Challenges and Research Strategies

Specific challenges for research: caught between a scarcity of traces and an abundance of accounts

Just a few month after the 25th commemoration of the Rwanda Genocide against the Tutsi, new generations of researchers are faced with numerous challenges. As for their predecessors – and for researchers working on other genocides – one of the challenges results from the absence of certain traces of this past that researchers try to track down. The attempt to exterminate the Tutsi aimed at the total destruction, the silencing, and the complete annihilation of the Tutsi population in Rwanda. By exterminating over 800 000 people, as well as erasing the traces of their lives before 1994 (clothing, photographs, shelter…), the perpetrators also attempted to eradicate memory and history. In addition, they tried to destroy the evidence of the genocide, of its preparation and its consequences. Numerous archives of the events have been dispersed, were improperly stored or lost: this includes the archives of the former Rwandan government, the archives of the French embassy or audio-visual archives of the former Rwandan information office (Orinfor). Today, it is very difficult for a researcher to reconstruct the events in a reliable and comprehensive manner. [1] 

However, this first challenge is small compared to a second one. Paradoxically, the researcher is faced simultaneously with an abundance of data, archives and scientific work that exist in Rwanda, in Europe and in North America. This yields enormous potential, as these works have so far been under-used due to their limited circulation and the fragmentation of national academic spaces, linguistic areas and disciplines.[2]

A third challenge is the abundance of testimonies and narratives that have been collected by those involved (survivors, perpetrators, political authorities, journalists, humanitarians…), by the authorities in place since July 1994 but also by NGOs, associations, campaigners, or those who deny and relativize the genocide. The nature of these accounts deserves to be questioned: while they help shed light on the events, they can also be distorted by shortcuts, guess work, omissions and alterations.[3] As they have a certain visibility in national spaces, these different accounts serve as a backdrop for the interpretation and reception of the work of researchers and threaten to influence the process of knowledge-creation in its different phases (selection of the topic and choice of research questions; selection of sources, witnesses or locations; timing and writing processes…). 

Towards a collective, international, and interdisciplinary production of knowledge

Building on the collective dynamics that have emerged in recent years thanks to a new generation of researchers,[4] this project aims at addressing the different challenges through an investigation of certain questions concerning the traces (from archives, heritage and memories) of the Rwanda Genocide against the Tutsi.[5]

The members of the team share a common interest in the traces of the genocide of the Tutsi. The collective reflection focuses primarily on the question of the traces of the genocide and how they can improve understanding of the genocide. The term ‘traces’ is understood as the – past and present – marks, remains and vestiges of the genocide, recognizable in Rwanda but also in foreign countries. These traces take many different forms: archival (judicial, diplomatic, print media, sound and audiovisual archives), patrimonial (bodies, objects, commemorative sites) or memory (literary narratives, survivors’ narratives, journalistic and military narratives). Contrary to the dominant trends of the historiography, this collective reflection does not focus on a comparative approach with other genocides[6], the nature and methods of the massacres[7] or the conditions of the possibility of the event.[8]

How can francophone and international researchers set up a project that leads to a significant enrichment of knowledge about the Genocide against the Tutsi in the next ten to fifteen years? How might we create a dialogue with the archival, cultural or memorial traces of this traumatic past? How can the Humanities and Social Sciences benefit from insights gained through research on the Genocide against the Tutsi?

               Over a five-year period (2018-2022), the Team has three main objectives to overcome the challenges identified above:

  • the creation of an international network of researchers determined to work with unprecedented effort on this theme;
  • to develop, for the first time, an accurate mapping of existing knowledge. Three tools will be made available to the scholarly community via a digital platform:
    • a digital guide to genocide archives and documentation centres;
    • a digital directory of researchers;
    • a collaborative bibliography;
  • an analysis of the relationship between the archive (as used by different disciplines), heritage practices, memory making and knowledge production in humanities and social sciences.

               The team is thus committed to three actions:

  • to facilitate better circulation of publications between academic and linguistic spaces;
  • to promote the location, preservation and development of archives and of hidden, lost or forgotten sources;
  • to question the relationship between the constitution of academic narratives since 1994 and the availability of primary sources, taking into account their memorial context and their connection to other narratives of the genocide.

Several strategies have been prioritised by the team to enhance collective efforts to overcome the aforementioned challenges.

A collective research

A first priority is to build a network of researchers with the potential to reinvent individual and institutional collaborations, but also to question the relations between researchers and actors investigating the traces of the genocide.

An international research group

A second strategy is to create a worldwide network of researchers capable of putting into perspective different national historiographies and of confronting or exchanging views on the pertinence and potential of research approaches in order to establish a basis for the years to come. Therefore, it is essential to better connect international research with Rwandan research and thus to overcome a postcolonial situation characterised by the fact that research is carried out by large Western universities without taking into account the work of Rwandan – and other African – researchers.[9] It is also important to rethink the postcolonial narrative of the genocide and to acknowledge the coexistence of knowledge on experiences, approaches, temporalities and models of interpretation that are not necessarily the same in Rwanda and the West.

