Profile: Professor Susan Thomson maintains a cool demeanor despite having lived through heated moments in Africa.
Article by Aleta Mayne and illustrations by Jim Dryden
“Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things,” said Professor Susan Thomson. This philosophy can be a challenge to embrace — we tend to categorize others as either “good” or “bad.” But even after experiencing the Rwandan genocide (and a host of other unimaginably violent events), Thomson has learned to recognize the humanity in all people. “Even the most heinous of killers, in my opinion, deserve justice.”
For the peace and conflict studies professor who is also a trained human rights attorney, this belief isn’t just rhetoric. She dedicates several hours a week to defending people — even some of her critics — who are in desperate circumstances, potentially helping to save their lives. In addition, as an author of two books (a third is in the works) and numerous articles, as well as an oft-cited expert on Rwanda, Thomson is outspoken about her perspective and experiences — to a point. Her stance is considered dangerously controversial by some and, at times, has put her in difficult positions. In fact, for her own comfort and safety, there is a limit to her disclosure in this article.
In the preface of Whispering Truth to Power, her most recent book, Thomson recounts some of the horrendous ordeals that she lived through in Africa and is still trying to process. With this year being the 20th anniversary of the genocide, Thomson has been reflecting on how her past is shaping her current work as a professor, human-rights advocate, and scholar-practitioner.
Mogadishu, June 1993: Young and optimistic — or “naïve,” as she’d say now — 23-year-old Thomson arrived in Somalia to begin her first post as a nation-building officer with the U.N. Assistance Mission. “I wanted to experience a part of the world that was rarely discussed in my undergraduate political science courses but featured frequently in the evening news,” she said.
In addition, Thomson aspired to work for the United Nations, which she held in the highest regard. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, “I learned in social studies classes that former Prime Minister Lester Pearson was the grandfather of modern peacekeeping — the quintessential Canadian value,” she said. (Pearson won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for his work as president of the U.N. General Assembly.)
But, after only three weeks, she and her team were evacuated when Somali militias killed 23 Pakistani peacekeepers. Although Thomson didn’t know it at the time, the nature of that mission hinted at future assignments.
September 1993, cyclone-ravaged Madagascar: The United Nations sent Thomson to monitor the gender dynamics of food distribution. “After Somalia, it was kind of a cushy gig,” she joked wryly. The mission was supposed to be a 10-month appointment, but was cut short after three — this time after Thomson saw a man get publicly butchered.
“Time stood still as I watched,” she said. The men began to dismember the driver using farm implements: “They took off his hand, they took off his elbow … they broke his ribcage as you would a Christmas turkey,” Thomson recalled.
One afternoon, having finished her day’s work in a rural community early, Thomson returned to the U.N. pickup spot on the main road. Sitting on a rock as she waited for her ride, Thomson idly watched cars, motorbikes, and passersby navigate the muddy road. Along came a funeral procession on foot, led by the relatives of the deceased and men carrying the shrouded body on a stretcher. Children, dogs, and goats followed behind. “Suddenly, there was a thud and then a loud wailing and incessant screeching,”
Thomson recalled. A motorist had accidentally struck and killed a boy at the back of the procession. In response, the pallbearers put the stretcher down and approached the driver, who got out of his car and crossed his outstretched arms, giving himself up. “Time stood still as I watched,” she said. The men began to dismember the driver using farm implements: “They took off his hand, they took off his elbow … they broke his ribcage as you would a Christmas turkey,” Thomson recalled.
“Time stood still as I watched,” she said. The men began to dismember the driver using farm implements: “They took off his hand, they took off his elbow … they broke his ribcage as you would a Christmas turkey,” Thomson recalled.
(“If anyone wonders why I’m a vegetarian, that’s why; my position is don’t kill anything,” she added soberly.) The crowd cheered as the driver was decapitated, and then it was over. The men picked up the boy’s body and kept walking. For three hours — “an eternity” — Thomson waited for her ride, alone and shaking.
When she reported the event to her boss, he explained that it was an example of how the culture’s tribes resolve conflict (“an eye for an eye”). Traumatized, Thomson had a nervous breakdown and was medically evacuated to Sweden, where she spent four months in talk therapy. “It was a surreal event, one that I struggled to make sense of for a long time,” she said.
