"We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families"
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 14th March 2009A friend gave this to me last year, but it's sat on my bookshelf for some time I suppose because - knowing that it's about the Rwandan genocide of 1994 - I thought that it would be gruesome and disturbing. It turns out that while of course there are many gruesome episodes (although Philip Gourevitch doesn't particularly dwell on them), it is disturbing more for the questions that it raises about the international response as much as those about how the genocide initially took place. It's an absolutely compelling book.
Gourevitch essentially tells the story of the genocide and its aftermath in flashback, through the stories of the survivors that he interviews against the backdrop of Rwanda's continuing struggle to recover and rebuild. Initially he wants to understand how the organised mass killings of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority happened at all, after the two groups had lived together for centuries with few problems. But stepping back, there are more questions, such as why the international community was so reluctant to recognise those killings (which were not in the main frenzied mob attacks but quite methodical exterminations) - as "genocide", and intervene accordingly? How could the good intentions of international aid efforts result in a backwards logic that failed to halt the murder while simultaneously providing support to the very people who continued to commit it?
He discovers ideological distinctions made between the Tutsis and Hutus by European colonisers that were ultimately exploited by Hutu Power demogogues to demonise the Tutsis and justify the slaughter, which was made in part possible by the social culture of Rwanda, where people tend to act together ("if one goes, all go"). But the outside world also becomes complicit in the killing, by failing to act. Could it be that somehow it didn't fit the idea of what the international community thought genocide should "look" like? To me this is one of the most troubling questions raised by the book (and left unanswered). Ultimately the people who come out with the most dignity are the Rwandans themselves, who are forced to deal essentially on their own with the many difficult problems of rebuilding their country - and doing a much better job than that the (western) nations posturing and heckling from the sidelines.