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The Forgotten Holocaust
NIALL STANAGE speaks to PHILIP GOUREVITCH, author of a newly published book on the genocide which consumed the African state of Rwanda. PICS : MICK QUINN
Niall Stanage, 12 May 1999
WE WENT on through the first room and out the far side. There was another room and another and another and another. They were all full of bodies, and more bodies were scattered in the grass, and there were stray skulls in the grass, which was thick and wonderfully green. Standing outside, I heard a crunch. The old Canadian colonel stumbled in front of me, and I saw, though he did not notice, that his foot had rolled on a skull and broken it. Then I heard another crunch, and felt a vibration underfoot. I had stepped on one, too.
The experience described above isn t fictional. The author is American journalist Philip Gourevitch, who visited the Rwandan town of Nyarubuye in April 1995. One year previously Hutu militiamen had slaughtered Nyarubuye s Tutsi inhabitants; the dead had been left unburied as a memorial to what had happened. And so Gourevitch found himself picking his way through more decomposed cadavers than he could count.
Yet this is only a single macabre snapshot. The horror that engulfed Rwanda in 1994, when the government of the Hutu majority began to implement a policy of the systematic murder of the minority Tutsi tribe, bears comparison with the gravest crimes against humanity. The introduction to Gourevitch s book about the period states the facts baldly:
Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda. Although the killing was low-tech performed largely by machete it was carried out at dazzling speed: of an original population of about seven and a half million, at least 800,000 people were killed in just a hundred days. Rwandans often speak of a million dead, and they may be right. The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Gourevitch titled his book We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. The phrase originated in a letter sent by pastors in one Tutsi community to their church president, a Hutu, appealing for his help. It was to no avail. Virtually all of them were grotesquely butchered.
Gourevitch was not in Rwanda at the time the genocide was at its most intense. Instead, he was initially sent by New Yorker magazine to spend three months there in 1995. Fascinated, he continued to visit for regular, lengthy periods over the next three years. We Wish to Inform You . . . is the result. It is an astonishing book, drawing on extensive interviews with Rwandans from diverse backgrounds to paint a vivid picture of the murderous strife which almost laid the small African country to waste. It is already being acclaimed as a landmark in foreign affairs reporting, alongside classics such as Robert Fisk s brilliant account of the war in Lebanon, Pity The Nation.
When I meet Gourevitch, he is sipping tea in The Clarence Hotel about as far removed from Rwanda s nightmarish reality as it is possible to get. How distressing were his experiences while researching the book?
Well, the place is distressing, he replies. But even as I went there I knew I was going to a place full of dead. When I describe stepping on that skull, what I m really talking about is the moment in which I realised that in order to tell this story you ve literally got to step in it. You ve got to wade into this place. You can t keep your distance.
Murder on such a scale must wreak havoc in the collective psyche of the survivors. Was the traumatisation of Rwandan society immediately apparent to Gourevitch?
It s quite a stiff upper lip culture. Rwandans always point out to you, We don t cry . But there was a lot of twitchiness. You d turn around and say hey! , and the waiter would jump a foot-and-a-half in the air. Yet there was composure. The title is this incredibly chilling way of expressing something. I mean, I learnt a lot from them about how to talk about this. A lot of these seemingly understated details can accumulate to an enormous intensity.
One of the most notable aspects of We Wish To Inform You . . . is Gourevitch s unblinking examination of the mechanism by which the principle of mass killing of Tutsis was put into action. He refers, for example, to the fact that Rwanda has a very strong code of civic duty, which was turned on its head to the point that it became the responsibility of Hutus to murder their fellow citizens.
A lot of the language of this thing was to dehumanise it, he elaborates. I knew this euphemism Do Your Work [which became a rallying cry for Hutu lynch mobs].The language of Rwanda is not Let us go forth and murder our neighbours . Murdering one s neighbours, most people understand, is not a good thing to do. So they had to turn it into the language of a positive activity. It wasn t a crime during the genocide it was the law that they were carrying out by killing these people.
While Gourevitch accepts that this kind of moral inversion inevitably means that at times you become a little desensitised, he also professes to love Rwanda, something which is apparent in the passion of his writing. If anything, he seems driven by a need not just to make people understand the events intellectually, but to move them to care. As a result he is scathing of the extent to which the West is prepared to shut itself off from suffering which happens to take place beyond its myopic field of vision.
I know people who have read this, and they go God, they sound like us! Well, think of the expectations that lie behind the idea of being surprised that they sound like us. We have made them, not inhuman, but totally alien.
Does Gourevitch s Jewishness mean that the genocide of Rwanda, which bears proportional comparison to the Holocaust, has added resonance for him?
As a Jew it is probably inevitable that one thinks more personally, and a little more intensely, about the Holocaust, he begins. As a result, you are aware of the sense of tremendous upheaval in someone s personal existence because of politics. There seems to be a blatant contrast, though, between this [Rwanda] and all the commemorative efforts that go on about the Holocaust, which seem to me to be increasingly safe. I mean, how much does it really cost to say I m against the extermination of the Jews in Europe 50 years ago ? Nothing s at stake anymore. And simultaneously, here are all these people getting slaughtered in the most systematic way because their noses are longer than the others [a distinguishing feature between Tutsi and Hutu]. How much energy was going into saying well, it wasn t quite like that . Well, why wasn t it? It wasn t in Europe. That s all.
Did Gourevitch have difficulty retaining optimism for humankind when listening to his interviewees describe how they had been treated?
I did meet journalists out there who were like I hate this place, I hate these people, get me out of this shithole , he begins. And I would always say to them, why don t you go home? Get yourself another story. I don t mean to sound like I m judging them, because of course there are times when you get depressed or burnt out.
But I guess what I came away with was a balance. There are real heroes in this book. It s a book about enormous moral strength and leadership in some cases, which is not to say that it is all hopeful and uplifting in the end.
Philip Gourevitch intends to continue visiting Rwanda and writing about developments there. How much hope does he hold out for the country s future?
I m not hopeless, he says quietly. I m fearful about the future of Rwanda as everybody would have to be. But I met a lot of people who seemed to be very busily trying to build on . . . sanity. It also depends what sort of timeframe you re talking about. I mean, in 100 years there is a good chance it could be a pretty nice place.
Gourevitch says he set out to write an irresistible book about a very resistible subject. He has succeeded. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families describes many things which are brutal and horrific. The book itself is compassionate, moving and humane. In his acknowlegements Philip Gourevitch thanks the hundreds of Rwandans who generously entrusted me with their stories. He did not fail them. n
We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families Stories From Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch is published by Picador, priced stg #16.99.