March 1994, Rwanda: In order to assess her readiness to continue working for the United Nations, Thomson had to complete a trial mission. She was given the choice of Rwanda or Malawi and picked the former “as only a twenty-three-year-old could,” she said. Two simple reasons: she missed speaking French, and Rwanda was a quicker flight to her base in Nairobi. The assignment seemed easy: for three weeks, visit women’s cooperatives to review how they were using U.N. funding, and write a report. Once again, an underlying current in the country would complicate matters.
Although there was a civil war in Rwanda between the government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF; rebels at the time, but today the ruling political party), Thomson was informed that there was a cease-fire in effect. Her U.N. handler assured her that she would be safe. But arriving in the capital, Kigali, Thomson was disconcerted by the obvious military presence: “platoons marching, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], buildings blown out.”
“I never got to speak directly to the people I wanted to speak to,” she said. It would be many years until she would have such an opportunity.
At U.N. headquarters, she was briefed that she would be working in Gitarama, 30 miles southwest of Kigali. During the assessments, Thomson was struck by “the inequalities between the local representatives and the broader membership.” The leaders, who were elite members of society, were beautifully dressed and well coiffed. Meanwhile, the peasants were emaciated and had split feet and hands. Thomson’s job was to speak to the local representatives; when she asked if she could talk to the peasants to find out how they were benefitting from the funding, she was told that it wasn’t part of her job.“I never got to speak directly to the people I wanted to speak to,” she said. It would be many years until she would have such an opportunity.
A week and a half into the mission, on April 6 at around 8:30 p.m., Thomson returned to headquarters, where her colleagues were debating where to eat dinner. Suddenly, they heard a loud crash outside, but didn’t know what had happened until they received a phone call from the U.N. Assistance Mission about two hours later. “Stay put,” they were told. The plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana had been shot down as it approached the airport; he and everyone on board had died. Within two short hours, the Hutu militia was setting up roadblocks around the city, and the mass killings began, sparking the genocide.
Holed up at headquarters for a week, Thomson and her colleagues waited to be evacuated. “The paralyzing fear I felt in Madagascar [six months prior] flooded my system,” she reflected in Whispering Truth to Power. “I spent the next few days numb, without words and without reaction, largely unaware and unable to imagine the systematic and structured killing that was going on outside.” The staffers got a glimpse of what was happening when armed militia forcibly entered the compound and murdered all Tutsi staff members, including Thomson’s driver and translator. “Their remains lay in the courtyard, and we had to step around and over their decomposing bodies to get to the cars that would take us by road to Uganda,” she recalled.
6 facts about Susan Thomson
- Attended a Buddhist private high school
- Has kept stacks of Moleskine journals that are elaborately coded to ensure the anonymity of people she writes about (e.g., “I use the initials of my favorite TV characters.”)
- Has two sons: one born in Nairobi, Kenya, 1996; one born in Kigali, Rwanda, 1999
- Leads a weekly meditation group on campus at the Center for Women’s Studies
- Bungee jumped at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe
- This year received 3 Torch Medals, given by graduating seniors to someone at Colgate who had a significant influence on them
Follow Thomson on Twitter @susanmthomson
Read her recent New York Times op-ed “Why Are Rwandans Disappearing?”
Against the advice of others, Thomson continued working for the United Nations and returned to her base in Nairobi in May 1994. “What I had experienced in Kigali became a constant preoccupation,” she recalled. As the media presented grisly photos and reports about genocide fueled by ethnic hatred, Thomson tried to make sense of Rwanda’s political situation. “The more I read, the less I knew.”
At first, her work involved writing access-to-land reports, but “it felt ridiculous to be at my desk,” she said. She wanted to be in the field, helping people (although she wouldn’t know what to call it until years later, Thomson was burdened with survivor’s guilt). So, in 1995, Thomson took a job investigating sexual violence at refugee camps in Tanzania, alongside a team of delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Over the next couple of years, Thomson traveled back and forth to Africa for short stints. “These experiences are so intense that three months can feel like five years for me,” she said.
Yet again, Thomson would witness an act of senseless violence. Coming out of a meeting, she found her driver dead on the ground. Because of his Tutsi features, he had been killed by Hutu rebels in the camp. Needing a brief respite, Thomson decided to go home to Canada. “I felt odd and overwhelmed,” she said. Everyday events like going to the grocery store made her re-evaluate and question the importance of certain things in life, like “Why are there twenty types of mustard?” Over the next couple of years, Thomson traveled back and forth to Africa for short stints. “These experiences are so intense that three months can feel like five years for me,” she said.
