Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

Consider, for a moment, the place that the Holocaust occupies in our collective memory. The mere mention of the word conjures in our minds death camps and gas chambers, emaciated corpses and living skeletons starved for food. No single event in world history better epitomizes the concept of evil than the systematic and industrial murder of millions of Jewish men, women and children, together with other groups deemed unfit by the lights of Nazi ideology. The shock of the Shoah motivated international action, and at a General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, a common commitment was made both to define genocide and to prevent its future occurrence. Alas, in 1995, by the time that journalist Philip Gourevitch first set foot in Rwanda, that commitment had proven hollow. In the four-month period between April and July of 1994, some 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers were viciously murdered by Hutu supremacists, who hunted down their victims with machetes in a country little bigger than the state of Vermont – and all the while, the international community hemmed and hawed, downplaying and denying the scope of the massacre. Gourevitch “wanted to know how Rwandans understood what had happened in their country, and how they were getting on in the aftermath.” To that end, he speaks with victims and perpetrators, aid volunteers and military generals, and the picture he paints for us is of a resilient country in a state of extreme disarray, and an international relief effort characterized, alternatively, by gross insufficiency and extreme malpractice.

Two things stand out to Gourevitch upon his arrival in Rwanda. The first is “the conspicuous number of amputees and people with deforming scars, and the superabundance of orphans.” The second is the atmosphere of extreme distrust. A drinking ritual is illustrative: a single cup of beer is shared among drinkers, one at a time, beginning with the man who poured it – only thus can all parties feel assured that the drink has not been poisoned. If this seems excessively cautionary, consider the situation in 1995: in the aftermath of a genocide, perpetrated by a large majority of the population against their neighbours, friends and even family members, precious few of the génocidaires had been brought to justice, or ever would be. A common experience of survivors involved running into the man who only recently tried to kill them while out doing the week’s grocery shopping. Would that person now seek to finish the job, and thus silence a living witness to his crimes? Or would the victims and their families now seek to turn the tables on their former persecutors? A major theme of this book is the problem posed by the genocide: how do you rebuild a cohesive society in the aftermath of a mass murder? Another major theme is trauma, for nearly everyone Gourevitch speaks with has suffered dramatically, often from people they wrongly believed they could trust. Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, pastor of the trusted Seventh-day Adventist Church, spread word that his church complex would be a safe haven for Tutsis:

Wounded Tutsis converged on Mugonero from up and down the lake. They came through the bush, trying to avoid the countless militia checkpoints along the road, and they brought stories. Some told how a few miles to the north, in Gishyita, the mayor had been so frantic in his impatience to kill Tutsis that thousands had been slaughtered even as he herded them to the church, where the remainder were massacred. Others told how a few miles to the south, in Rwamatamu, more than ten thousand Tutsis had taken refuge in the town hall, and the mayor had brought in truckloads of policemen and soldiers and militia with guns and grenades to surround the place; behind them he had arranged villagers with machetes in case anyone escaped when the shooting began – and, in fact, there had been very few escapees from Rwamatamu.

Some two thousand scared, helpless Rwandans sought shelter in this church, but the good pastor had no intention of shielding his flock. On the contrary, having assembled the frightened Tutsis in one place, he cut off the water lines and summoned cars of armed men to slaughter them with machetes. When survivors sought to hide themselves among the piles of corpses, tear gas was deployed to tell living from dead, and the grizzly murders resumed. But hacking through muscle and bone is strenuous work, and the killers were interested in more than just death. Victims were often left maimed, a foot amputated or an Achilles tendon cut, while the perpetrators took a break to drink and feast, returning to their real work in due time. Incidentally, the title of this book comes from a letter, addressed to Pastor Ntakirutimana from his fellow churchgoers, pleading for their lives. For his incitement to genocide, Ntakirutimana spent just ten years in prison.

Perhaps half of this book, however, is not specifically about the events of April-July of 1994, but about the long history leading up to the genocide, as well as the international community’s grossly inadequate response to the killings. Gourevitch introduces us to John Hanning Speke, an English explorer whose Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile laid out a theory of racial supremacy that cast a long shadow over central Africa: that the “taller, sharper featured” Africans (the Tutsis) were more closely related to white Europeans, and therefore responsible for the civilizational advancement of Africa and the benighted “Negroids” of the continent. By the early 1990s, few Rwandans would have known who Speke was, but “few Rwandans would deny that the Hamitic myth is one of the essential ideas by which they understood who they are in this world.” When colonialism began, and the nations of Europe sunk their teeth into Africa, Catholic schools were established throughout Rwanda, remaining, into the present, the nation’s primary education system. And those Catholic schools practiced open discrimination, based on the Hamitic theory, against the Hutu majority and in favor of the Tutsi minority, who used their educations to secure the few lucrative administrative and political jobs in the country. In the 20th century, these festering resentments boiled over. The Hutu Manifesto of 1957, for example, laid the groundwork for a revolutionary ethnonationalist movement within Rwanda – one that embraced the Hamitic myth’s version of events, but argued that it was the Tutsis who were the usurpers of the Hutu birthright, Rwanda itself.

This book is really a hybrid work, part on-the-ground reporting, part history, part sociology, and part memoir. It is also something of a reckoning, for in the same way that the surviving Rwandans were confronted with the problem of their compatriots’ complicity in an unimaginable atrocity, the so-called international community must face up to its own action and inaction. The French, for example, continued to provide Rwanda with arms and technical advice “right through the killings in 1994.” (It is even rumoured that French generals presided over, and profited from, vast drug plantations during their tenure in Rwanda.) The United Nations established refugee camps that made no attempt at distinguishing between victim and perpetrator, with the consequence that, under the very nose of the supposed peacemakers, Hutu Power leaders continued to murder, torture and rape Tutsis with impunity – and while filling their stomachs with food rations provided for by the U.N. And the United States, under the Clinton administration, prevaricated endlessly on the question of “genocide,” for purely political reasons: fresh off of an embarrassing loss of American life in Somalia, and facing an upcoming election, they could not justify the commitment of money and troops to a war the American public neither knew about nor understood. If I have one criticism (which I make only with the benefit of hindsight), it is that Gourevitch seems naively optimistic about Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Perhaps this is excusable – who would not look for hope in such bleak circumstances? – but the reporting from Rwanda, in the aftermath of the genocide, “suggests summary executions, enforced disappearances, unlawful arrest and detention, and torture” remain common practices in the country.