An interdisciplinary approach making use of the potential of digital technology

A third strategy builds on the belief that it is essential to seize every opportunity for inter-disciplinary dialogue to ensure holistic research outcomes. Thus, it is important to consider the added-value of each Humanities and Social Science discipline (history, anthropology, literature, psychology, sociology, political science…) together with the outcomes of other disciplines. Moreover, the affiliation with a certain discipline should not prevent exchanges with other scientific approaches, research questions or concepts. It is also important to take into account linguistic competences since Kinyarwanda is the language of the events, the principal language of the Rwandan archives and the language of the principal Rwandan witnesses. Finally, the achievements of other research fields such as experimental sciences, life sciences, Information sciences and technologies and digital humanities can be beneficial for the processes of knowledge-creation. Defining a truly interdisciplinary approach is undoubtedly one of the major challenges and contributions of this project. To achieve these objectives, digital technologies will be used to share knowledge within the network and with a larger research community via a digital platform. The collaborative strategy will be based on the Wiki tool in order to collect, share and exploit raw data and archives. This collaborative dimension and the use of digital humanities is uncommon in research on Rwanda.[10]

A collective reflection on the ethics of research

This project will also provide an opportunity for a thorough examination of our research practices. A collective reflection on the ethics of research is essential – for the elaboration of a corpus and the reliance on certain Rwandan assistants; for the relationship with witnesses and for the researcher’s relationship to survivors or perpetrators; for the relationship with political authorities who could use research outcomes to pursue political motives. This project also opens the way for a thorough analysis of the relationship between researchers and their sources, intermediaries, or their field. The exercise of comparing sources, data, knowledge and competences will help the researchers belonging to this group better formulate their individual projects alongside their collective approach. Certain practices and habits common to academia – especially in the West – need to be considered as well.


[1] While the family archives of the victims were often destroyed, this was not always the case for the institutional archives (communal, governmental…) set up by the Rwandan government before 1994. One of the problems with this type of archives is that they were dispersed in the camps of Zaire in the wake of the genocide, as well that the Rwandan government, but also researchers, made little efforts to conserve them after 1994. However some initiatives to collect, itemise and digitise the archives have been conducted by a number of public or private institutions such as Aegis Trust, Yale University or the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

[2] The negligence of Western researchers to consider the work of Rwandan researchers since 1994 is another problem that hinders a collective effort to tackle the issue.

[3] C. Coquio, N. Réra, F. Robinet (et alii.) (dir.), Rwanda 1994-2014. Histoire, mémoires et récits, Dijon, Les Presses du réel, 2017, 544 p.

[4] This need for a collective research effort has been mentioned on several occasions in the context of related events in France or Belgium, e.g. the international colloquium « Rwanda 1994-2014. Récits, constructions mémorielles et écriture de l’histoire » (Paris/Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, 13-15 novembre 2014), the preparation of the workshop « Un évènement et son ombre Faire l’histoire et le récit du Rwanda et des Etats africains au-delà du génocide ou des expériences de crise » (REAF, 2016), the research day « Les archives disponibles sur le génocide des Tutsi au Rwanda : cartographie et typologie » (Paris, 22 mai 2016) or the research day « Conflits, mémoire & justice. Perspectives de recherche sur les Grands Lacs africains » (ULB, 7 juin 2017).

[5] Though a comparative approach is not prioritised here, the approach will be based on research, reflexions and debates on the traces of the Holocaust as well as on works about other genocides and mass crimes of the 20th century. Cf. Yves Ternon, « Légitimité et intérêt scientifique d’une approche comparatiste des génocides du XXème siècle », in Assumpta Mugiraneza et alii, « Rwanda, quinze ans après. Penser et écrire l’histoire du génocide des Tutsi », op. cit., p. 201-224.

[6] J. Sémelin, Purifier et détruire. Usages politiques des massacres et génocides, Paris, Seuil, 2006, 492 p. ; Y. Ternon, Guerres et génocides au XXe siècle : Architectures de la violence de masse, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2007, 398 p.

[7] H. Dumas, Le génocide au village, Paris, Seuil, 2014, 384 p ; J.-P. Kimonyo, Rwanda, un génocide populaire, Paris, Karthala, 2008, 540 p ; P. Rutayisire, « Approche locale du génocide. La région de Nyarubuye », in Vingtième siècle, Revue d’histoire, n°122, 2014/2, p. 37-49.

[8] See, in particular: J.-P. Chrétien, M. Kabanda, Rwanda. Racisme et génocide. L’idéologie hamitique, Paris, Belin, 2013, 379 p.

[9] On the occasion of the first international conference on genocide organized in November 1995 in Kigali, José Kagabo emphasizes that « [les] langue[s] de validation du génocide [sont] l’anglais et le français » ». José Kagabo, « Pas de langue pour l’hébétude », in Jean-Pierre Bacot et Christian Coq (dir.), Travail de mémoire 1914-1918. Une nécessité dans un siècle de violence, Paris, Autrement, 1999, p. 76.

[10] Some initiatives to collect, itemise and digitise the archives have been conducted by a number of public or private institutions such as Aegis Trust (Genocide Archive of Rwanda), Yale University, the International criminal tribunal for Rwanda or the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.