbath.
We begin with a brief sketch of what is known and what is open to speculation about the Rwanda genocide, and move on to an overview of the most significant general works on the genocide. We then turn to the “Manichean temptation” discernible in the early works of journalists and scholars, and take a critical look at the relevance of the Holocaust model as a reference point for Rwanda before reviewing some of the contributions of the witness literature. Finally we shift the focus to the revisionist agenda inscribed in some of the more controversial works recently published by Rwandan actors and outside observers, and conclude with an attempt to bring out the full complexity of the Rwandan tragedy.