Benjamin Passey and Dr. Leslie Hadfield, History Department
The civil war in Rwanda and genocide that accompanied it are perhaps the most horrifying examples of brutality and violence displayed in the latter half of the twentieth century. The genocide, which is believed to have claimed the lives of more than eight hundred thousand Rwandans in just one hundred days was observed by the world at large with minimal intervention or action. In the years following the war, the few stories that have publicized the events of 1994 tend to highlight death and destruction rather than the determination and resolve of those who fought to not only survive but thrive in the aftermath of the calamity.
The aim of this project was to preserve and document the ideas, stories, and histories of individual strength and determination, and record and analyze how their experiences shaped their subsequent life paths. The best method for collecting and documenting these untold stories is oral history.
Oral history is a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting historical information through recorded interviews with people and communities who experienced significant past events and ways of life. The individuals providing the information need not be famous or of historical significance; often they are everyday people discussing their ordinary lives. It is through the mouths of the ordinary that some of the most extraordinary stories are told.
To accomplish the project objective, twenty individuals who experienced firsthand the Rwandan civil war were interviewed and their histories recorded. These interviews were made possible by the generous cooperation of local Rwandan community members, the Swahili Branch in Salt Lake City, and BYU faculty members, who worked to find a variety of project participants of different ages, gender, social status, and geographic origin. Although these twenty individuals do not represent the nearly six million Rwandans who experienced the war, they serve as a sample that although not entirely representative, seeks to provide a glimpse into the minds and lives of the population of civil war survivors as a whole.
The interviews began in Utah with live interviews and expanded to remote interviews by telephone, and video conferencing. The interviews took the guided life history approach, using several broad questions to encourage a description of experiences during the civil war and the impact of the war on post-war life. Examples of these questions include, “How did you adjust to ‘normal’ life after the war? What problems did you face? What gave you strength to go on?” and “Can you talk about the long-term impact that your experiences during the war have had on you? For example, how did your experiences affect your family life, values, trust, fear, and your work?” Although a general set of guiding questions were used as a framework to conduct the interview, many interviews diverted from the set questions, delving into other topics or devoting large amounts of time to one or two specific questions. The deviations from the guiding questions were based entirely on the responses of interviewees. The interviews ranged in length from forty-five minutes to one and a half hours. The interviews were recorded using voice recording equipment.
Upon the completion of an interview, it was transcribed, and a copy of the interview and transcript were returned to the participant as a written record of their experiences. A secondary goal of this project was to create a written record of these defining experiences in a culture that predominantly transfers personal experiences and family histories orally. It would be a tremendous loss for the stories of strength, resilience, and love in the face of danger to fade away from history and memory both for the families of the survivors and society as a whole. After conducting all the necessary interviews, the accounts were analyzed and compared for similarities and trends.
The direction of each interview varied from individual to individual. Some participants spoke in depth about their experiences prior to the outbreak of the war. Others used the discussion to describe their feelings and experiences during the war. However, most participants devoted the majority of the interview to discuss the last two decades and the effects their experiences during the war have had on their lives since 1994.
For many, the interviews were difficult and highly emotional. Several individuals had never discussed their experiences and reflecting on the war brought back a flood of emotions and memories. At the end of multiple interviews, participants expressed their gratitude at the closure they gained from discussing their experiences and voiced their hope that their histories would help to prevent future atrocities.
The outcome of the interviews has exceeded the initial project expectations. Going into the project, it was anticipated that there would be strong feelings of animosity, hatred, or selfpity among survivors. Although these sentiments were certainly present in some individuals, for the most part, participants did not discuss the negative but focused disproportionately on the positive. Individuals spoke at length on the strength, charity, and love that they developed as a result of the tragedies experienced during the war. Some participants even expressed their gratitude for the civil war, despite the tragedies and losses they endured, because of the transformative nature it had on their outlook, attitude, and priorities in life.
The Rwandan civil war was a devastating conflict that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and resulted in lasting repercussions that are still felt by Rwandans today. The aim of this project was to preserve the histories of those that experienced the war and analyze the effect of wartime experiences in their subsequent lives. As a cultural outsider discussing intimate experiences during the war, this project was incredibly humbling as participants spoke candidly about the traumas of the war and the impact the war has had on their lives in the subsequent years. The findings of this project will be presented at the Utah Conference on Undergraduate Research (UCUR), at Southern Utah University on February 9, 2018.