Tutsi genocide: How ordinary citizens can turn into killers? -An interview with Dr. Nicholas Scull

In 1994, the Tutsi genocide lead to the death of 20 percent of the total population of Rwanda. There was an estimate of 175000- 210000 perpetrators in this genocide. Why did this seemingly ordinary citizens turn into killer? This is what the paper “Transforming ordinary people into killers: A psychosocial examination of Hutu participation in the Tutsi genocide” looks at. The researchers interviewed 17 perpetrators to understand what caused them to become murderers.

1.Could you touch a bit on what the research is for our audience who may be learning about the research for the first time?

Generally, I am interested in what causes people to participate in political violence. The Tutsi genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 presents a compelling context to study this topic as average, everyday citizens armed themselves with primitive weapons such as machetes, clubs, and farming tools and went door-to-door killing their neighbors, friends, and even their own family members. In just a little over three months, between 800,000 to a million people were killed. When one reads about the Tutsi genocide, the lingering question people have is: why? I wanted to answer this question.

2.What got you interested in this research?

I am a psychologist by training so I am interested in individual factors that guide behavior. However, when we consider why people participate in political violence, we cannot just look at individual factors. We also need to look at the environmental context in which people live and figure out how the environment influences people’s decision to participate in violence.

3.In your paper you have mentioned that one of the participants was not forced to kill, what do you think was the reason that they participated in the killing?

We found that in addition to being pressured to kill, some individual factors were also prominent including dehumanization and desensitization.

Although most of the participants did not have any personal feelings of ill-will toward Tutsis and most even had Tutsi friends, all of the participants described being raised in a society with a great deal of discrimination and anti-Tutsi sentiment. Societal views of Tutsis seemed to be the seeds of the genocide.

In addition to a history of discrimination, once the genocide began, people eventually became desensitized to the killing. Nobody I interviewed started off with killing. Instead, their involvement was progressive and they eventually became desensitized to the violence. For example, people would start by joining mobs but not carrying weapons or directly engaging in the violence. Then, they would start carrying a weapon and eventually begin engaging in violence. Once they killed someone, participants described that their feelings basically shut-off and they lost their sense of humanity and their conscience. Many described becoming “animals” and losing all perspective of what they were doing.

Everyone I’ve interviewed about the genocide also described that killing just became a way of life during the 3-month genocide. For example, many said that they would wake-up in the morning, have breakfast with their families, sharpen their machetes, and then go to the local football field to receive instructions from the main community organizer about where they would go “hunting.” After a few hours of “hunting” they would gather at the local cabaret or bar, drink banana beer and discuss their day before going home for the evening. For many, this was their daily schedule. Participants described that killing just became a way of life and they very much became desensitized to it.

The specific participant who you are referring to very much believed that what the genocide was a “just cause” due to anti-Tutsi propaganda, a legacy of discrimination (from both sides, and dehumanization of Tutsis.

4.In your paper, you have mentioned that the Hutu were scared of the violence they would have to face if the Tutsi took over and how the Tutsi terrorized them so how did they justify those same actions when the situation was reversed?

All of the participants were told that they were going to be attacked by Tutsis and that they needed to kill them in order to protect themselves. It is important to understand that many who were directly involved in the genocide were poor and generally not well-educated, which might have caused them to be more susceptible to deception and manipulation.

5.Do you think that after the Hutus were release and went back to their village, the fact that some of them ended up making good relations with Tutsis, sometimes even with the family members of people they killed, helped with the transformation process?

The reconciliation process is one of the most amazing aspects of the genocide and really speaks to the humanity of the Rwandan people. Once the genocide was stopped, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned for their crimes. Of course, it was logistically very complex to have trials for so many people so they resorted to their traditional court system called Gacaca Court. When perpetrators went through the Gacaca system, they were asked to confess their crimes to surviving members of the family and if they did so, they were then sent to re-education camps to teach them about genocide and prepare them for reintegration into their villages. Through this process, many started to learn that what they did was wrong. The Gacaca system was also meant to facilitate forgiveness and possibly reconciliation but there is conflicting research on the effectiveness of this.
There are countless examples of perpetrators returning to their villages and ultimately being accepted. Imagine someone killing your family members and then moving back in next door to you. What would you do? Again, the fact that there are so many examples of forgiveness and even reconciliation very much speaks to the humanity that exists in Rwanda.

