We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

Scott Sutherland reviews 'We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families' by Philip Gourevitch.

Published September 22, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

On April 6, 1994, Rwanda's longtime Hutu dictator, Juvinal Habyarimana, was assassinated in the capital city of Kigali. The clique of military men who replaced him were exponents of the extremist ideology dubbed "Hutu Power," which held as its ultimate goal the extermination of every Tutsi in Rwanda. Within hours of Habyarimana's death, Hutus -- militias, policemen, ordinary citizens, even clergy -- began indiscriminately murdering their Tutsi neighbors. Over the next 100 days, between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsis and Hutu oppositionists were killed, most by machete, while the international community stood idly by -- and, in some cases, acted in a manner that allowed the Hutu ginocidaires to conduct their bloody work with even more ferocity and expediency.

The Rwandan genocide, its roots and its tangled aftermath are the subjects of Philip Gourevitch's superb and haunting book, "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families." Gourevitch, a staff writer for the New Yorker, spent a total of nine months in Rwanda between 1995 and 1998 interviewing a broad spectrum of citizens and observers: government officials, hotel managers, doctors, army officers, relief workers, United Nations "peacekeepers," victims, perpetrators. His compassionate and level-headed portrait captures the immense sadness and emptiness of a country that lost a tenth of its population in a single spasm of political violence, as well as the pervasive dread that Rwanda will likely experience such bloodshed again.

Gourevitch is particularly adept at systematically debunking the myths, widely circulated in the Western press, that shaped our early perceptions of what was happening in Rwanda: that the conflict was an age-old struggle between two distinct peoples bent on annihilating each other, and that this was merely another example -- albeit a somewhat amplified one -- of the usual "African madness." In fact, Gourevitch writes, none of this was true. For starters, Hutus and Tutsis were sufficiently intermingled to the point that ethnographers no longer recognized them as distinct ethnic groups. In Rwanda in 1994, your identity was your politics, and the twists were many and strange; the man who coined "Hutu Power" and became one of its most rabid practitioners was born Tutsi and later acquired Hutu identity papers. Furthermore, the first incident of systematic political violence between Hutus and Tutsis wasn't recorded until 1959, and even in the final months of Habyarimana's rule, a chorus of moderate political voices made genocide seem anything but an inevitable outcome.

But a long history of power struggles, stoked by colonial and post-colonial meddling by the Belgians and the French, and further heated by economic ruin and the divisive identity politics of Hutu leaders, succeeded in convincing many Hutus that Tutsis were "cockroaches" to be eliminated. The subsequent killing was horrific not just for its savagery but for the matter-of-fact manner in which it was carried out. "Following the militias' example, Hutus young and old rose to the task," Gourevitch writes. "Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in their homes, and colleagues hacked colleagues to death in their workplaces. Doctors killed their patients, and schoolteachers killed their pupils." Gourevitch also points out that the genocide was not the product of anarchy, but rather "of order, authoritarianism, decades of modern political theorizing and indoctrination, and one of the most meticulously administered states in history." He sums up the slaughter in a chilling aphorism: "Genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building."

Gourevitch saves his harshest criticisms for the United Nations and its toothless Rwandan mission; for the French, who shamelessly supported Hutu Power with arms and diplomatic clout throughout the genocide; and the Clinton administration -- particularly Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. -- which had adopted a post-Somalia hands-off policy toward Africa and engaged in a bizarre semantic tap-dance around the word "genocide." Of Albright, Gourevitch writes, "ducking and pressuring others to duck, as the death toll leapt from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, was the absolute low point in her career as a stateswoman."

In September 1997, Gen. Romio Dallaire, former commander of the U.N. mission in Rwanda and, in Gourevitch's portrayal, the Western conscience in the country, appeared on Canadian television. "I haven't even started my real mourning of the apathy and the absolute detachment of the international community, and particularly of the Western world, from the plight of Rwandans," Dallaire said. "Because, fundamentally, to be very candid and soldierly, who the hell cared about Rwanda? ... How much is really being done to solve the Rwandan problem? Who is grieving for Rwanda and really living it and living with the consequences?" Gourevitch's answers are sobering: No one much cared what happened in Rwanda. Not nearly enough is being done to solve the problems of the country, where politically motivated mass killings continue. And no one except Rwandans -- depleted, haunted, utterly alone in the world -- is living with the consequences.

By Scott Sutherland

Scott Sutherland is a writer in Portland, Maine.

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