Heretics Brown Bag: Susan Thomson on Rwandan Genocide

Jessica Benmen

Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Susan Thomson spoke last Thursday, February 6, at the weekly Heretics Club lunch in a packed-to-capacity chapel basement. Speaking about her experiences with the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, Thomson began her deeply poignant and troubling story with a disclaimer of her passion for the

subject material.

“I often get broadsided by men for the emotion and vulnerability I show and I never apologize for it,” she said. The truth of this statement was evident throughout the talk, as she made clear the powerful connection she felt toward her subject matter. 

Thomson’s journey to Rwanda started in 1993, when after finishing her master’s degree she accepted a job with the U.N. Mission to Somalia as a Nation-Building Officer. Less than a month later, the U.N. pulled out of the country when a group of Somali militias killed a delegation of Pakistini peacekeepers. This incident demonstrated one of the reoccurring themes of Thomson’s story, namely U.N. incompetency and ineffectiveness.

Thomson was then relocated to Madagascar, where she was tasked with monitoring the gender dynamics of food distribution in the wake of recent, destructive cyclones for ten months. This position, however, was also to be cut short due to sudden tragic circumstances. While waiting to be picked up and brought back to U.N. headquarters one afternoon, Thomson happened upon a funeral procession, during which a car hit and killed a young boy. Upon this fatal encounter, the driver exited the car and walked into the angry, jeering crowd, allowing them to disjoint and eventually decapitate him. After several days of processing this horrific incident, Thomson managed to tell her team what she had witnessed, and was met with shocking dismissiveness. It was at this point that she left the mission.  

After several months of “decompression,” Thomson returned to U.N. service in the form of a short mission to Rwanda to help assess a women’s cooperative in the city of Gitarama. Despite being assured that Rwanda was in the midst of a ceasefire, the military presence was immediately obvious to her upon arrival in the country. Particularly disconcerting, Thomson mentioned, was the absolute absence of communication she had with the local people, or “beneficiaries.” These people were the concern of the government, she was told, not the U.N.

On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying the Rwandan President Juv?enal Habyarimana was shot down, heralding the official beginning of the Rwandan genocide. At the U.N. headquarters in the city of Kigali, Thomson remained uninformed about the situation, simply being told to sit tight and await evacuation. Thomson and her colleagues received a small taste of the conflict when an armed militia invaded the compound and killed some of the Tutsi workers, threatening that they would come back for the rest of the staff.

“I am concerned with the experience of lived power,” Thomson said. “In conflict and violent situations like this, there are no clear bad guys and good guys. Everything is shades of gray.” Thomson made clear that genocide in Rwanda should not be considered an unfathomable occurrence, but rather one that could happen anywhere.

“I think one thing students can do is really think about who they are and what work is important to them,” Thomson said. “Take issues that are close to your heart, have patience that change can take a lifetime, and have a good network of people so that you don’t lose faith.”

Heretics Lunch is a weekly brown bag that takes place in the chapel basement every Wednesday at 12:15 p.m. This semester’s theme is “The ______ that changed my life.” Next week will feature Professor of English Michael Coyle giving the talk “The Modernist Poems That Changed My Life.”