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WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES: Stories From Rwanda;\o7 By Philip Gourevitch\f7 ;\o7 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 356 pp., $25)\f7

November 22, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield teaches in the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and is a contributing writer to Book Review

Philip Gourevitch's account of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath is the most important book I have read in many years. In fact, I am tempted to say it is the only important--or, to be more precise, necessary--book I have read in many years. Gourevitch's book poses the preeminent question of our time, beside which all others must, of necessity, pale: What--if anything--does it mean to be a human being at the end of the 20th century? The author cannot, of course, definitively answer this question, but he examines it with humility, anger, grief, and a remarkable level of both political and moral intelligence.

Rwanda is a tiny, densely populated, overwhelmingly Christian country in Central Africa that the World Bank has anointed the poorest nation on Earth. In April 1994, Rwanda's ruling Hutus set out to eliminate the minority Tutsis, and in this they were largely, although not entirely, successful: Within 100 days, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis, out of approximately 1.2 million, were butchered. Gourevitch writes, "Hutus young and old rose to the task. 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. . . . Radio announcers reminded listeners not to take pity on women and children." And they didn't.

Killing is strenuous work, especially when, as in Rwanda, one has access mainly to low-tech weapons like machetes. "The killers killed all day," Gourevitch writes. "At night they cut the Achilles tendons of survivors. . . . And, in the morning . . . the killers . . . went back and killed again. Day after day, minute to minute, Tutsi by Tutsi." He adds, "[A]fter nearly three years of looking around Rwanda and listening to Rwandans, I can tell you how [the genocide occurred], and I will. But the horror of it--the idiocy, the waste, the sheer wrongness--remains uncircumscribable."

Gourevitch, who is now a staff writer for the New Yorker, doesn't directly tell us a whole lot about himself, or even precisely what led him to Rwanda. Having read reports of the killings, he first visited the country in May of 1995, approximately 10 months after the genocide had been completed, and after the government that supported it had been overthrown. He made several trips back over the next three years, traveling throughout the "tiny trashed country" and talking to a range of people who shared with him their often radically differing "stories." (Many Rwandans, Gourevitch reports, deny that a genocide ever took place.) Gourevitch tells us that "what fascinates me most in existence" is "the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real." Thankfully, this is not true: "We Wish To Inform You" shows that what fascinates Gourevitch most is listening to others, conducting historical research, discerning truths and constructing a narrative that is both clear and complex. (Prior to Rwanda, Gourevitch had already evinced an interest in mass murder, writing controversial pieces that criticized the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the film "Schindler's List.")

"We Wish To Inform You" is not about ancient tribal hatreds. It is not about genocide as an expression of anarchistic frenzy. It is not about the inevitability of historical events. It is not about the oft-stated belief that, under conditions of terror, resistance is impossible or, alternately, that in times of war, "anybody will do anything."

In his frighteningly lucid, understated prose, Gourevitch demolishes each of these widely held illusions. Tutsis and Hutus, for instance, are not separate "races" or even "tribes." Gourevitch reports that they had intermarried for years; that until 1959, when a Hutu revolution swept the country, there had been no recorded instances of systematic violence between the two groups; and that they coexisted peacefully in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Far from being an expression of uncontrolled blood lust, the genocide was dependent on forethought and discipline. It was strategically planned--beginning literally one hour after Rwanda's Hutu dictator, President Juvenal Habyarimana, was assassinated on April 6, 1994--and precisely carried out. It was not an expression of wild emotions, but of a carefully constructed, albeit insane political ideology called Hutu Power, which posited the benefits of a Tutsi-free Rwanda.

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