Invasion of Privacy: Political science professor recounts thought-provoking lessons from Rwandan genocide

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An outside observer might wrongly deem Geneseo a sea of homogeneity. A closer examination, however, reveals a campus community comprised of dynamic individuals whose personal histories give a face to events that students now study. 

Visiting assistant professor of political science Reverien Mfizi, born in 1979, grew up in Rwanda’s northeastern region, near the country’s border with Uganda. Mfizi, who left Rwanda in 2000, survived the Rwandan genocide of the late 1990s. 

With a university scholarship, Mfizi immigrated to the United States 17 years ago and landed in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he attended La Roche College. After studying English as a second language, Mfizi began his political science courses.  

“La Roche was small, which was okay at that time because I think I would have been lost if it was a big college,” he said. “It was a good college and I was on a scholarship, and I also had my friends with me.”

After Pittsburgh, Mfizi moved to Western New York, where he pursued a graduate degree in political science at the University at Buffalo. In his final year of graduate school, Mfizi learned that Geneseo had an open adjunct professor position, for which his advisor encouraged him to apply. 

Although Mfizi has taught politics for several years, he has lived through significant political conflict—the kind that his own students might study—as well. When the Rwandan genocide began in 1994, Mfizi still lived in the country, where he witnessed the tragedy firsthand.

“I was born in northeastern Rwanda, so … when the civil war started—this is basically the area that was hit by the first waves of the attacks,” Mfizi said.

The intracountry violence escalated in the months surrounding Mfizi’s 15th birthday. His relatively young age, however, did not obscure the harsh realities that characterized Rwandan society at that time. Increasingly heightened tensions signaled underlying hostilities that made the ultimate genocidal eruption unsurprising, according to Mfizi.

“One of the reasons why we moved was because of insecurity and obviously I had seen how the country changed, including the killing of civilians,” he said. “We were losing neighbors and losing friends; families were being divided.”

World leaders—from Pope Francis to French government officials—have issued statements in the 20 plus years since the Rwandan genocide apologizing for an insufficient global response to the violence. Indeed, as the conflict unfolded, calls for aid largely fell on deaf Western ears. Critics contest that these apologies—without offering reparations or galvanizing reconstruction—still prove insufficient. 

“Apologies are apologies, but apologies do not return our loved ones,” Mfizi said. “Apologies have limits, but I think what they can do and what they’re able to do is create some type of understanding.”

Mfizi maintained that both Rwanda and Western countries have not yet reconciled the legacy and implications of the Rwandan genocide.

“There’s a lot of things still missing—there are no reparations, there are perpetrators who are still outside who have not been brought to justice,” Mfizi said. 

Although global inaction catalyzed devastation in Rwanda, Mfizi believes that everyone can learn about responsibility from the inattention afforded to Rwanda on the global stage. From Rwanda, the global community should interrogate its failures and the concept of responsibility, according to Mfizi. 

Mfizi stressed the necessity of early intervention against extremist regimes. He also reiterated the crucial importance of discussing tragedy, sharing experiences and doggedly pursuing justice.

“What Americans can do is also learn the lessons about what can be done on campus; supporting groups, trying to create an encompassing community, understanding diversity,” Mfizi said. “Also be proactive in denouncing some aspects of extremism and discrimination against minority groups or hate speech.”

Mfizi commended the college administration’s proactivity in denouncing extremism and discrimination against marginalized groups. He believes that such action—when taken globally—reduces the risk of violent extremism.u

 Visiting assistant professor of political science Reverien Mfizi immigrated from Rwanda to Pittsburgh, Pa. in 2000. While in Rwanda, Mfizi survived a civil war that culminated in holocaust. (Annalee Bainnson/Photo Editor)

Visiting assistant professor of political science Reverien Mfizi immigrated from Rwanda to Pittsburgh, Pa. in 2000. While in Rwanda, Mfizi survived a civil war that culminated in holocaust. (Annalee Bainnson/Photo Editor)