A Journalist Looks at Rwanda's Genocidal War
The general media picture was this: Two ethnic groups, Tutsi and Hutu, inspired by "centuries-old" tribal hatreds, were engaged in a civil war in which ordinary citizens were being displaced from their homes by the thousands and massacred indiscriminately by both sides. By these accounts, the Rwandan conflict was an unfathomable epic struggle between equally culpable groups of bad guys. Any outsiders' attempts to understand or intervene would be futile.
Gourevitch suspected a more complicated story lurking behind this reductive narrative, and in mid-1995 The New Yorker offered him an opportunity to pursue his suspicions. He took the next plane out and stayed for three months--the first of a half-dozen trips that generated 10 New Yorker articles and, eventually, this book.
It's a devastating account, all the more so for being a triumphant piece of journalism. Readers will find themselves torn between their admiration for the author's intelligence, tenacity, and moral clarity and the realization that the world has, yet again, totally failed to prevent large-scale crimes against humanity.
Much of the basic story has now been aired in the mainstream press. Early reports had missed the fact that genocide had been conceived and carried out. This violence was not a spontaneous eruption of neighborly ill will, but rather the culmination of racial divide-and-conquer political strategies practiced for decades--first by Belgium, Rwanda's former colonizer, then by France, its more recent patron, and finally by Rwanda's indigenous leaders. In 1994, under the direction of Hutu Power--an extremist movement that had come to dominate the government, media, and clergy--ordinary Rwandan Hutus massacred 800,000 of their friends and neighbors in the space of four months.
As the book states on its first page, "Although the killing was low-tech--performed largely by machete--it was carried out at dazzling speed. . . . The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust."
A year afterward, Gourevitch went in search of the stories that might help him, and the rest of the world, imagine the unimaginable. He interviewed Tutsis and moderate Hutus who'd fled the genocide or survived by hiding or playing dead among corpses. He interviewed perpetrators and political/military leaders who either denied that the genocide occurred or minimized their involvement. (The just-following-orders excuse was invoked on several of these occasions.) He interviewed the rare hero, such as a Hutu man who harbored hundreds of Tutsi families inside the hotel he managed and bought off their would-be killers with his liquor supply.
Gourevitch even managed to talk to a survivor, an old woman named Laurencie Nyirabeza, who found herself living a hundred yards down the road from the man who'd killed off her entire family. His subsequent interview with the accused man, Girumuhatse, is one of the most disturbing moments in the book. Girumuhatse admitted that Laurencie's story was true, and had even asked her pardon. But after a point, he chose to palm off responsibility onto his superiors.
"I started to get the sense that the guy had some conscience," Gourevitch says, "but later realized that he was only confessing to what he's been caught for"--a small proportion of the crimes he probably committed.
Immediately after the killings, Gourevitch says, no one was ashamed to admit his or her role in them. But by the time he'd arrived, a revisionist line had come to dominate: There had been no genocide, only "chaos" and acts of war from both sides.
"I had a lot of weird interviews," he recalls. "Anybody who tried to deny the genocide, I'd say, 'You guys are full of shit.' And they'd be a little nonplussed, as if I'm breaking some sort of rule."
At the same time, though, he found that Rwandan peasants, after centuries under colonial and indigenous tyrants, had what he calls "an in-built reflex to toady"--which is what prompted someone like Girumuhatse to speak up. So as a journalist, Gourevitch paradoxically benefited from the very reflex that had allowed Hutu Power leaders to turn people into killers in the first place.
Still, postcolonial subservience can't be offered as the only reason for why so many ordinary people could be turned into murderers, and Gourevitch never suggests this. In terms of analyzing human behavior, the book raises far more questions than it answers--a point emphasized by the question mark that ends its final chapter.
Only one aspect of the Rwandan situation seems inarguable: That the so-called international community did little to prevent or end the massacres. Instead, as Gourevitch reports, officials in the Clinton administration--including then-newly installed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright--specifically avoided using the word "genocide" in reference to Rwanda, because such an admission would have triggered the post-Holocaust United Nations convention requiring intervention in such cases.
Gourevitch's mission is partly to expose what he calls "the false rhetoric of 'never again,'" whereby international leaders decry the horrors of Germany in the 1940s while refusing to take action in parallel situations today. He also comes down extremely hard on the American and European relief agencies that spun into action only after large numbers of Rwandans started crossing their country's western border into Zaire. These were mostly Hutus, a large percentage of them the planners and perpetrators of the genocide, who were fleeing the advance of the Tutsi-led army that eventually took power over the country. Although humanitarian-aid providers are supposed to screen out war criminals, in this case they ended up serving as caterers to the ongoing Hutu Power effort.
For all this searing political analysis, however, Gourevitch's primary purpose was more basic: to give voice to those whose stories might otherwise be lost.
"A lot of victim/survivor testimony has become phony, but in Rwanda people weren't saying the Hollywood or TV version," he says. "I was moved by people's stories, the precision and care with which they told them."
Readers will be moved as well.
Philip Gourevitch will appear at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 22, at 7 p.m. The 90-minute event is free and open to the public. Call (202) 488-0400 for more information.
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