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  • TerrortoriesGeographies of Genocide in Rwanda
  • Shaun Irlam (bio)

Every genocide has its geography, an atlas of atrocity that remains the singular and indelible spatial signature of a regime gorged on human suffering and death. Each such regime is characterized by myriad disciplinary rites and spatial practices that, in one fashion or another, re-inscribe the civic space or national territory to become a zone or weapon of terror instead of a space sheltered under the rule of law. Even more sinisterly, the rogue regime produces a parody of law that confiscates basic protections from certain members of the nation, banishing them to the margins of society, restricting their access to social services, and obstructing paths of social mobility on the basis of arbitrarily contrived categories, such as race, religion, ethnicity, or some other biopolitically determined criterion. (We shall return to biopolitics and its intimate relation to spatial politics and genocide.) The vast, nervous system of railroads and sealed boxcars that converged on concentration camps centering around gas chambers has become iconic of the spatial [End Page 93] practices of the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. Similarly, the huge, fleeing hordes of Hutu refugees swarming from Rwanda into eastern Congo became iconic of the Rwandan genocide (it appeared to matter little to TV audiences and aid donors that these were actually defeated perpetrators, not victims—the images alone announced some massive social catastrophe), establishing Rwanda as a grim "land of superlatives" (Sehène 1999, 99) in the summer of 1994.1

The thread guiding this discussion is that the projection of power within any political arrangement yields a certain signature "production of space" (Henri Lefebvre's phrase). A given spatial praxis is at once the expression of power as well as the condition of its possibility, intensive and extensive expressions of intentionality each defining and conditioning the other; for example, the fortress and walled city are both the expression as well as the sanctuary and refuge of political power in medieval societies.

In recent decades, Lefebvre (1992), Fredric Jameson (1991), Edward Soja (1989), David Harvey, and others working in the field of human geography have all written at length about the production of modernist and postmodern space. Similarly, in postcolonial theory, analysts have been attentive to the production of colonialist space with the attendant surveillance practices that such spaces facilitated. Frantz Fanon memorably evoked the Manichean, racialized geography of the colony in the opening pages of The Wretched of the Earth as a world of binary division and opposition, governed by an Aristotelian logic of mutual exclusion, "a world divided into compartments, a motionless Manicheistic world, a world of statues" (1963, 51, cf. 37). Likewise, Benjamin Sehène describes pre-1994 Rwanda as a "territory cut in two" (1999, 173). Despite a half-century of postcolonial governance, the contours of colonialism still remain firmly imprinted in the Rwandan social fabric.

As Fanon also presciently foresaw, many first-generation postcolonial states in Africa, controlled by a corrupt nationalist bourgeoisie, perpetuated an essentially colonial spatial logic and political organization, retaining a quasi-colonial security apparatus in the form of an autocratic police state concentrated in the hands of a small power elite. This was particularly the case in Rwanda after independence, where, under two consecutive Hutu republics between 1962 and 1994, one witnessed the rise of a tightly [End Page 94] centralized state with virtually no dissenting voices. A military coup in 1973 that led to the overthrow of President Grégoire Kayibanda, the leader elected after independence, did little to alter the fundamentally autocratic and highly bureaucratized character of the state. Thus, despite the abrupt and wholesale transfer of power from a minority Tutsi elite, long supported by Belgium, to a Hutu majority in 1962, there was an underlying continuity in the political culture of Rwanda during the transformation from Belgian colonial rule to the totalitarian postcolonial space synthesized during the Habyarimana decades (1973–94).

Public space became a theater for the exhibition and extension of state power through such regular state rituals as the military parade; choreographed, sycophantic party rallies; and the cult of the leader.2 Civic space was turned over to the staging and display of the...


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