All of the participants I interviewed noted that being forgiven for their crimes was a large part of their transformation and re-gaining their sense of humanity. Some of the participants eventually became close friends with the families of their victims and they shared resources and helped one another. Most of the participants had also attended a reconciliation program with an organization called CARSA. I am constantly amazed by the strength and resilience of displayed by both perpetrators and survivors in their ability to reconcile.

6.Do you think that this event can be used to show hope for rejuvenation of criminals like serial killers?

The psychosocial factors that caused people to participate in the Tutsi genocide are very different than the motivators for serial killers so I don’t think the event can be generalized in this way.

7.With your research, what do you hope to see from it within the next year or so?

One of the more important findings of the study was how perpetrators didn’t just dehumanize their victims, but they also dehumanized themselves. It is well-established in the psychological research that many perpetrators of political violence dehumanize the opposing group. In the case of the Tutsi genocide, this was done through mass propaganda where Tutsis were called “cockroaches” and other inhumane terms. However, at least in the case of perpetrators of the Tutsi genocide, some also dehumanized themselves by referring to themselves as animals and in so doing, it seemed to make it easier to engage in the violence. In other words, if one sees themselves as an animal, does it make it easier to detach from humanity and make it easier to kill? This is something we’re starting to explore in a follow-up study.

Another research team and I are also now looking at the psychosocial motivations for joining terrorist organizations and we are conducting in-depth interviews with members of ISIS and Al-Qaeda to better understand this.

8.What are some challenges that you faced during the times of your research?

It is very difficult to conduct international research. I made a number of trips to Rwanda to learn about the country, the history, the genocide, and to meet local community members, survivors, perpetrators, and organizations that work with both groups. When I was conceptualizing the study, the guiding principle was that I wanted to make sure that the findings would be useful to Rwanda and the organizations that work with survivors and perpetrators. I eventually made some amazing friends and contacts and some of whom became my research assistants. They were essential in not only helping to ensure that we were pursing a line of research that would have direct benefit to communities and organizations and to also ensure that the research was culturally sensitive. My research assistants were essential to the success of the projects.

9.Do you have additional resources or further readings for those who want to learn more about the topic?

One of my favorite books on the Tutsi genocide is called, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch.

To read first-hand accounts of perpetrators of the genocide, I recommend a book called, Machete Season: The Killer in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfield.

Ervin Staub also wrote an excellent book called, Overcoming Evil: Vioelnce, Genocide, and Terrorism.

The American Psychological Association has a division dedicated to psychological study of peace, violence and conflict (Division 48): http://peacepsychology.org

There are also some excellent organizations in Rwanda doing great work with both survivors and perpetrators. I encourage your readers to visit their websites and support their efforts. Here are some I recommend:
Survivors Fund (SURF): https://survivors-fund.org.uk
Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Action (CARSA): http://www.carsaministry.org
IBUKA: https://www.insightonconflict.org/conflicts/rwanda/peacebuilding-organisations/ibuka/

This research gave me a very dark understanding of factors that influence the mind of people that commit such atrocities and how such people can be redeemed if a systematic effort is made.

If anyone has any questions or comments about the research, Dr. Nicholas Scull can be reached at: nscull@gmail.com

One Comment

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  1. I don’t know much in the events that occurred during the genocide of Tutsis but I was raised by a Tutsi called Francoise as I’m born in Bujumbura in 1963 from Italian parents and I grew very attached to him and I know what I could ear as a young boy growing in Bujumbura and then all the talking of family and friends that has recalled those events for many time and what I recalled saying from many present observer is that Hutu were some sort of misguided from Catholic Priest ever present in the mind of African in general and especially Hutu to believe that they were the righteous owners of Burundi and that they were some sort of wrongly enslaved by Tutsis. That is what I was telled by a lot of friends living there and for what I know to be true then the rest can be congetture or political agenda of many people trying to give explanations to something that in Africa it’s called tribal issues.

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