Event Review – ‘Rooms of Humanity’

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De Balie

 

By Laurien Vastenhout & Arja Oomkens

On September 19th we visited ‘Rooms of Humanity’, an interactive and experimental exhibition which theatre directors Ilil Landboss and Giselle Vegter made especially for this evening. The promise to address the complexities of mass violence and genocide ensured a full, sold-out theatre. From experts in the field to the interested layman, this evening provided a platform to discuss one prominent question: ‘How is it possible, despite historical awareness, that genocide keeps on occurring?’ In other words, can we understand present-day violence and radicalization against civilians in, for example, Syria, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Sudan?

‘Rooms of Humanity’ responded exactly to the urge of the audience to reflect on this pressing question. The documentary-theatrical installation ‘Sieben Räume Unbegreifen’ was part of the first ‘experience’ of this three-hour evening program. Instead of walking into a room with neatly lined-up chairs facing a podium, we walked into an empty space where everyone was standing around an immense square grid. The grid consisted out of many smaller squares, which would later be walked on by the audience. The rules of the game we were about to play seemed easy: questions would be posed and each of the participants had to either make a step in the grid or remain in place.

What appeared to be an easy game turned into a thought-provoking social experiment. First of all, this had to do with the questions posed. Questions along the lines of ‘do you feel part of a minority group?’, ‘do you consider yourself privileged?’, and ‘would you sacrifice your life for something?’ made all of us reflect on our own ideas, our ability to answer that question at that exact moment, look around at the others, and eventually take a step, or not. In this sense, the game was a good way to thoroughly think some essential questions through. It also exposed some unmistakable group behavior. When all of us were moving around on the square grid, it became extremely difficult not to conform to the behavior of the other participants; sometimes you couldn’t even move from one square grid to the other because the people that surrounded you decided not to move. Standing cramped, you were then unable to decide for yourself when your next step would be. Other conforming group behavior during the game was that almost no one took steps towards the outlines of the square grid; everyone tended to take steps towards the middle of the square. For some, this may have been because they wanted to show active participation in the game, for others, because they wanted to walk towards friends, or maybe even for other reasons. In this sense, everyone seemed to conform to the choices of the others. It would have been interesting if one of the participants had chosen not to conform, but rather looked for a ‘confrontation’ by stepping into an already occupied square or stepping to the outlines. A confrontation like this may have led to some form of discussion which would have added to the usefulness of the game.

In that sense, it was a pity that there was no analysis or explanation afterwards. The ‘game’ raised many questions but failed to answer any of these. It would have been useful to go through some of the central questions again afterwards and to publicly share thoughts on the answers to these questions. Another possibility would have been to discuss our group’s behavior after the game. For a genocide scholar, the game turned out to be a clear reminder of the fact that processes that lead to mass violence and genocide are highly complex. It also reminded us that, order to understand these processes, we must think beyond the good versus evil dichotomy, and study relations of power, peer pressure, and group conformity. A discussion on how the game reverberated these aspects of the violent process would have made for a thought provoking beginning of the evening.

Fortunately, the two hours that followed did provide the possibility to discuss all these complexities with experts on the topic. Walking around from one expert panel on propaganda to another on genocide education, all of the participants experienced what it is like to engage in such complex issues. In an effort to understand the process of radicalization, the participants learned that, while emotional engagement might be the trigger to study this subject, one needs detachment in order to do so.

 

 

 

In Search of a Solution to the Syrian Refugee Crisis: Local Integration in Turkey will Relieve Mounting Tensions

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Photo: EC/ECHO (CC-BY-ND)

By Arja Oomkens -

With the conflict in Syria entering its fifth year of ongoing atrocities and destruction, it has come to epitomize one of the most challenging humanitarian crises of our era. Nearly 4 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries and North Africa, and over 200,000 Syrian refugees have sought asylum in Europe. Consequently, the need to address issues of unprecedented displacement and refugee protection has become ever more pressing.

Across Syria’s borders, the mass influx of refugees imposes a heavy burden on mainly Turkey, but also Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Of these countries, Turkey has received by far the most refugees. According to UNHCR estimates, more than 1,7 million Syrians are believed to have crossed Turkey’s borders. While some of them are accommodated in refugee camps, most of the refugees are currently living in urban areas in the southeast provinces of Turkey such as Hatay, Gaziantep, and Kilis.

