Bystanders and Rescuers

In the aftermath of 20th century genocides, many stories that were told by survivors described rescuers and “bystanders” who observed criminal activity as well as as the perpetrators who tortured and killed helpless victims. The survivors of Rwanda’s 1994 catastrophe likewise identified countless individuals who risked their own lives to save others. Increasingly, the stories of heroic Hutu rescuers, including many who died as a result of their courageous efforts, are documented and now widely appreciated for their educational and inspirational value.

Some who were bystanders trapped in the maw of murderous activities found themselves participating in the violence, fearing that they or their loved ones would suffer punishment if they did not. At other times they saw opportunities to save others and did so. Thus the categories — perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers – sometimes overlapped. Individuals who opposed the killing of mostly Tutsis and also peaceful Hutus did at times actively or passively facilitate the crimes. The behavior of ordinary people was a consequence of their personal character (or “disposition”) and their situations, which varied considerably. In Rwanda the proportion of (Hutu) civilians who were pressured to participate in the killing of Tutsis was much higher than in most other genocides. To be sure, it took unusual courage for those who did act in opposition to authorities and even their friends, relatives, and neighbors.

Research on the character of the rescuers during the Holocaust in Europe during World War II suggests that they typically had a sense of universalism, expressing values such as equality, social justice and humanism. A small percentage of rescuers who were interviewed years after the events said they were motivated by their religious faith. For many of the documented rescuers in Rwanda, where most people were, and still are, Christian, religion was clearly a factor in shaping their behavior.

Readers of the stories on this blog who are interested in the research on rescuers in genocides are encouraged to consult some of the sources below.


Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton University, NJ, 2001, especially in the concluding chapter on “political reform after genocide”, pp 264-282.

Villia Jefremovas, Acts of Human Kindness: Tutsi, Hutu and the Genocide
Issue: A Journal of Opinion, Vol. 23, No. 2, Rwanda (1995), pp. 28-31

Wendy Whitworth, ed. We Survived Genocide in Rwanda: 28 Personal Testimonies (Notinghamshire, UK: Quill Press/Aegis, 2006)

Eugena Zorbas, “Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda” African Journal of Legal Studies (2004) AJLS 29-52,

TRIBUTE TO COURAGE by Rakiya Omaar of African Rights on those Hutus (and others) who protected Tutsis. “These stories of bravery in the face of huge personal danger re-ignite the appalled emotions felt at the time of the genocide.” (There are stories of 17 rescuers summarized on this weblog.)

Samuel and Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe
(New York: Free Press, 1988)

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