Volume 8, Issue 1
Accounting for Horror: Post-Genocide Debates in Rwanda. Nigel Eltringham. London: Pluto Press, 2004. 232 pp.
Nigel Eltringham forces readers to go beyond the simple chronicle of events leading to the Rwandan genocide by considering many voices to understand this massive act of violence. Eltringham goes beyond the standard accounts of what led to the genocide to incorporate alternative Rwandan voices on a range of key events.
Eltringham believes that understanding language is critical and this is central to his approach. He challenges how existing literature is used to discuss ethnicity and also confronts the use of language descriptors (such as the “moderate Hutu”) that bear on how readers and observers understand history. Focusing on both language and interpretation, the author also problematizes the ‘appeal to history' and encourages readers to reconceptualize how historians and others come to agree or disagree on a set of historical events. By incorporating a variety of voices from Rwandans he interviewed (in Rwanda and in the Rwandan diaspora in Europe), a number of explanations are suggested for understanding the violence, including: economic rationalism, power politics, and racial manipulation of Rwandans by Belgians.
Accounting for Horror is well-documented and draws on the work of Catherine and David Newberry, Rene Lemarchand, Gerard Prunier, Jean Paul Chretien, Liisa Malkki and other well-known scholars. Eltringham also does a fine job of documenting broader topics related to the genocide in general such as holocaust studies and the analysis of historical narratives. With these broader topics, Rwanda can be seen as both an example and a point of departure for wider theoretical debates.
Accounting for Horror attempts to carve a new approach in understanding what are now familiar events for those who have read previous works on the genocide. Eltringham sheds light on narratives about major events such as the change of power and violence in 1959, the existence and salience of ethnicity, and colonial responsibility. He asks pointed questions of his interviewees (e.g. are the Belgians indeed to blame for the genocide?). These narratives provide nuanced interpretations from Rwandans and this gives the reader a more complex view of events. In this way, Eltringham's work gives a reader what might otherwise only be gathered from two or three books. This book is probably best suited for readers who have a basic understanding of Rwandan history, as the purpose of the book is to analyze and not outline history.
This work is dedicated to the victims of the Rwandan genocide and to understanding how such a horrific human tragedy could surface again . Further, this work acknowledges the growing complexity of Rwanda's political, social and economic landscape over time rather than using oversimplified concepts and events to interpret this human tragedy. Although this book and others on the genocide may be critiqued for their overlap with prior works, authors and witnesses to this genocide (as well as to other human tragedies) continue to write because recounting and excavating is cathartic. Regardless of how many times the story of events in Rwanda is written and rewritten, each author provides his or her own perspective and feelings. In that spirit, this volume focuses on interpretation as an epistemology or a way of knowing that will bring readers to a higher level of understanding about the events in Rwanda. Accounting for Horror makes a notable contribution to Rwanda's complex fabric and paves the way to understanding other large-scale human tragedies.