Cantrell on Fox, 'After Genocide: Memory and Reconciliation in Rwanda'

Nicole Fox
Phillip Cantrell

Nicole Fox. After Genocide: Memory and Reconciliation in Rwanda. Critical Human Rights Series. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2021. xv + 254 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-299-33220-4

Reviewed by Phillip Cantrell (Longwood University) Published on H-Genocide (March, 2023) Commissioned by Lucy J. Gaynor

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Nicole Fox, assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University in Sacramento, has offered a timely and important analysis of an under-studied aspect of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Published by the University of Wisconsin Press in their Critical Human Rights series, After Genocide: Memory and Reconciliation in Rwanda examines how genocide memorials and remembrance services are being processed by Rwandan survivors decades after the event. Drawing on nine years of field research and seventy-two oral interviews with survivors, as well as voluminous secondary sources, Fox has made a worthy contribution to the University of Wisconsin’s growing portfolio of Rwanda titles.

The first chapter offers readers who might be unfamiliar with Rwanda’s past, prior to and after the genocide, a generally concise and accurate history. For this task, she draws on the secondary works of most of the established historians in the field. While the author glosses over or misses some of the nuances surrounding the meaning of Hutu and Tutsi prior to colonial rule, nuances that might have added to her later analysis, the chapter is without error. Fox is to be commended for condensing an extensive and complicated history into a very readable chapter, setting the stage well for understanding the post-1994 traumas of the Rwandan people.

In the second chapter, Fox discusses the establishment of a “literally inescapable” number of memorials by the Rwandan state in the years after the genocide ended, totaling in 2017 “more than 500 and in 2019, more than 750” (p. 44). Fox notes that the memorials serve several useful purposes beyond being sites of memory and consecration. In a nation that found itself inundated with nearly one million bodies, the earliest memorials alleviated public health concerns and removed from sight what the author calls “eminent trauma triggers (shallow mass graves, blood, bodily remains)” by collecting and housing the remains in appropriate spaces (p. 55). The author also correctly notes that the “current regime in Rwanda uses memorials as instruments of state-building and power consolidation by creating a singular narrative of perpetrator and victim” (p. 47). I would have liked to have seen further elaboration of Rwanda’s perpetrator-victim narrative, which is used by the state to present a history of the genocide that misleadingly promotes collective guilt among the Hutu and blames past violence solely on European colonialism. Nonetheless, the author concludes the chapter by suggesting that the memorials “have the capacity to bring much-needed hope to survivors of atrocity” (p. 55).

Chapter 3 moves beyond the physical description of the memorials to argue that survivors have used them to process the memory of the genocide in two ways. First, the memorials help survivors process culpability for the violence by holding forth a distinct narrative of Rwanda’s past. While it is hoped, by many survivors and the regime, that such a narrative will help prevent future violence, Fox contends that many survivors also contest the narrative by drawing their own personal meaning from it. Secondly, the memorials provide space for survivors to honor the innocent lives lost, likewise in the hope that, in so doing, violence can be prevented in the future. Fox describes this process as “meaning-making,” that is, a survivor’s approach to “understanding situations, events, objects and discourse in light of their experiences and interpretations of the world around them” (p. 57). While no determination can be made as to whether or not this meaning-making process will affect possible future violence, it does at least, in Fox’s view, give the survivors a degree of control and agency over their past experiences as they continue to grieve.

The fourth and fifth chapters each analyze a particular aspect of how genocide memory in Rwanda has, perhaps unwittingly, created and abetted a sense of stratification in how trauma is processed. Chapter 4 discusses the consequences of many survivors’ physical responses to extreme trauma. The response to those exhibiting physical displays of grief has led to what Fox terms the “stratification of collective memory,” or a process whereby “certain memories are elevated while others are marginalized in an attempt to create a more unified national narrative” (p. 74). As a result, many survivors, such as those victimized by sexual assault, the very poor, and people with emotional or mental wounds, have found themselves and their stories marginalized from the narrative and even their physical presence is often removed from commemorative events. In the next chapter, Fox pays special attention to the thousands who suffered from rape and sexual torture. Regarding how the survivors of these horrific acts were treated, Fox found that the memorial sites did one, or a combination, of three things: “enforce existing silence about SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence), disrupt that silence, or react with hesitance” (p. 97). While Fox describes many admirable facets of how Rwanda has pursued gender equality since the genocide, such as having the highest percentage in the world of women in parliament, along with a Ministry of Gender, the author nonetheless found a divide between Rwanda’s forward-looking reconciliation narrative and those who have stories to tell of sexual violence and trauma. The result has been a grievous lack of inclusion for women, as well as men, who were traumatized by SGBV.

In the sixth chapter, Fox makes use of her oral interviews to analyze how survivors have experienced reconciliation in two aspects. One, embraced on the macro, state level, is through what the author calls the “reconciliation formula,” referring to the expectation of survivors to offer forgiveness when a perpetrator confesses wrongdoing, although Fox found this formula sorely lacking as none of her interviewees reported having experienced this. The second aspect is the daily interactions between people from different ethnic groups. In this, many interviewees reported progress and feelings of safety on the community level and in their daily activities with one another in public spaces. For the author, this “disjuncture between the macro formulaic ideal and the micro everyday practices of reconciliation” underscores the need for scholars to continue to “conceptualize, measure, and analyze peacebuilding after mass violence,” for which Fox offers several implications for future researchers to consider (p. 127). In her final and concluding chapter, Fox summarizes her findings, arguing that for future cases of genocide, war, and human rights atrocities, Rwanda teaches us that “we must listen hard for silences, notice who is not represented, and ask who is not at the table” if genuine reconciliation is to be achieved (p. 141).

Offering rich insights and original thinking based on voluminous primary research, Fox's book is to be highly commended for addressing a critical area on contemporary Rwanda. For any reader concerned either specifically with Rwanda’s post-genocide recovery or the process of reconciliation and memory following mass atrocities in general, After Genocide is an exceptionally worthwhile read. Owing to the complexity of the topic and the depth of writing, the book would be a difficult undertaking in an undergraduate course, but for a graduate-level seminar or any scholar pursuing a related research project, After Genocide has much to offer not found elsewhere.

Citation: Phillip Cantrell. Review of Fox, Nicole, After Genocide: Memory and Reconciliation in Rwanda. H-Genocide, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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