In host communities, cultural and religious differences between locals and Syrian refugees, combined with competition for healthcare, shelter, water, jobs, and school placements are causing serious social tensions. The violent anti-Syrian protests in the Turkish city Gaziantep in August 2014 have undoubtedly demonstrated that such tensions can easily deteriorate. These protests were triggered by the responsibility of a Syrian tenant for the murder of a Turkish landlord. After the murder, protesters gathered and started shouting anti-Syrian slogans all over the city, attacked Syrians whom they encountered in the streets, destroyed workplaces owned by Syrians, and set cars on fire with Syrian license plates. In the same month, more violent outbreaks against Syrians were reported elsewhere in Turkey.

It is evident that there is no easy answer to such a complex and fragile situation. Yet, bearing in mind that Syrian displacement will most likely become protracted (since there is no prospect for the conflict in Syria to abate in the near future), it is of the utmost importance to address the increased social tensions and seek a clear, future-oriented, and durable solution to ensure safe living conditions for both locals and Syrian refugees.

In searching for solutions to refugeehood, reference is often made to the possibility of local integration. The UNHCR has also identified the practice of voluntary return and resettlement as possible durable solutions. However, since the possibility of repatriation is remote and resettlement into a third country is an option only available to a small minority, integration into host communities is the most viable option with regard to the Syrian refugee crisis. Local integration essentially means that the host state grants a refugee a durable legal status that would allow him or her to remain in the country of first asylum and participate in the social, economic, and cultural life of the host community. The UNHCR has indicated that this form of integration would require a preparedness of the refugee to adapt to the host community without having to forego his or her own cultural identity. This formulation thus requires both a social and legal form of integration before it becomes a durable solution.

In light of the social tensions between locals of Turkish host communities and Syrians, adequate local integration would directly support the protection of both groups. In order to create a stable social order (in the form of equal participation of Syrians and locals), the goodwill of local residents of the host communities will be a prerequisite. Turkey therefore needs to find an effective way to mitigate the fear towards refugees that is present in host communities. Strains of fear, in the form of competition, can be alleviated through the construction of new schools or health clinics for the local population and refugees. Furthermore, to move beyond the status of Syrians as refugees and to show Turkey’s acceptance of Syrians, integration through naturalization (acquisition of citizenship) must be made available. To do so, Turkey needs the cooperation of the international community to ensure effective burden-sharing methods. Without sharing the burden of local integration, to which international assistance and funding are imperative, Turkey would be confronted with an impossible task.

Even though social and legal integration into Turkish host communities can be an effective solution to the ever-increasing tensions in the country, the option to do so remains left to the discretion of the government of Turkey. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter remains that neither general international law nor treaty obliges states to grant durable solutions.

Still, since Turkey is a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention (CRSR), it is relevant to shortly discuss the state’s obligation under article 34 CSCR. This article does provide access to citizenship through integration (formulated as naturalization) and is predicated on a recognition that a refugee required to remain outside his or her country of origin should be able to benefit from “a series of privileges, including political rights.” However, as renowned academic and refugee lawyer James Hathaway has rightly indicated, article 34 cannot be deemed a strong obligation as it does not require state parties to grant citizenship to refugees. Moreover, the already weak obligation of article 34 towards Syrians is further undermined by the geographical limitation Turkey has retained to its ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention – which means that only those fleeing as a consequence of “events occurring in Europe” will be regarded as “refugees” for the purposes of the Convention. For this reason, Turkey can uphold that it has no obligations under the 1951 Convention to grant privileges towards Syrian refugees.

Consequently, Turkey is under no obligation to accord local integration to Syrian refugees. However, for the protection of Syrians and residents of host communities – and therefore Turkey’s national security – it is essential to take into account that increased social tensions may have a deteriorating effect. As prominent sociologist Abram de Swaan has phrased in his latest book, mounting tensions in the form of strong identification with one’s own group combined with eminent disidentification towards another group over a longer period of time may evoke murderous hatred. As disidentifying sentiments in Turkish host communities regarding cultural and religious differences (and various forms of competition) are rising towards Syrians, the likelihood for hostilities to erupt increases. What must be stressed is that even though there is no legal obligation for Turkey to integrate Syrians into their host communities, the government – in cooperation with the international community – should feel the responsibility to work towards local integration. This may be the only durable solution to the Syrian refugee crisis in their country.

 

See for more information: Hathaway J.C., The Rights of Refugees under International Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

 

From Hatred to Hope: Rwandan airwaves against animosity

Photo: Arja Oomkens
Photo: Arja Oomkens

Photo: Arja Oomkens

By Arja Oomkens

In Rwanda, the radio is deeply interwoven into the social fabric of everyday life. Wherever you travel, from the capital city to the rolling hills beyond, the frequencies of the radio resound. On a hazy morning in Kigali, I too find myself listening to the radio while waiting for a Rwandan friend. This is my second visit to Rwanda and I am excited to tell him about my plans to conduct research on the role of the radio in the country. When my friend finally arrives, I ask: “do many Rwandans still listen to the radio?” He smiles and replies that everyone does and even if they do not have a radio at home, people will visit their neighbors to listen together. When I continue to ask if there are things that are not allowed over the airwaves, he looks surprised and says: “Of course there are. People have the right to say what they think, but not something that would destroy this country.”

