The BOOKPRESS November 1998

Cain's Children

Glynis Hart

We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with our Families: Stories From Rwanda.
Philip Gourevitch.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
353 pages, $25.00.

I followed the reports of the genocide in Rwanda in Spring of 1994 as many people did, with an uneasy sense that we were not getting the whole story. An ethnic majority group, the Hutu, massacred one million people in an ethnic minority group, the Tutsi, and a mass exodus from Rwanda ensued. An extraordinary and ghastly story, for those of us in the West who had little knowledge of Rwanda, it required explanation; unfortunately, the news reports of the killings, rapes, torture, and other acts of hatred were repulsive to read, deeply upsetting, and left one with a feeling of helplessness.

Writing for the New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch produced some very good coverage of the Rwandan genocide by focusing on the question, "Why?" Although the New Yorker columns are not reproduced here, this book is organized around that question and offers the best layman’s explanation of what happened. The first part focuses on the genocide—its political origins, how it was carried out, and its effects on the survivors. The second part deals mainly with the aftermath, the exodus, and how the international aid community’s response allowed the killers to regroup and renew the war from a secure base in UN refugee camps.

Gourevitch’s first job is to dismantle the myth that this was random African chaos—ancient tribal hatreds that spontaneously burst out in a river of blood. "Compared to much of the rest of postcolonial Africa, Rwanda appeared Edenic to foreign aid donors... it had nice roads, high church attendance, and steadily improving standards of public health and education." In fact, Rwanda before the genocide was a fairly well-organized realm. Too well-organized, as it turned out, for its own good. Rwandans had a reputation for being peaceable and respectful of authority—so much so that in 1988, Alex Shoumatoff, in his book, African Madness, dismissed the idea that Dian Fossey’s murder by machete was done by Rwandans: "The Rwandans are a peaceful people who abhor violence. If a Rwandan wanted to kill someone he would use poison."

Gourevitch carefully traces the growth of the Hutu Power movement, from its pre-colonial roots in a strong centralized state, to injections of racism from European colonizers. "Genocide is," Gourevitch explains, "after all, an exercise in community building. 1994, Rwanda was regarded in much of the world as the exemplary instance of the chaos and anarchy associated with collapsed states. In fact, the genocide was the product of order, authoritarianism, decades of modern political theorizing and indoctrination, and one of the most meticulously administered states in history. ...the spectre of an absolute menace that requires absolute eradication binds leader and people in a hermetic utopian embrace, and the individual—always an annoyance to totality—ceases to exist."

Massacres of Tutsi people had occurred in various places in Rwanda starting in the 1960’s. Rwandan hate radio pushed extermination of the Tutsis as "the final solution" and told Tutsis they were going to die. Local youths were organized into Hutu militias, and popular songs celebrated hatred of the Tutsi people. As a result of this atmosphere, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis fled the country; these refugees returned en masse after the new government took over, some of them with an unsympathetic attitude toward the survivors of the genocide, as if to say, "What did you expect?" Hutu Power told the Tutsis what it intended to do with them. It told the world as well, if we had been listening.

Gourevitch seeks explanations for the genocide in the commonality of human experience, drawing an eloquent argument from the Biblical story of Cain, who murdered his brother: "Although we don’t like to talk about it... we are all Cain’s children." In effect, Gourevitch sees genocide as a universal problem that can occur at any time or place, depending on the historical circumstances. He denies us the comfortable refuge of defining the perpetrators as fundamentally different, reminding us that "ordinary people" can and do participate in crimes against humanity, whether in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, or Nazi Germany.

In the first part of his book, Gourevitch tries to assemble a picture of life before the genocide, but it soon becomes clear that the survivors do not want to recall the time when their slain families were still with them. One curious effect of torture, or trauma, is that the victim relives his or her traumatic experience over and over again, as if the mind were trying, by inspecting each minute aspect of the event, to make it come out differently. Therefore, it is fairly easy for journalists visiting a place like Rwanda to collect stories of the atrocities, but to ask, "Did your sister also like to read?" is to tread on a sacred space in the victim’s mind, something unreachable that should not be violated. It is to Gourevitch’s credit that he has avoided dwelling on the horrors (for those with strong stomachs, Fergal Keane’s Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey gives a harrowing personal account) or antiseptisizing them with an overly academic analysis.

In his fine book on the Akhal-Teke horses of Turkmenistan, Jonathan Maslow observes: "Writers are becoming, willy-nilly, the anthropologists of our time... the societies on the margin of the developed world are being abandoned to gumptious journalists and dreamy scribblers. It is anthropology on the cheap ... for writers always have their own agendas, and make no pretense to objectivity."

Although I disagree with Maslow’s claim for the objectivity of anthropologists, it’s true that we are getting more of the news of faraway places from books like We Wish to Inform You... and that the writers have an obligation, if not to shed their subjectivity, to inform the readers where it lies. Writers like Fergal Keane, Redmond O’Hanlon, or Jonathan Maslow deal with this problem by describing themselves and their personal experiences of the places they’re writing about, in effect adding themselves to the books as characters. Often as not, the author in such a case ends up the hero of his own narrative, which is all right as long as the reader gets enough information about the place or the people s/he picked up the book to find out about.