In 1995, she began earning her bachelor of law at the University College London. Two years later, she moved to Rwanda to work for the U.N. Human Rights Field Operation there. Thomson and her team traveled the country interviewing Rwandans about the violence they had lived through in order to document human rights abuses. Oftentimes, they visited patients in hospitals reeking of dried blood, festering machete wounds, human waste, and charcoal smoke. Although the genocide officially had ended in 1994, she found that “its aftermath, its heartbreak, and its residue stayed in the individuals.”
In addition, Thomson realized that what she was hearing during those sessions was inconsistent with the RPF and media reports. Confused about what to believe, she began to think that her superficial understanding “was potentially dangerous for the people I was interviewing, and for me.” Less than two weeks into her new job, one particular assignment would put that feeling of unease over the edge. As part of her duties, she attended the public executions of Rwandans whom the RPF was punishing without due process. At one, an execution of six people at a soccer stadium, Thomson watched as their bodies “slumped over in the hail of bullets from six police AK-47s.” The crowd reacted with a mix of cheers, dancing, and weeping. “We documented everything, and that’s where the balance between [my] human emotion and [my job] became such a fraught relationship,” Thomson explained. She decided to resign from the United Nations permanently.
Nonetheless, she still felt a compulsion to live in Rwanda, so when a new opportunity presented itself in the summer of 1998, Thomson enthusiastically accepted. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, she was hired to train Anglophone lawyers at the National University of Rwanda to prosecute crimes of genocide. She stayed on in that capacity for three years, until feeling the need to return to Canada in January 2001.
In September 2002, Thomson enrolled in Dalhousie University’s doctoral program. With time to reflect about Rwanda, “I began to think more about what I had not seen,” she recalled. “I had lived there for almost five years, yet I knew next to nothing of the everyday lives of ordinary Rwandans.”
For her dissertation, Thomson planned “a project that would write the voices of peasant Rwandans into academic knowledge, and to understand the workings and effects of state power within their society.” So, in April 2006, she returned to Rwanda to conduct fieldwork, spending several months interviewing more than 400 Rwandans. Thomson was transparent about the nature of her study — she’d received a permit from the local government — but one day in August, she found out that she’d ruffled some feathers. “Oh, that was a bad day,” she said. Some of her interviews were with Hutu who had been imprisoned after the genocide, so Thomson was walking into a prison when a local official pulled her aside. He asked: “Who are you talking to? What do you think you know?” Thomson refused to tell him anything, to which he responded, “We’re revoking your permit. We need to talk to you.”
“You listen too much to peasants. They’re liars. You should know better. We thought we could trust you.” He took her passport and said, “You’ll get it back when you’ve been sufficiently re-educated.”
The guard followed her home and told Thomson to show him her data. But, concerned about potential government intrusion, she’d kept her interviews on code-encrypted recorders, and she left almost no paper trail by frequently burning her notes in her yard. The officer informed Thomson that someone would be coming the next morning to take her to the Ministry of Local Government. “So I passed an uncomfortable evening,” she recalled.
At 5:30 a.m., there was a knock on the door, and Thomson was taken to the minister’s office. She waited three long days before she was given an audience with him. “Your work is against national unity and reconciliation,” the minister told her. “You listen too much to peasants. They’re liars. You should know better. We thought we could trust you.” He took her passport and said, “You’ll get it back when you’ve been sufficiently re-educated.”
At that point, Thomson had no idea what “re-education” meant or how long it might last.
For the next five weeks, a government handler escorted Thomson to re-education activities. She met with a list of political and economic elites from whom she would “learn the truth” about the government’s policy of national reconciliation. She was also sent to a weeklong camp with approximately 100 men convicted of committing genocide. For several hours a day, guarded by armed military, they were given history lessons detailing the root causes of the genocide, specifically the “deep-seated ethnic hatred that Hutu have for Tutsi.”
At first, the male prisoners teased the white foreign woman in the group — until they learned who Thomson was. Then, “the teasing stopped and most of the men stepped away from me, perhaps in an attempt to distance themselves from someone who was clearly in hot water with the government.” However, at one point, when her translator went to the bathroom, a former physician named Antoine sat next to her. Quietly in French, he asked Thomson “to alert the outside world about how being Hutu is a crime in the new Rwanda.” Noticing the interaction, an armed soldier slammed the butt of his rifle into Antoine’s bare feet and threw Thomson to the ground. She was told that if she continued to speak to prisoners, “the punishment would be severe.” Thomson never saw Antoine again and doesn’t know what happened to him.
