Publisher: African Studies Association

On Behalf of Ordinary People: Bridging The Gap Between High Politics and Simple Tragedies

Danielle De Lame
KEYWORDS: On Behalf of Ordinary People: Bridging the Gap between High Politics and Simple Tragedies


Without minimizing the horrors of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the book by Marie Béatrice Umutesi, Fuir ou mourir au Zaïre (“Running Away or Dying in Zaïre,” L'Harmattan, 2000), published under the English title Surviving the Slaughter: The Ordeal of a Rwandan Refugee in Zaire” throws a much needed light on the plight of Rwandan refugees in Kivu from the time they fled Rwanda, many of them as ordinary, peaceful citizens. If we want to understand the events that continue to unfold in the region, and if we want to improve the aid humanitarian agencies provide, we need to consider Umutesi's story—a story in which distant international organizations, with their own views and objectives, took actions that had deleterious consequences for ordinary people.While some refugees pursued dubious policies in the camps, people of good will went on helping others while they all were in exile. Their collective support systems helped them retain their dignity under the worst of circumstances and, when their fragile safe haven came under attack, helped them endure a hell that seemed at times unendurable. Telling the complete history, as Jan Vansina helped to do in his recent book (2004), and putting ordinary people back into the picture, are the surest ways to avoid lethal stereotypes and quick categorizations that hinder our understanding of complex situations and produce simplifications that contribute to more injustice.

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