Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization

Essay Excerpt

One of the things that most immediately demands notice is that the forms of these humanitarian interventions appear to be so inevitable-as do the perennial impasses and systematic failures from which such interventions often suffer (Calhoun 1995:xii; Ferguson 1994). The contemporary crises of mass displacement-especially those of Rwanda and Burundi, which I discuss here-offer an almost laboratory-like, tragic clarity of view into the larger question of humanitarian intervention.

My argument grows out of anthropological field research conducted with Hutu refugees from Burundi living in Tanzania (mostly in three very large refugee camps) since the "selective genocide" of 1972 in Burundi.'It also addresses the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath. The essay moves through a comparison of the social construction and uses of the refugee category in different social and institutional domains. (Malkki, 377)

About the Author

Liisa H. Malkki is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her research interests include: the politics of nationalism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and human rights discourses as transnational cultural forms; the social production of historical memory and the uses of history; political violence, exile, and displacement; the ethics and politics of humanitarian aid; child research; and visual culture. Her field research in Tanzania exlored the ways in which political violence and exile may produce transformations of historical consciousness and national identity among displaced people. This project resulted in Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (University of Chicago Press, 1995). In another project, Malkki explored how Hutu exiles from Burundi and Rwanda, who found asylum in Montreal, Canada, imagined scenarios of the future for themselves and their countries in the aftermath of genocide in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Malkki’s most recent book, Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork (with Allaine Cerwonka) was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2007. Her most recent book-length project (based on fieldwork from 1995 to the present) examines the changing interrelationships among humanitarian interventions, internationalism, professionalism, affect, and neutrality in the work of the Finnish Red Cross in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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