During the genocide in Rwanda, the private radio station Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) functioned as an important tool for the genocidal authorities to disseminate their hate propaganda against the Tutsi ethnic group. RTLM dictated the rules set-up by the genocidal government and presented this playfully in a talk show format. In its daily programs, announcers made historical allusions by recalling the foreign origin of Tutsi and thereby claiming this ethnic group had no right to be Rwandan. Tutsi were dehumanized as “cockroaches” and stereotyped on the basis of their physical appearance. But the macabre practical use of RTLM was only realized during a later stage of the genocide, when the radio station even directed Hutu perpetrators by providing specific information on how, where and when to kill. After the genocide, RTLM was prohibited and one of the main RLTM announcers, Ferdinand Nahimana, was found guilty of indirect and public incitement to commit genocide by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (UNICTR).

Given the propagandist role of the radio during the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan media sector has been the subject of special attention to both the Rwandan government and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For the RPF-led government, the aim to unify and reconcile Rwanda goes hand in hand with upholding a high level of censorship for the media sector. In 2002, the RPF established a law against “divisionism.” This law prohibits “any act of division that could generate conflict among the population or generate dispute.” Like my Rwandan friend noted before, it is not allowed to say anything that would destroy the country. On the same note, referring to someone’s ethnic background is also strictly prohibited. But what exactly falls into the category of forbidden words and utterances that could “destroy the country”? Here, the government to this day remains anything but clear.

Despite this lack of freedom, the RPF did allow the media sector to slowly open up in 2003, when it legalized private radio stations. Therefore, and since the radio remained as popular as before the genocide, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have incorporated the radio as a means to sensitize and reach out to the population. One of those NGOs is Radio La Benevolencija (RLB), a Dutch initiative that combines education and entertainment to encourage “hope, empowerment and benevolence.” Since 2004, their radio-soap called Musekeweya (meaning “New Dawn”) can be heard twice a week over the Rwandan airwaves.

RLB has fundamentally changed the use of the radio in Rwanda. Conceptualized as a media intervention, the purpose of Musekeweya has been to relief some of the psychological pressures that, according to RLB, contribute to transgression into mass violence. The main pressure to which RLB refers in Musekeweya is the practice of scapegoating (or the encouragement of hate and fear towards the “other” group). In the radio-soap, examples are provided that explain how scapegoating can contribute to deterioration into violent conflict. Inherently related to these examples is the idea that an understanding of the influences that lead to mass murder and genocide will reduce the possibility of recurring violence.

In the 2003 Design Document of Musekeweya, RLB made clear that the radio-soap would not be about the legacies of the 1994 genocide, as this would have been too distressing in regard to the traumatic experiences almost every Rwandan had gone through. Instead, their objective has been to identify and promote positive role models in Rwandan society. These role models have been incorporated into the main storyline of Musekeweya, wherein the citizens of two fictional villages, “Muhumuro” and “Bumanzi,” are entangled in a conflict over land distribution. To heighten tensions between the villages, and with the aim to create an understanding amongst the audience that the radio-soap is similar to Rwandan history, the citizens from Bumanzi and Muhumuro have been given a different, yet unnamed and equally fictional, ethnic identity. In doing so, RLB believes that a safer space is created for the audience to discuss and reflect upon sensitive and traumatic issues that are currently present in their own country or village.

A prominent example of promoting positive role models that runs through the storyline of Musekeweya is the love relationship between Shema, a man from Bumanzi, and Batamuriza, a woman from Muhumoro. On both sides, their parents try to convince them not to relate with someone from the other village, because of the long-lasting and deeply rooted conflict between the villagers. Rather than listening to their parents’ negative statements about the people from the other village, Shema and Batamuriza decide to marry each other. In doing so, they move away from the conflict between the two villages (and their families). The moral of the story is clear: Shema and Batamuriza do not only personify present-day difficulties of interethnic love and marriage in Rwanda, they also present the possibilities of transitioning into a peaceful society. More specifically, by presenting how Shema and Batamuriza overcome the conflict of an older generation, RLB envisions to prevent scapegoating and overcome passivity in times of crisis.