After the camp, her re-education with the local elites continued. One afternoon, she managed to slip into the Canadian Embassy, where they helped her obtain a new passport. Then, on October 1, Thomson worked out an escape plan. It was Patriot’s Day, so a crush of people crowded downtown Kigali. She picked a major hotel “where all the bigwigs were, because I wanted to be hiding in plain sight.” Aware that she’d have to provide her passport upon check-in but not knowing if she was on a watch list, Thomson was nervous about showing them her documents. So, she packed a putrid-smelling, disorganized bag with filthy clothes. At the front desk, she rifled through the bag, pretending she couldn’t find her passport. With dignitaries waiting, the attendant let her check in without the required photocopy of her passport, under the name Betty Cooper (from the Archie comics). Thomson arranged a 5 a.m. taxi ride to the airport where, to her relief, she passed through security. She flew directly from Nairobi to Europe and spent a week recuperating before heading home to Canada.
Thomson promised her family that she would never return to Rwanda. In 2007, the Rwandan ambassador made it official by sending her a letter declaring her a persona non grata, a diplomatic term meaning that she is no longer allowed in the country. “My first thought was, how do they know where I live?”
Feeling the heat
In describing how her perspective on Rwandan politics has changed over time, Thomson uses the analogy of a frog that is put in a pot of cold water and slowly boiled alive over gradual heat. “For me, it was the same sort of low-grade, rolling boil that eventually overspills.”
The RPF maintains that the genocide was a widespread attack on the Tutsi by the Hutu, rooted in long-standing ethnic hatred. For several years, Thomson believed this and was a strong supporter of the RPF because they ended the genocide with a military victory and proclaimed that they would rebuild the country. “I was not totally blind to [their] shortcomings but felt that their authoritarian practices [e.g., the executions that she documented in early 1998] were necessary to rebuild a peaceful and secure Rwanda,” she recalled. After witnessing “that level of human loss, I wanted to believe that they would stop the killing on all sides.” Thomson also credits the RPF with taking a very sophisticated approach. “They are PhDs, lawyers, and engineers,” she said. “It never occurred to me that they were power mongers who were smooth talkers. I let myself be duped, basically.”
“Susan is an inspirational political scientist who has courageously gone a long way to give voice to the voiceless,” said Oscar Gasana, a Tutsi genocide survivor who is now a conflict studies researcher and management adviser for the Canadian government.
Today, Thomson’s understanding of the genocide is complex, but in the simplest terms, she believes a power struggle between elite Hutus and elite Tutsis (the RPF) created a climate of fear and insecurity that incited peasant Hutu Rwandans to kill their Tutsi brethren. She has been deemed a “genocide denier” by the RPF, who she believes are responsible for more of the killings than they admit. In her writings, she frequently points out that there are still major human rights abuses occurring in the country, especially against those who disagree with the ruling party. “Susan is an inspirational political scientist who has courageously gone a long way to give voice to the voiceless,” said Oscar Gasana, a Tutsi genocide survivor who is now a conflict studies researcher and management adviser for the Canadian government.
Although she is an established expert on Rwanda, Thomson has learned that Rwandan teachers cannot include her articles on their syllabi because they’ve been told it would “re-traumatize” people. What’s more chilling is that she has been intimidated and threatened by government loyalists. Because the backlash is severe, Thomson has to choose her discourse carefully. While giving public lectures, she’s been heckled and harassed. Online, she’s been called a liar and a fraud. Her blog post in March about Patrick Karegeya, a former intelligence chief who was found dead in January and is believed to have been murdered by the RPF, was widely read (1,500 views at last count). But it agitated Rwanda’s former minister of justice, who was scheduled to speak at Colgate per Thomson’s invitation, and he canceled his April visit. Also this spring, a candid speech Thomson gave was posted to YouTube, and certain “Twitterati” blasted her, defending the RPF. The professor admits that the shrapnel can be hurtful: “For every ten mean posts, there is one supportive one; so the imbalance is pretty stark.” But, she participates in social media because she “doesn’t want to appear to be hiding anything.”
Of the more than 100 lawyers whom Thomson trained at the National University of Rwanda, most of them don’t talk to her anymore because of her political stance. “I don’t hold it against them,” she said. “I probably would do the same thing.” Especially for her former students who are now in high-ranking positions, talking to her would jeopardize not only their jobs, but also their lives.
