am 2. Februar 1999
WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES Stories from Rwanda Philip Gourevitch Farrar Straus, Giroux $25.00 356 pp.
In 1994, the Hutu majority in Rwanda committed genocide upon their minority countrymen, the Tutsi. 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. In April, while British husbands rushed off with umbrellas to their jobs, Hutu husbands picked up machetes and killed their Tutsi wives. In Germany during May, dancers gyrated to ubiquitous techno-rock, while the leading pop singer in Rwanda urged his Hutu countrymen over the state-sponsored radio to "Kill the cockroaches-"the Tutsis. As the Kiwanis met in Des Moines in June, neighborhood "work groups" of Hutu men and women gathered to go over "hit lists" prepared by the government. During the time it took you to read the above, at least five Tutsis were killed, day by day, week by week, through July.
And not a single foreign government or international agency intervened.
Why bother? After all, isn't this an "age-old animosity between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups," as the NEW YORK TIMES stated. Haven't they been committing atrocities against each other for centuries? Aren't those poor refugees in the news from Zaire as much victims as the victims in Rwanda?
No, no, and emphatically no, replies Philip Gourevitch in this book, selected by the NEW YORK TIMES as one of the year's ten best books of 1998. Until the Belgians issued identity cards during their colonial rule, no formal delineation between the two tribes was common, let alone violent. The "superior" Tutsi myth was simply a repetition of the incredibly specious Hamitic myth, that claimed the Tutsi were "nobler," "aristocratic" primarily because they had more refined, i.e., Caucasian-like features. No massacre had ever occurred prior to one incident in 1959. Those "refugees?" If they were in a camp outside Rwanda, they were one of the 2 million Hutu that fled . when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front re-took the country. In other words, they could easily have been killers, not victims. One by one, Gourevitch demolishes those conventional myths with which the rest of the world deflected their responsibility.
But he does more than that. Like Leontius in Plato's REPUBLIC who, upon seeing a pile of bodies, ran to them opening his eyes wide with his fingers, crying "There you are, curse you, have your fill of the lovely spectacle," Gourevitch rushes to unimaginable places. Once there, filled with both desire to see and disgust at the sight, Gourevitch puts down prose which props our eyes wide open to the horror of Rwanda, past and present.
In a bar one evening, he meets an aid worker who speaks of stepping on the dead to help the living. Later in his travels, but earlier in the book, Gourevitch visits the scene of a massacre, a church now kept as a shrine. A member of his group steps on a skull, offending the author-"Then I heard another crunch, and felt a vibration underfoot. I had stepped on one, too." The dead cannot be denied their presence anywhere in Rwandan life, then or now. Time and again Gourevitch's narrative resonates with such revelations.
The author also pursues both perpetrator and persecuted to question them. He travels all the way to Texas to interview the Hutu minister who received the note from which the title was taken. There, in "an expensive-looking new community," he finds the man, indicted by the FBI for presiding over the slaughter of hundreds in his congregation. He denied everything, in terms eerily echoing claims from the Holocaust: "I never saw anything...I never went anywhere. I stayed at my office." Another man, the "Minister of Justice of Rwanda in exile" claims only Tutsis who sympathized with the RPF forces were killed. Did that include "the fetuses ripped from the wombs of Tutsis, after radio announcers had reminded listeners to take special care to disembowel pregnant victims?" asks Gourevitch. "Think about it," replies the minister. Let's say the Germans attack France, so France defends itself against Germany. They understand that all Germans are the enemy. The Germans kill women and children, so you do, too-"an answer that makes genocide the fault of the victims as well as the perpetrators. Once again, Gourevitch pops our eyes wide open.
Gourevitch's extensive interviews lead him straight through the tragedy of the past to the dilemma of the present. In the highlands of central Rwanda, he finds a woman who tells him "A certain Girumuhatse is back, a man who beat me during the war...This man threw me in a ditch after killing off my whole family. He's now at his house again...he asked my pardon." When Gourevitch confronts this admitted killer, the man denies responsibility, and blames his superiors: "The authorities understand that many just followed orders." That reply not only puts the lie to the "Never Again" buttons Gourevitch sees U.S. Holocaust Museum employees wearing, it puts a unique perspective on life in Rwanda: "Never before in modern memory had a people who slaughtered another people...been expected to live with the remainder of the people that was slaughtered...as one cohesive national society."
That mandate for coexistence has been enforced almost single-handedly by one of the most powerful men in Africa, Vice President Kagame. It was he who defeated the Hutu Majority forces, kept his forces from major retaliation, repatriated 600,00 Rwandans from Goma in four days, and ousted President Mobutu from then-Zaire. In a remarkable series of interviews with this remarkable man, Gourevitch throws light on the events listed above, the developing recovery, and the fleeting hope for Rwanda because this one man claims that "people can be made bad, and they can be taught to be good."
Gourevitch found little hope of that, and less reason in the almost-four years he spent forcing himself to look at the Rwandan catastrophe. Although he finds reason to blame France for supporting the Hutus, America for refusing to intervene, and international relief agencies for prolonging warfare by literally feeding the Hutu genocidaires, he fails to exhume the one compelling reason we all desire-why?. Solidarity with neighbors, a government trying to preserve itself, acquiescence by the slaughtered-none of these reasons, alone or together, answer that unfathomable question. Fortunately, his vivid portrait of the Rwandan plight articulates for us that question in ways we dare not ignore, just as Leontius could not ignore that pile of bodies. We do so only at the risk of reducing genocide to the level of a cheese sandwich, like the American officer said in a Rwandan bar: "What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich? Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a s---? Crimes against humanity. Where's humanity? Who's humanity? You? Me?...Hey, just a million Rwandans..."
800,000 actually, in 100 days, in 1994. But who's counting?