Book Reviews July 2020

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch | Book Review

800,000 people. Killed in 100 days. The ugly history of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its haunting aftermath is the subject of this mind-numbing book by Philip Gourevitch

Published: 1998 | Paperback: 356 pages | Genre: History | Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Awards & Honors

– Guardian First Book Award (1999)
– Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism (1999)
– Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest (1998)
– National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction (1998)
– Cornelius Ryan Award (1998)
– George K. Polk Award for Foreign Reporting 

Before I read this book, I knew little of Rwanda except that a genocide had taken place there in 1994. I didn’t know anything else about the country. I happened to stumble across We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families on the timeline of one of the journalists I follow on Twitter and the book made it to my TBR pile. When Rwanda emerged as the popular choice for our magazine theme this month, this of course became the first book I read. 

And what a book this turned out to be!

The title of the book comes from an April 15, 1994 letter penned to Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana who was the president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s operations in western Rwanda. It was written by several pastors who had sought refuge with Tutsis in an Adventist hospital in Kibuye. 

 “Our dear leader, Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana,

How are you! We wish you to be strong in all these problems we are facing. We wish to inform you that we have heard that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. We therefore request you to intervene on our behalf and talk with the Mayor. We believe that, with the help of God who entrusted you the leadership of this flock, which is going to be destroyed, your intervention will be highly appreciated, the same way as the Jews were saved by Esther. We give honor to you.”

I was stunned at the visible plainness and the fear hidden in this letter. As for the rest of the book let’s just say, the horror left me, well… it left me with the kind of pain that you cannot un-imagine any time soon. The tragedy of the Rwandan genocide was not only that it was savage but also, so matter-of-fact, that even ordinary men stopped being human and went on an unstoppable rampage with just a machete in their hands.  

Us versus Them

Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer with New Yorker. He describes Rwanda, also known as ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’, in a manner that you can’t help smiling at the beauty of it. But beyond that beauty, lies a horror that has become a part of the DNA of millions of Rwandans since 1994. 

Rwanda was first a German principality and then was handed over to Belgium in 1916 during World War I as spoils of war. It has two major population groups – The Hutu majority comprises about 85% of the population while the Tutsi minority makes up 15% and a small percentage of the population is made up by the Pygmies. Until colonization, Tutsis represented the upper aristocratic class while Hutus were mostly peasants. Europeans took this traditional society and polarized it further by promoting the idea of racial supremacy. Tutsis were leaner, taller, comparatively lighter-skinned and so were portrayed as “more European” while Hutus were shorter and darker and so designated as inferior. With this came prejudice – Tutsis won greater favour with their European masters and were privileged while Hutus were oppressed. The Europeans also began issuing ethnic identity cards which further entrenched the differences. 

“In discussions of us-against-them scenarios of popular violence, the fashion these days is to speak of mass hatred. But while hatred can be animating, it appeals to weakness. The “authors” of the genocide, as Rwandans call them, understood that in order to move a huge number of weak people to do wrong, it is necessary to appeal to their desire for strength—and the gray force that really drives people is power. Hatred and power are both, in their different ways, passions. The difference is that hatred is purely negative, while power is essentially positive: you surrender to hatred, but you aspire to power.”

Africa witnessed a wave of independence in the 1950s and 60s. Rwanda saw a Hutu revolution, which brought independence and also majority rule by Hutus, effectively reversing the system that had been prevalent for long. The ethnic undercurrent remained, expect the Hutus were now in power. From the 60s right until mid-90s, systematic violence against Tutsis became common in Rwanda as a way of maintaining Hutu power. 

The violence of 1960s created Tutsi refugees who flowed out into neighbouring countries – thousands of Tutsis were living in exile, not naturalized in their new homes and unable to return to Rwanda. In 1990, the Rwandan government was taken by surprise when a rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) launched an incursion from Uganda. The consequent civil war went on from 1990 through to 1993. It remained a border war to a large extent and did not engulf the rest of the country. 

In 1993 a cease-fire was declared. A UN peacekeeping mission was brought in and the two warring parties would agree to power-sharing, multi-party state and the return of refugees. President Juvenal Habyarimana, a long-time dictator of Rwanda, was under immense pressure from extremists to not give in to such peace terms – as a result of which he did everything in his power to delay the peace process. On April 6, 1994, Habyarimana was returning from a meeting with regional presidents, when his plane was shot down by a missile and crashed into the backyard of his own palace in Kigali. 

This singular event became the tipping point and unleashed the madness that followed. 

Eliminating ‘cockroaches’

“During the genocide, the work of the killers was not regarded as a crime in Rwanda; it was effectively the law of the land, and every citizen was responsible for its administration. That way, if a person who should be killed was let go by one party he could expect to be caught and killed by somebody else.”

The long history of the power struggle in Rwanda and repeated interventions by the Belgians and French in the country’s politics played out the divisive identity politics further. Hutus began looking at Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’ that needed to be eliminated. 

