Christopher Davey of Clark’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies will spend the summer continuing to uncover a story that has yet to be fully told: that of Rwandan Hutus who survived multiple attacks on refugee camps in Congo nearly 30 years ago.
In the history of the longstanding conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — formerly known as Zaire — “people are often pigeonholed as victims or perpetrators” of violence and genocide, but the reality is much more complex, Davey says.
“The phrase that I use is ‘multidirectional conflict.’ It’s not party A or party B trying to do harm to each other or win power one over the other; there are lots of parties,” he explains. “In Congo today, you have 120 different armed groups of different sizes and scales, but by and large, they are linked back to the conflict around the attacks on these refugee camps.” The violence generated hate, which, in turn, he adds, “radicalized a lot of people.”
Davey, the Charles E. Scheidt Visiting Assistant Professor of Genocide Studies and Prevention with the Strassler Center from 2021 to 2023 and now an affiliated researcher, and Claudine Kuradusenge-McLeod, chair of the Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights Program and professorial lecturer at American University, have been named Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Distinguished Scholars, which will help support their ongoing research project.
This summer, the Guggenheim Scholars, along with their research assistant, Maseeng Masitha-Brossman, GIS-M.S. ’21, will interview Rwandan Hutu refugees who have settled in Canada, South Africa, and Belgium, a former colonial power that once ruled over Congo and Ruanda-Urundi (modern Rwanda and Burundi). Davey also will travel to Congo, investigating locations cited by the refugees.
“We’re interested in trying to stitch back together what are now very disparate elements of this story, then go back to the places where this happened and see what kind of legacy and impact those attacks had on the space and on the community,” Davey explains.
“The attacks on these refugees from 1996 to 1997 happened very quickly,” he adds, “but were at the root of two continental-wide wars in Africa and ongoing violence that has gotten a lot worse in Congo since 2017 and up to the present.”
The International Rescue Committee estimates that nearly 5.4 million people died due to violence, disease, and malnutrition during and after the First and Second Congo wars, which lasted from 1996 to 2003 — with just a one-year break in between — making the conflict the globe’s deadliest since World War II.
Once the researchers assemble the refugees’ narratives and other data, Masitha-Brossman and Sophia Hayes ’24, a geography and environmental science double-major, will apply their geographic information science (GIS) skills to build an interactive website where people can navigate the refugees’ journeys. The survivors traveled hundreds of miles, “from one end of Congo to another, being chased from makeshift refugee camp to makeshift refugee camp,” Davey says, eventually escaping and settling abroad.
“These Rwandan members of the diaspora describe themselves as being Hutu because that’s the basis on which they were attacked,” he explains. “Simply put, that’s the reason they were targeted, and that’s the reason why they are still excluded from the Rwandan state and are unable to go back home because of how that distinction was framed.”
Davey credits Kuradusenge-McLeod, his former undergraduate student at Utah Valley University and a Rwandan scholar, with helping him better understand the lengthy, tangled conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis. He read her application to graduate school in 2011, where she described her family’s harrowing experience in the refugee camps.
Hutu survivors have mostly remained silent about the massacre of Rwandan refugees during the First Congo War, known as Africa’s First World War. Nearly 200,000 Hutus were killed by Tutsi-led Rwandan Defense Forces that had invaded then-Zaire, according to Amnesty International.
“Silencing became an easy and safe alternative,” explains Kuradusenge-McLeod, because “it is traumatic to be known as the perpetrator. Many just want to move one. Others are either used as guinea pigs, especially by policymakers and researchers, or face persecution.”
A 550-page U.N. report released in 2010 mapped human rights abuses in the DRC from 1993 to 2003, including “617 alleged violent incidents … that [point] to the possible commission of gross violations of human rights and/or international humanitarian law.”
“I first learned about this story through Claudine’s eyes,” Davey says. “Then I came across the U.N. report, which talks about how the victims had become perpetrators, and the perpetrators had become victims, and everybody in the region, particularly in Congo from 1993 to 2003, had experienced some form of victimization or suffering from violence.”
Some scholars have raised the notion of a “double genocide,” in which the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) — which has controlled Rwanda since winning the civil war in 1994 — killed Hutus who had fled to Congo following the Rwandan genocide. The Tutsi-led defense forces were retaliating against the Hutu-armed militias’ massacre of half a million Tutsis and their sympathizers from April to June 1994, according to these scholars.
The U.N. report, in turn, was rejected by the Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda governments, all three of which it accused of perpetuating violence.
“In our project, we’re not looking to turn the tables on governments or to change global narratives about history, but we’re looking to tell this story and to do that through the voices of people who survived this experience and also to connect it back to the sites where they experienced this.”
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, European colonization of the region exacerbated longstanding differences between the Hutus and Tutsis. In Rwanda, German colonizers and their successors, the Belgians, favored the Tutsis, whom they believed to be racially superior. Eventually, the Belgians put Hutus in control, where they remained after the country became independent in 1962.
In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded northern Rwanda, starting the civil war. RFP rebels were accused of shooting down a plane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi in April 1994, and Hutu militias began hunting down and killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Within months, RPF had won the civil war and taken over the Rwandan government. In 1996, it invaded the failing state of Zaire, where 1.5 million Rwandan refugees — mostly Hutus — had fled.
Davey’s dissertation research at the University of Bradford explored the perpetrators’ side of the 1996-97 conflict in Congo; he conducted fieldwork in the DCR and Rwanda and interviewed Congolese Tutsi, or Banyamulenge, soldiers. His upcoming book with Michigan University Press, he says, will focus on “why these groups did what they did, and that opened up a much bigger story.”
As part of a connected project, he has interviewed survivors of a massacre that killed 166 people, most of them Banyamulenge fleeing violence in Congo, on Aug. 13, 2004, at a U.N. refugee camp near Gatumba, Burundi. This summer, Keasha Buchana ’25, a double major in economics and international development and social change at Clark from Uganda and native speaker of Kinyarwanda, the national language of Rwanda, will assist him with the project.
Yet, Davey explains, “I still haven’t told the story I wanted to tell right from the beginning,” when he read Kuradusenge-McLeod’s narrative. “The Guggenheim Foundation grant allows Claudine and me to investigate these stories from these different perspectives.”