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Interview with Ugur Ümit Üngör, assistant professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies

Ugur Üngör
Ugur Ümit Üngör. Photo: Eduard Lampe

There is nothing imposing about the Ntarama church. A small, rectangular structure pockmarked by gaping holes in the wall and covered by a sheet of corrugated iron, Ntarama’s reddish bricks form a piercing contrast to the surrounding lushness of the Rwandan countryside. Inside the church, a powerful feeling of desolateness permeates the air. Rows of stone pews, strewn with dirty rags and other flotsam, lead to an altar at the back, where a weathered statue of the Virgin Mary stares blankly at the floor. Nearby, a stack of skulls, neatly arranged in front of a crimson-stained wall, seems to speak to a congregation long gone. For visitors to Ntarama, the chill of death is a constant companion.

In April of 1994, the Ntarama church became the site of one of the most horrific episodes in recent human history when thousands of predominantly Tutsi men, women and children were mercilessly slaughtered by the Interahamwe, a Hutu-led militia. Seeking refuge from the throes of genocidal violence convulsing Rwanda, civilians began flocking to the church at the beginning of April, armed with only the barest of essentials. Within days, their numbers had swelled to 5000, as more and more fellow Tutsis, ravenous with hunger and exhausted by fear, hoped to avoid the bloodshed taking place across the country.[1] Their struggle for survival proved ineffectual, however, when armed men started to encircle the church compound on the 15th of April. Having sealed off all the escape routes, Interahamwe fighters began to hurl grenades at the church building – into which most of the civilians had huddled together in search of safety – before eventually managing to break down the door. The slaughter that followed continues to defy description. According to the few remaining survivors, panga-wielding Hutu fighters started hacking away indiscriminately, yet methodically; women were clubbed to death, children’s heads cracked open against walls, men stabbed and eviscerated like cattle. At the end of this orgy of violence, with their bloodlust temporarily sated, the génocidaires moved on to their next targets. Three months later, at the end of the Rwandan Genocide, the dead were estimated to be between 500,000 and 1,000,000.[2]

Despite its own appalling peculiarities, the Rwandan Genocide shares its most disturbing feature with other 20th-century genocides: the systematic and planned extermination of one group by another. Nevertheless, when one compares the Rwandan Genocide with other mass killings, such as the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, a number of recognisable parallels can be discerned, but also several peculiarities. It is these parallels and peculiarities that Ugur Ümit Üngör spends most of his working hours analysing, mapping and trying to understand. An assistant professor at the Universities of Utrecht and Amsterdam, as well as researcher at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Ümit Üngör has during his short career received much acclaim for his work on genocide and mass violence, including the 2006 UvA Thesis of the Year Award and the prestigious 2012 Heineken Young Scientist of the Year Award. In this month’s UvA in the Spotlight, we talk to Ümit Üngör about the Rwandan Genocide, his forthcoming research project and how to deal with such a terrible phenomenon on a daily basis.

Why Holocaust and genocide studies?

Although I’ve always been interested in history, my decision to specialise in Holocaust and genocide came as a result of a personal experience I had in 2002. I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room in Istanbul watching a television programme about a Turkish academic denying that a genocide had ever taken place in Turkey. Listening to his denial, I looked at my grandmother and asked her whether she knew anything of such a genocide. My grandmother, who was busy knitting, looked up at me and responded matter-of-factly that Armenian citizens had been killed in our hometown during World War One. Her reply confused me, and made me wonder how the state could claim one thing and ordinary citizens something completely different. Later, during my travels across Turkey, I met several older people who admitted knowing that the massacre had taken place and contradicting the official version of events given by the Turkish state.

My interest in the Armenian Genocide later formed the basis for my dissertation Young Turk Social Engineering: Mass Violence and the Nation State in Turkey, 1913-1950, which argues that the Armenian Genocide was the very first of its kind. Why? Because it was conducted successfully and because most of the perpetrators were later richly rewarded with key posts in the newly created Turkish state.

Being faced with mass murder on a daily basis can’t be easy. How do you manage to deal with such difficult subject matter?