Thomson does hear from some of her former law students — and even her critics — when she’s asked to write affidavits to grant them asylum from Rwanda. Estimating that she receives two requests a week, Thomson writes 30 to 40 statements a year. Her role is as an expert (a term she shuns because “it sounds arrogant”) who reviews their cases and writes in their favor. “A lot of my critics have contacted me and, because of the system from which they’re coming, I treat them with humanity rather than being merciless because they hurt my ego.”
“I feel the job of academics is to hold those in power to account,” Thomson has asserted. And that’s exactly what she does, said Marie-Eve Desrosiers, a University of Ottawa professor and Thomson’s co-author on two papers. “Susan demonstrates that there need not be a trade-off between activism and scholarship. She is determined to allow the true, lived experience of Rwandans, rich or poor, powerful or marginalized, to shine through and be properly understood.”
Thomson practices her conviction beyond the issues in Rwanda. A human rights advocate, she is part of a network of feminist lawyers fighting to get rape recognized internationally as a war crime. “It’s a big challenge because [oftentimes] rape isn’t added as an indictable charge,” she explained. “It becomes an afterthought, and the women and men who are raped don’t get the reparation and support they need. Those who take the risk to come forward find an inhospitable legal system.” The group assists lawyers who are on the front lines of international justice. Thomson uses her skills to translate the emotional language of the victims’ stories into actionable legalese.
At press time, Thomson was helping victims closer to home, planning a traumatic storytelling project with upstate and central New Yorkers.
“I learned a lot from my students, even though I’m technically the specialist in the room,” she said. “My broad epistemological belief is that everything we know is co-produced — the way we communicate, engage, and share is how knowledge is produced.”
In addition, she is attending the Summer School on Transitional Justice in Northern Ireland through the University of Ulster, which brings together practitioners and academics to address gender violence at the international, national, and local levels. “I think of myself as a constant learner,” said Thomson, who received funding to attend from Colgate’s Council for Faculty Development. She will incorporate what she learns into her human rights and gender and peace and conflict studies classes.
Thomson’s knowledge and her experiences are assets in the classroom. “[She] has proven herself to be an inspiration to students in classes she has developed,” said Nancy Ries, professor of anthropology and peace and conflict studies. “She delivers real hands-on training for students interested in working in international governmental and non-governmental organizations.”
When teaching International Human Rights Law and Advocacy this past semester, Thomson used her own examples in documenting human rights abuses. And Thomson’s insight has been invaluable in her Core: Rwanda class with students who weren’t yet born when the genocide happened. Because of Colgate students’ natural curiosity, they’ve also helped Thomson consider new ideas. “I learned a lot from my students, even though I’m technically the specialist in the room,” she said. “My broad epistemological belief is that everything we know is co-produced — the way we communicate, engage, and share is how knowledge is produced.”
In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide this past spring, Thomson organized five events facilitating a dialogue about Rwanda on campus. The biggest, a roundtable discussion on April 7 about the status of Rwanda today, was attended by a diverse crowd on campus and, at press time, had more than 4,000 views online. Moderated by Colgate President Jeffrey Herbst, the panel featured Thomson; Noel Twagiramungu, former general secretary for the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights; Joseph Sebarenzi, former speaker of the House of Parliament; and David Himbara, a former staff member in the Rwandan president’s office. All three Rwandans are in exile and have had their own share of terrifying experiences — a point Thomson underscores in order to divert attention from herself. “My experience is just a wee bit of what [these men] have experienced,” she said.
Still, one has to wonder how Thomson has stayed sane after everything that she’s witnessed. She’s learned to reach out to friends for support during difficult times, like the anniversary. “I’m always a little raw in April. I have a lot of memories, and a lot of people I’m close to really suffered.” Thomson has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, and “I’m considered healthy, whatever that means.” But she acknowledges that she can come across as flip or uncaring. “It sometimes creates problems in my personal relationships — because I can appear aloof when I’m like, this isn’t a real problem, it’s not like genocide in Rwanda,” she noted. “I can be sharp in my speech, and it jostles people. Sometimes I have no filters, because there’s a web of violence in my head that I can’t cut through, so I just say what I say.” She added, jokingly, “I’m a party killer.”
The self-proclaimed introvert makes these types of comments in an offhanded way. “I think the best thing about me is that I don’t take life too seriously,” she said. “But I think the biggest impact, the one I take most seriously, is my ability to connect with people and really listen to them. So, if trauma had to happen for that outcome, I think it’s a fair trade.
“I don’t see things in black and white. I’m very quick to forgive. Some people with post-traumatic stress are low trust. I don’t want to be that person. I choose to be high trust.”