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How Labels of “Victim” and “Perpetrator” Impact Bosnian and Rwandan Diaspora Communities in the US

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SIS professor Claudine Kuradusenge-McLeod was seven years old when she lost her parents during the Rwandan Genocide. They were two of the thousands of people who were slaughtered by armed militias in 1994.

The day after then-Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was assassinated, Hutu extremists sought to kill every ethnic Tutsi in Rwanda. A small number of ethnic Hutus—like Kuradusenge-McLeod’s parents—were also killed as well as ethnic Twas.

“I still have scars from that,” says Kuradusenge-McLeod, who also serves as the chair of the Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights masters’ program. “And those scars will never go away.”

This trauma and her expertise as a scholar of conflict resolution prompted Kuradusenge-McLeod to explore how such scars affect the identities of people who flee genocides as well as the identities of their children and grandchildren. In 2017, she interviewed members of both Bosnian and Rwandan diasporic communities who were located across 10 different states in the US.

The Bosnians and Rwandans that Kuradusenge-McLeod interviewed belonged to ethnic groups that society has generally labeled either “victims” or “perpetrators” of genocide. Such framings and labels, she found, significantly impacted how the people of these communities saw themselves and engaged in American life.

After conducting this research, Kuradusenge-McLeod wrote a book, Narratives of Victimhood and Perpetration: The Struggle of Bosnian and Rwandan Diaspora Communities in the United States, based on her findings and published in November 2021. The book not only spotlights the experiences of the Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, Bosniak, Bosnian Serb, and Bosnian Croat communities, but it also reveals the broader implications of narratives that constrict how individuals impacted by genocide can express victimhood.

Getting to Know the Communities

Kuradusenge-McLeod chose to interview both Bosnians and Rwandans living in the US because of the similarities between the diasporas. For example, the majority of people in these communities migrated to the US because of the genocides that took place in their respective home countries, and both groups—across generations—still hold some semblance of their homeland’s culture.

Along with conducting formal interviews, Kuradusenge-McLeod would interact with the participants in informal ways, such as taking part in their celebrations and having casual conversations with them. She worked to integrate into the participants’ daily lives so that she could garner a deeper understanding of what factors shaped their identities.

“In this way, I was able to observe how the Rwandans interacted among themselves, what type of cultural attachment they have to the Rwandan culture, and also how they think and feel about the Rwandan government,” says Kuradusenge-McLeod. “With the Bosnians, I was able to have conversations with them that I wouldn’t have in other settings—it was an educational journey for me to learn more about them and see the similarities between them and my own community.”

Labels and Narratives That Shape Generations

After six months of getting to know the two diasporic communities, Kuradusenge-McLeod found that younger generations of these groups had similar experiences when it came to how they developed their identities in the US. Ethnic Tutsis and Bosniaks were consistently told their ethnicities were victims of genocide, and they became more active in promoting their ethnic and homeland identities. On the other hand, young Hutu Rwandans and Bosnian Serbs—ethnicities that were identified as perpetrators of genocide—tried to more actively assimilate into American culture.

“You saw the same dynamic, both with Bosnians and Rwandans,” says Kuradusenge-McLeod. “The label that was attached to them created a new identity in a lot of ways—this identity was based on the fact that they were seen either as the good people or the bad people.”

Kuradusenge-McLeod also found that the perpetrator and victim labels impacted young Bosnians’ and Rwandans’ political participation. The Bosnians and Rwandans who were more Americanized chose not to be active in their communities. Bosnians and Rwandans who embraced their ethnicities, however, were more politically active—using different platforms to advocate for their diasporic community’s needs.

More broadly, Kuradusenge-McLeod sees the labels as constricting forces for Bosnian and Rwandan diasporic communities across ethnicities: “For those in the victim group, their stories are based on suffering endured both personally and collectively,” she writes in her book. “Their stories and identities are preserved and often glorified through their associated histories. Those in the perpetrator group become the eternal villain of the story, stigmatized, and labeled. Their stories and narratives of their own victimization are ignored and, at times, actively silenced.”

Allowing for Complexity and Inclusion

For most of us, dichotomous framings of groups, like “good/bad,” “hero/villain,” and “victim/perpetrator,” are easier to grasp and promote than more nuanced, complex framings. People often struggle to separate the experiences of an individual from the collective experiences of their associated group.

According to Kuradusenge-McLeod, in the case of genocide, “it's easier to talk about something as traumatic and as tragic as a genocide when you have a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. It’s easier for scholars to paint a simple picture for policymakers. It's easier to write policies, to come up with initiatives, or to write grants when you're figuring out which people to target in terms of resources.”

But she emphasizes that it’s just as important to complexify conversations about the impact of genocide as well as make them more inclusive. Through her book, she aims to carefully spread awareness of the trauma that certain Bosnian Serb and Hutu individuals face and the resilience they have shown. In her view, this is a step towards making post-genocide discourse more layered so that it goes beyond both the legal structures that define it and the current victim/perpetrator framings.

Constricting post-genocide discourse can, according to Kuradusenge-McLeod, lead to even more problems. In her view, denying an individual’s ability to express their personal trauma from a genocide can prompt that individual to become a genocide denier or commit acts of violence.

“Let’s say that a small percentage of Bosnian Serbs and Hutus were killed at one point, before, during, or after the genocide. Their surviving family members are creating stories around their own victimhood and promoting those specific stories to their children. Their children then form a sense of victimhood,” says Kuradusenge-McLeod. “If you're telling someone who lost a family member that ‘you are not a victim, you’re a perpetrator,’ then there will be consequences that stem from that. You are, in some ways, pushing that person to become more radical in their views.

“My hope for this book is that more open conversations happen within my [Hutu] community, within the Bosnian communities, and also within post-genocide scholarship more broadly. We need to think about how to include intimate, complex conversations about genocide and how to help people who are not being heard.”