The Girl Who Smiled Beads and the Experience of Genocide

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By Andrew Quist

Twenty-five years ago, over the course of 100 days, 1 million people were murdered in the Rwandan genocide. The killing was carried out by police, militia, soldiers, and ordinary citizens and coordinated over the radio. The minority Tutsi and Twa populations were targeted, along with moderate Hutu who opposed the genocide. The perpetrators were instructed to use machetes so the victims’ deaths would be as terrifying as possible. Clemantine Wamariya was six years old.

Wamariya escaped the genocide with her teenage sister Claire and spent six years traveling thousands of miles across Africa, living in refugee camps and city slums. Eventually, she and her sister were offered the opportunity to move to America through a UN refugee resettlement program. Wamariya lived with a host family in suburban Chicago, studied hard in school, and attended Yale University. She now lives in San Francisco and her life is dedicated to writing and speaking about her experience. Recently, Wamariya wrote an autobiography with writer Elizabeth Weil titled The Girl Who Smiled Beads.

According to Wamariya, an obstacle she frequently encounters when she gives talks about genocide is that while people are moved by her personal story and are compassionate toward her, they fail to appreciate that millions of other victims of atrocities have suffered—are suffering—just as acutely as she and her family. Her observations on people’s indifference to the larger scope of victims can be explained by psychological research on psychic numbing.

Psychologists have observed that people’s emotions are aroused more acutely and they are more inclined to act to help others when presented with a specific, identifiable person in need rather than a group of victims or information about statistical lives at risk, a phenomenon called “the identifiable victim effect.” As the psychologist Paul Slovic writes, “Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue ‘the one’ whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of ‘the one’ who is ‘one of many’ in a much greater problem.”

A stark contrast to the identifiable victim effect is the numbing that comes with hearing about statistics of casualties, called “psychic numbing.” According to Slovic, “the statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers, fail to convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action.”

To Wamariya, the inability for the human mind to appreciate on an emotional level the scale of suffering and death in a mass atrocity is encapsulated in the sterile nature of the word genocide itself. In The Girl Who Smiled Beads she writes:

The word genocide cannot articulate the one-person experience—the real experience of each of the millions it purports to describe. The experience of the child playing dead in a pool of his father’s blood. The experience of a mother forever wailing on her knees. . . . There’s no catchall term that proves you understand. There’s no label to peel and stick that absolves you, shows you’ve done your duty, you’ve completed the moral project of remembering. This—Rwanda, my life—is a different, specific, personal tragedy, just as each of those horrors was a different, specific, personal tragedy, and inside all those tidily labeled boxes are 6 million, or 1.7 million, or 100,000, or 100 billion lives destroyed. (pp. 94–95)

Wamariya sees parallels between her experience as a refugee and a victim of genocide with the victims of the war in Syria. Just as those who hear her story struggle to remember the larger scope of victims of the Rwandan genocide, she struggles to see beyond the one victim in front of her when encountering depictions of victims from the Syrian war. She writes:

The world cared deeply about refugees, for that thirty seconds. Aleppo was under siege. Migrants kept dying in the Mediterranean. Everybody’s Instagram and Facebook feeds were lit up with that searing photograph of the drowned baby boy on a beach. The photo was so powerful that whenever I heard the word “refugee” I saw that baby. I saw baby, water, boat, bright blue. . . . But it was hard to keep all of the many individual lives in focus. Tens of thousands were dying way over there, and look, here is this one precious baby or this one outstanding adult. I understood this. I did it myself. It’s truly impossible to hold all the single experiences of suffering in the world in your mind at the same time. The human brain can’t handle that much pain. You cannot differentiate and empathize with each of those distinct people. You cannot hear each of their stories and recognize every individual as strong and special, and continue with your day. (pp. 241–242)

Of course, it would be impossible and not desirable for the people in Wamariya’s audience to multiply the emotion they feel towards Wamariya by 1 million to account for the all the victims of the Rwandan genocide. But the lack of motivation to prevent and stop mass atrocities due to psychic numbing must be addressed. One way to motivate action may be to combine fast, intuitive thinking with slow, analytical thinking. Hearing the narrative of one victim in a large tragedy triggers our sympathy and motivation to help. If in this moment people pause and contemplate the larger scope of people in need of help, they may be better able to translate their desire to help into actions that would be beneficial to all victims, like addressing the underlying causes of the violence or lobbying their government to intervene to save innocent foreign lives.

You can learn more about Clemantine Wamariya and her life experience by watching her TED Talk, “War and What Comes After,” and by reading her book, The Girl Who Smiled Beads, and her essay, “Everything Is Yours. Everything Is not Yours.”

Photograph of the Kigali Genocide Memorial by Adam Jones, Ph.D. CC BY-SA 3.0