The killing of Habyarimana became the excuse that Hutu power leaders needed to stoke violence. They gave a call out to the masses for a programmatic elimination of every Tutsi and asked for them to be annihilated. Every Hutu was made to believe that he was personally under threat from every Tutsi. Within hours of the President’s plane going down, Hutus came out on the street or went hunting in the papyrus fronds and the churches where the Tutsis had sought refuge and dealt death blows with machetes indiscriminately. 

Over the next 100 days, between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsis and Hutu opponents would lose their lives. The RPF began fighting from the north and securing large areas in the countryside, in the absence of international intervention. As a result, from July 1994, significant numbers of Hutus started running away and pouring into neighbouring countries. 

This mass exodus of ordinary Hutus had the perpetrators and extremists (genocidaires) in their midst. The genocidaires soon began to regroup in the refugee camps all along the border of Rwanda.

“This scene was broadcast to the world around the clock, and it came across in one of two ways. In the sloppy version, you heard, or read, that there had been a genocide, and then you heard and saw, or read, that a million refugees had wound up in this nearly perfect scene of hell on earth, and you thought genocide plus refugees equals refugees from genocide, and your heart was wrenched. Or else you got the story straight—these were people who had killed or who had been terrified into following the killers into exile—and you heard, or read, or could not but infer, that this nearly perfect scene of hell on earth was some sort of divine retribution, that the cholera was like a biblical plague, that the horror had been equalized, and it was all much more than you could stomach, never mind comprehend, and your heart was wrenched. By this process of compression and imagination, the imponderable sprawl of febrile humanity at Goma blotted out the memory of the graveyard at its back, and an epidemic that came out of bad water and killed tens of thousands eclipsed a genocide that had come out of a hundred years of insane identity politics and resulted in nearly a million murders.”

“The genocide had been tolerated by the so-called international community, but I was told that the UN regarded the corpse-eating dogs as a health problem.”

UN provided aid to these camps but there was another problem – it was not in the interest of the genocidaires to allow the rehabilitation and return of the refugees home since that would expose the genocidaires and bring them to answer for their crimes. As a result, conflicts broke out in the camps, innocent Hutus died and RPF waged wars in Zaire (now, the Democratic Republic of the Congo) right until 2003. To this day, many Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis continue to live as refugees in this region. This, to me, was one of the most, shocking and unjust moments talked of in the book. 

Reflecting on the genocide and its aftermath

“What distinguishes genocide from murder, and even from acts of political murder that claim as many victims, is the intent. The crime is wanting to make a people extinct. The idea is the crime. No wonder it’s so difficult to picture. To do so you must accept the principle of the exterminator, and see not people but a people.”

Gourevitch travelled for nine months after the Rwandan genocide, between 1995 and 1998, to interview survivors and people in power to retell their stories and reflect on what was left after the genocide. He has compiled this book with the experiences and words of government officials, doctors, peacekeepers and most importantly, the survivors and the perpetrators. 

Gourevitch explains the difference between genocide and civil war. A civil war, for the most part, remains constrained to two antagonistic parties and while it may cost civilian lives there is no threat perceived from ordinary men and women. A genocide is perpetrated with one aim only – to eliminate an entire bloodline. Every child, every old man, every pregnant woman is considered a threat and needs to be wiped out. The most famous example of a genocide that we know of, is the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany. What happened in Rwanda cannot be called by any other name except a genocide. 

“If Rwanda’s experience could be said to carry any lessons for the world, it was that endangered peoples who depend on the international community for physical protection stand defenseless.”

Gourevitch seeks to lay down the facts in black and white. He is a fearless journalist and is not afraid to hand out blame. He does not absolve the international community of the role they played. 

The international community remained complacent for the most part, and watched in silence, even though intelligence was received by the UN about the tensions in the country. The fax dispatches did not alarm anyone and for a long time, Westerners shied away from calling the conflict out for what it was – a genocide. The Clinton administration took its time in responding to it, even in words, and the French continued to support the Hutu leaders and supplied them with arms throughout the genocide. 

“Never before in modern memory had a people who slaughtered another people, or in whose name the slaughter was carried out, been expected to live with the remainder of the people that was slaughtered, completely intermingled, in the same tiny communities, as one cohesive national society.”

What happened in Rwanda was not some age-old conflict being played out between two ethnic groups. Ethnographers no longer recognized Hutus and Tutsis as distinct, for they were sufficiently intermingled and intermarried by this time in their history. This was not some African madness. It was a product of differences amplified by those in power. 

The aftermath of the genocide presents the anguish of those who survived. Mass displacements, the desire for justice or revenge, the crowded refugee camps and prisons – all of these had a severe psychological impact on those left to restart their lives without their friends or family. One of the things that I found disturbing, is how in the years after the genocide the victims and the killers are asked to live side-by-side and get back to form a cohesive society. Is something like this even possible for a human to do?

At the heart of it, this book captures facts and truths – the sadness, the emptiness and the dread – when one-tenth of a country’s population was decimated at the stroke of a single machete. The question I’m left asking is – how do the people learn to live a normal life ever again?

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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