The overriding feeling is always one of ambivalence. I wouldn’t be human if such horror didn’t affect me. Nevertheless, in my field it isn’t advisable to become too emotionally involved. There are numerous examples of researchers who struggled to manage their emotions and ended up being psychologically traumatised and unable to continue doing research. I see my own role as that of a surgeon. When confronted with a horrible injury, say a severed leg, a surgeon tries to see beyond the gruesomeness and blood, and instead thinks of possible ways to ameliorate the patient’s pain and treat the wound successfully. As someone who spends every day researching genocidal phenomena, I always try to take a sober, clinical view of things. For example, when my students and I watch a video about atrocities, such as the shocking footage coming out of Syria, I focus on aspects such as the perpetrators’ behaviour, the victims’ anguish, the group dynamics, chain of command, etc. In short: I try and prevent my emotions from clouding my capacity to make a thorough, objective analysis.

A memorial plaque dedicated to the victims of the Ntarama church massacre. Photo: Phillip Kromer

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. What do you think of the Kagame government’s attempt to foster reconciliation by suppressing Hutu/Tutsi identification and imposing a shared Rwandan identity?

Rwandan society, like all societies affected by genocide, has been irreparably damaged. That is what genocide does; it leaves indelible marks that cannot be totally erased. Paul Kagame, as the head of a state still coming to terms with the horrors of the recent past, is faced with the daunting challenge of trying to heal what is essentially a fractured society. Viewed within this context, his attempt to impose a shared identity and remove all references to Hutu/Tutsi identity is understandable, but perhaps also naïve. However lofty its motives, no state on earth can force a single identity on its citizens, not matter what kind of measures are employed. 

This fixation on forging one common, collective identity is a corollary of the Rwandan state’s obsession with safety and self-preservation. The Kagame regime’s resolute determination to prevent such an atrocity from ever reoccurring has parallels with other post-genocidal states. Israel, Armenia, Rwanda: these countries all share a trauma that is constantly revealed in its exaggerated response to any perceived threat, real or imaginary. Of course, these observations are not meant to negate the very real progress the Kagame regime has made in trying to come to terms with the past. It deserves special credit for the way it has allowed the events of 1994 to be discussed, debated and remembered within the country. Regardless of its tactics, Kagame has sought to promote reconciliation between Rwandans, which could be lauded.

One of the Rwandan Genocide’s most disturbing features was the fact that many of the perpetrators and victims knew one another, some even having been neighbours and family members. What does such a seemingly erratic propensity for violence say about the human condition?

This question touches on one of the most existential and theological dilemmas on earth: are people born evil, or are they naturally good but easily corrupted. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to this age-old question. What I do know is this: the moment at which a weapon is picked up and used for the purpose of killing is only the final stage in a long process of radicalisation. People don’t just wake up and start killing at random, but are usually ‘hardened’ by years of conflict, polarisation and persecution. Once the level of polarisation becomes too extreme and a society too divided, opposing groups are formed and the threshold for violence comes into reach. All of these stages took place in Rwanda between 1991 and 1994.

Despite your short academic career, you have received many awards, including the UvA Thesis of the Year Award and the 2012 Heineken Young Scientist Award. What does such recognition mean to you as a researcher?

On a personal level, it is gratifying to see one’s hard work paying off and being appreciated by others. Such awards, however, are more important for the attention they draw to the subject of genocide and mass violence. They also validate the importance of the work that my peers and I do in trying to address, explore and bring into the open a theme that is difficult to deal with, but nonetheless needs to be spoken about. This does justice to the victims of genocidal violence, but also serves a practical purpose. If we are to prevent such atrocities from ever reoccurring, it is vital that we understand genocidal phenomena and learn to identify their most disturbing features.

You recently received a Vidi grant for a new research project. Can you tell us more about it?

Most of my previous research was focused on specific genocides, such as the Armenian Genocide. Over the last few years my gaze has shifted to genocidal phenomena in general. This has led to me think and question how genocides have been able to take place across diverse countries and different periods. In my forthcoming research project, I would like to build on this by using a more comparative approach to genocide. One of my main aims will be to throw light on the perpetrators of genocide and the formation of paramilitary organisations, which are non-regular armed forces that are usually responsible for doing ‘the dirty work’. Why do states create such paramilitary groups? Who are the people who end up joining such groups, and why do they actively decide to take part? How do these units function? In discussing these themes, my approach will be cross-disciplinary and will incorporate history, social psychology and anthropology.

I realise that to successfully navigate such a sweeping theme might be a bit of tall order, but that’s where the satisfaction of research lies. To be a truly good researcher, you need to always remain a student: fascinated, intrepid and full of wonder for the world that surrounds us.  

[1]'Ntarama, a story of untold barbarism'

[2] 'The Ntarama church massacre'

Read more about the Master's in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the UvA