Even though the current media landscape is very much restricted, RLB has been able to address sensitive issues by drawing a fictional, yet clear and transparent, analogy to Rwandan history. In doing so, RLB actively supports a change in the meaning and function of the radio. This change has been clear throughout the conversation I had with my Rwandan friend. When I asked him whether he was familiar with the radio-soap Musekeweya, he replied: “of course I do, everyone does. It is a theater show that makes us laugh and brings us together.” Our conversation demonstrated that the radio continues to be interwoven into the social fabric of Rwanda, but that the loom is now different. Thanks to the efforts of RLB, the radio has changed from being a symbol of hate and destruction to one of hope and reintegration.

See for further reading: Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Rwanda: Memory Management of the Younger Generation

Photo: Ivo Posthumus/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)
Photo: Ivo Posthumus/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

Photo: Ivo Posthumus/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

By Arja Oomkens

As 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, the country is moving away from its past but the painful burden is still vividly engraved in the minds of the Rwandan population. The difference with twenty years ago is the more prominent, and hopeful, voice of the younger generation. For children growing up in post-genocide Rwanda, life has not been easy. Many young ones lost their parents, almost everyone faced death in their immediate family and 1,2 million children were left orphaned.[1] Even for those that were born after 1994, life has not been without challenges. They are expected to remember the tragic events of the past and often have traumatic memories transposed onto them by close relatives. Even so, their voice is hopeful and their perspective of the future is bright.

That young Rwandans differ from the older generation is reflected in the way they perceive older relatives. During my research in Rwanda in the summer of 2013, many young interviewees (between 16 and 25 years old) explained that they feel that the older ones continue to live in the past while they prefer to focus on the future. In an interview, a seventeen-year-old boy from Byumba, the Northern part of Rwanda, stated that “old people are the ones that make you remember the differences… the young ones work together and play together. But once you go back home, they will make you remember that the friend you are playing with is the son of the bad guy… you know.” Another example that often came up is that marrying someone from “the other side” is not done and will most probably be prohibited by older relatives. Reasons given are that the other person is the daughter or son of someone that was responsible for the deaths in their family or, from the other perspective, that his or her family is the reason why most of “our” family is in jail. While this reasoning leads to much frustration among the youth, they are aware of the differences between the younger and older generation. One day, a Rwandan friend eloquently characterized this difference: “old people are like trees, they do not bend. For us, it is much easier.” Even though the younger generation has to deal with many imposed challenges, they do not stigmatize as much as the older one. As many young Rwandans demonstrated in their interviews, they are prone to engaging in dialogue and don’t shy away from critical assessments of their older relatives.

How did the context of post-genocide Rwanda create a social space to develop these young and bright perspectives of the future? One of the most important reasons is the top priority of the RPF-led government to create access to education. Rwanda has seen remarkable improvements in enrollment rates at primary schools. In 1997, there was a primary net enrollment rate (NER) of 65,3 percent, which rose to approximately 94,2 percent in 2008. With a NER average of 70 percent in 2006 for the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa, Rwanda finds itself well above average. With this grand improvement for primary education, Rwanda has evidently invested in the future of the young generation. In doing so, the government has created the foundation for further stabilization of the country.

Yet, Rwanda’s educational policies make it questionable whether these high access rates to primary education are truly promising for its youth. According to the government of Rwanda, the education system has to train citizens to be “free of any type of discrimination, exclusion and favoritism and thus contributing to the promotion of peace…” Ethnic differentiation is forbidden by government policy: All Rwandans belong to the same identity and must act accordingly.

Hence, in school, the youth learns not to criticize in order to attain the politicized purpose of national unity. The outcome of this policy is meant to be beneficial, as it is supposed to encourage the aspirations of the youth to live in an integrated and peaceful society. Yet, the downside is that critical thinking is not allowed outside the boundaries of the government-approved narrative. Therefore, to talk politics in Rwanda is a practice that makes its citizens nervous, as they are afraid to say anything that could be interpreted as criticism towards the government. This stands in sharp contrast with the earlier described mind-set of the progressive younger generation – who have shown themselves to be excellent critical thinkers when it comes to their perception of the “undbendable” older generation.

If young Rwandans already show that they are willing to work and play together and are able to move away from the embittered mindset of the older generation, it seems that there is space to allow critical thinking, especially on a political level. Critical thinking, in the form of open dialogue, allows young Rwandans to become objects, and not just subjects, on the road towards peace. Instead of their memories being managed by one imposed narrative, the younger generation must be given the possibility to manage their own memory and transform this into positive action.

[1] Paul Geltman and Eric Stover. 1997. “Genocide and the Plight of Rwanda’s children: letter from Kigali.” Journal of the American Medicial Association 277(4): 289 – 294.