At the other end of the spectrum is the "objective" book which minimizes personal discussion, or those narratives, basically dishonest, which present the author as a sort of wandering eye who never ate the food and certainly didn’t have to hire a dozen natives to carry his gear and set up his camp. Gourevitch aims neatly for the middle ground here, describing his depression and exhaustion in response to the sadness of Rwanda without making too big a deal of it. Describing the path of memory taken by a woman telling her story, he says:

"We are, each of us, functions of how we imagine ourselves and of how others imagine us, and looking back, there are these discrete tracks of memory; the times when our lives are most sharply defined in relation to others’ ideas of us, and the more private times when we are freer to imagine ourselves. My own parents and grandparents came to the United States as refugees from Nazism. They came with stories similar to Odette’s, of being hunted from here to there because they were born a this and not a that, or because they had chosen to resist the hunters in the service of an opposing political idea. Near the end of their lives, both my paternal grandfather and my maternal grandfather wrote their memoirs, and... both ended their accounts... with a full stop at the moment they arrived in America... Listening to Odette, it occurred to me that if others have so often made your life their business—made your life into a question, really, and made that question their business— then perhaps you will want to guard the memory of those times when you were freer to imagine yourself as the only times that are truly and inviolably your own."

The second part of the book addresses the issue of the UN refugee camps. After ignoring the slaughter in Rwanda, the international community bestirred itself to send food, blankets, plastic sheeting, and doctors to the mass of Hutus who had fled across the border into Zaire. The killers, or genocidaires, who organized, directed, and carried out the decimation of their fellows, lived intermingled with their families and resumed their leadership roles in their communities as these reconstituted themselves in the camps. That is, they taxed the refugees for portions of their food allotments, practiced "coerced impregnation" of all Hutu women old enough to conceive, and used the threat of physical violence against the refugees as leverage against the international aid workers. Gourevitch calls this a "rump genocidal state" and his account of its activities is horrifying. The Hutu militias roamed the Zairean countryside, raiding Tutsi homes and ranches for cattle. In league with the Zairean army, they continued their campaign of genocide during forays across the border. The cattle stolen from the Zaireans showed up in the market of the camp in Goma, while the "extra" food allotments for refugees—the genocidaires exaggerated their numbers, and prevented aid workers from counting—were used to engage in trade. Part of that trade was arms.

Gourevitch damns the bumbling—however well-intentioned it may have been—of the international aid community that led to this state of affairs. The different aid groups could not reach consensus on what to do. Further, their mandates forbade them to use force, which was necessary first to disarm the genocidaires as they entered the camps, second to prevent them from bullying the other refugees, and finally to separate them from the innocent. None of these aims could be achieved by peaceful aid workers dedicated to providing food and medical care. Nor could they bring themselves to shut down the camps, cut off the food supply, so that the refugees would be forced to return to their country. The camps created their own problems, such as an epidemic of cholera; if the sick were sent back to Rwanda, they would take the cholera with them, but in his justified frustration at the impotence of the aid workers, Gourevitch possibly underestimates this practical impasse.

The last part of the book treats the problem of repatriation. The RPF finally applied force to empty the UN camps, bringing the refugees back to Rwanda. Since the genocidaires came with them—and a major point of the genocide is the oft-repeated "neighbor killed neighbor, teachers killed their students, doctors their patients, priests their parishioners"—this requires the survivors to live side by side again with people they knew well, who turned on them and murdered their families, attempted to kill them, mutilated and raped them. Because the killers are so numerous, justice is just not physically possible. Rwanda hasn’t enough jail space, and even the United States, so the joke goes, hasn’t enough lawyers.

In his interviews with Laurencie Nyirabura, a grandmother left without family, and former general of the RPF/Vice President Paul Kagame, Gourevitch raises the impossibility of justice. Like most Rwandans, Nyirabura is a subsistence farmer. As a survivor, she has been deprived of the extended family of children and grandchildren required to make this way of life work. She discusses the man who murdered, and ordered the murders, of her family members; his family is intact (along lines of his own drawing: his Tutsi wife lives, his Tutsi parents-in-law were killed) and his way of life secure. When the impossibility of righting those wrongs is mentioned, Nyirabura withdraws, and the author is unable to get much more out of her. Kagame, on the other hand, comes across as a soldier’s soldier—just, brave, dedicated to his country. He has thought deeply about the problems facing his country, the difficulty of extending peace to people who continue to hate, and he has plans, but is frustrated in their implementation. He, too, becomes depressed at the thought of the impossibility of justice. Rwanda, like Hamlet, is in a state of despair because the country knows what must be done and cannot imagine pulling it off. The killers must be brought to justice. The victims must be compensated.

It seems to me, then, that this book poses a question to us reading it, the educated elite of a Western society; the very people whose money, whether through donations or taxes, went to support the UN camps and thereby the killers—the very people who ponder, on each new foreign crisis, whether it is right for us to intervene and when—and lays the argument clearly before us. We are all Cain’s children; we stood by while the genocide occurred; we succored the genocidaires; the survivors continue to suffer; will we act?

(Philip Gourevitch is a Cornell graduate He has given readings of his work at The Nines, and written book reviews for The Ithaca Times.)

Glynis Hart is a freelance writer living in Ithaca. Her work has most recently appeared in The Ithaca Times, Ithaca Child, and Backwoods Home magazine.

Return to Front Page