378 of 387 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2000
In early May 1994 I stood on a bridge over the river that forms the border between Rwanda and Tanzania and observed corpses floating down towards Lake Victoria in an unbroken stream. As I write this, two Rwandan women are taking the unprecedented action of suing the United Nations for its failure to intervene in the worst act of genocide since WW2. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who played a kay role in UN decision-making in 1994, has confessed the UN's "failure" and expressed his own "deep remorse." 800,000 people died, most of them hacked to death with machetes by their neighbours. How this happened, and how the world utterly failed in its self-appointed role to prevent exactly such a holocaust, is the subject of this beautifully written, accessible and compelling book. Gourevitch wants to know WHAT happened, and through interviews with survivors, gives us the clearest and most comprehensive understanding I have yet seen. It is not pretty reading, although Gourevitch's dispassionate and sensitive writing makes it possible to get through material that in coarser hands would be impossible to stomach. He also describes the HOW. For years it was evident to the West - and most particularly to France and Belgium - that Hutu factions were gathering their strength to strike at the Tutsi minority. Every day Hutu radio stations ran violent anti-Tutsi propaganda, in which Tutsis and any moderate Hutus who were not interested in killing them were warned to prepare to die. When the killing began, it was simply the next logical step in a process that had long been underway. The case seems impossible to refute - indeed, the UN's internal investigation which published its report in December 1999 does NOT refute - that the genocide was both broadly predictable, and could have been ameliorated, if not altogether stopped, by effective international intervention. The legal knots the UN allowed to create for itself, so that "blue-helmets" felt they could not act to save a woman being raped and hacked to pieces, because their mandate allowed for only their own self-defence, are just one example of how international law can - sometimes - ENCOURAGE crimes against humanity. The lessons of Rwanda, painfully learnt, will influence the way the so-called "world community" responds to massive ethnic eruptions for a generation to come. To begin to understand this most painful event in recent human history, this book cannot be too highly recommended. If there is one small niggle, it is the lack of an index, something that I hope will be addressed in future editions.
48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 1999
WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES Stories from Rwanda Philip Gourevitch Farrar Straus, Giroux $25.00 356 pp.
In 1994, the Hutu majority in Rwanda committed genocide upon their minority countrymen, the Tutsi. 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. In April, while British husbands rushed off with umbrellas to their jobs, Hutu husbands picked up machetes and killed their Tutsi wives. In Germany during May, dancers gyrated to ubiquitous techno-rock, while the leading pop singer in Rwanda urged his Hutu countrymen over the state-sponsored radio to "Kill the cockroaches-"the Tutsis. As the Kiwanis met in Des Moines in June, neighborhood "work groups" of Hutu men and women gathered to go over "hit lists" prepared by the government. During the time it took you to read the above, at least five Tutsis were killed, day by day, week by week, through July.
And not a single foreign government or international agency intervened.
Why bother? After all, isn't this an "age-old animosity between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups," as the NEW YORK TIMES stated. Haven't they been committing atrocities against each other for centuries? Aren't those poor refugees in the news from Zaire as much victims as the victims in Rwanda?
No, no, and emphatically no, replies Philip Gourevitch in this book, selected by the NEW YORK TIMES as one of the year's ten best books of 1998. Until the Belgians issued identity cards during their colonial rule, no formal delineation between the two tribes was common, let alone violent. The "superior" Tutsi myth was simply a repetition of the incredibly specious Hamitic myth, that claimed the Tutsi were "nobler," "aristocratic" primarily because they had more refined, i.e., Caucasian-like features. No massacre had ever occurred prior to one incident in 1959. Those "refugees?" If they were in a camp outside Rwanda, they were one of the 2 million Hutu that fled . when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front re-took the country. In other words, they could easily have been killers, not victims. One by one, Gourevitch demolishes those conventional myths with which the rest of the world deflected their responsibility.
But he does more than that. Like Leontius in Plato's REPUBLIC who, upon seeing a pile of bodies, ran to them opening his eyes wide with his fingers, crying "There you are, curse you, have your fill of the lovely spectacle," Gourevitch rushes to unimaginable places. Once there, filled with both desire to see and disgust at the sight, Gourevitch puts down prose which props our eyes wide open to the horror of Rwanda, past and present.
In a bar one evening, he meets an aid worker who speaks of stepping on the dead to help the living. Later in his travels, but earlier in the book, Gourevitch visits the scene of a massacre, a church now kept as a shrine. A member of his group steps on a skull, offending the author-"Then I heard another crunch, and felt a vibration underfoot. I had stepped on one, too." The dead cannot be denied their presence anywhere in Rwandan life, then or now. Time and again Gourevitch's narrative resonates with such revelations.
The author also pursues both perpetrator and persecuted to question them. He travels all the way to Texas to interview the Hutu minister who received the note from which the title was taken. There, in "an expensive-looking new community," he finds the man, indicted by the FBI for presiding over the slaughter of hundreds in his congregation. He denied everything, in terms eerily echoing claims from the Holocaust: "I never saw anything...I never went anywhere. I stayed at my office." Another man, the "Minister of Justice of Rwanda in exile" claims only Tutsis who sympathized with the RPF forces were killed. Did that include "the fetuses ripped from the wombs of Tutsis, after radio announcers had reminded listeners to take special care to disembowel pregnant victims?" asks Gourevitch. "Think about it," replies the minister. Let's say the Germans attack France, so France defends itself against Germany. They understand that all Germans are the enemy. The Germans kill women and children, so you do, too-"an answer that makes genocide the fault of the victims as well as the perpetrators. Once again, Gourevitch pops our eyes wide open.
Gourevitch's extensive interviews lead him straight through the tragedy of the past to the dilemma of the present. In the highlands of central Rwanda, he finds a woman who tells him "A certain Girumuhatse is back, a man who beat me during the war...This man threw me in a ditch after killing off my whole family. He's now at his house again...he asked my pardon." When Gourevitch confronts this admitted killer, the man denies responsibility, and blames his superiors: "The authorities understand that many just followed orders." That reply not only puts the lie to the "Never Again" buttons Gourevitch sees U.S. Holocaust Museum employees wearing, it puts a unique perspective on life in Rwanda: "Never before in modern memory had a people who slaughtered another people...been expected to live with the remainder of the people that was slaughtered...as one cohesive national society."
That mandate for coexistence has been enforced almost single-handedly by one of the most powerful men in Africa, Vice President Kagame. It was he who defeated the Hutu Majority forces, kept his forces from major retaliation, repatriated 600,00 Rwandans from Goma in four days, and ousted President Mobutu from then-Zaire. In a remarkable series of interviews with this remarkable man, Gourevitch throws light on the events listed above, the developing recovery, and the fleeting hope for Rwanda because this one man claims that "people can be made bad, and they can be taught to be good."
Gourevitch found little hope of that, and less reason in the almost-four years he spent forcing himself to look at the Rwandan catastrophe. Although he finds reason to blame France for supporting the Hutus, America for refusing to intervene, and international relief agencies for prolonging warfare by literally feeding the Hutu genocidaires, he fails to exhume the one compelling reason we all desire-why?. Solidarity with neighbors, a government trying to preserve itself, acquiescence by the slaughtered-none of these reasons, alone or together, answer that unfathomable question. Fortunately, his vivid portrait of the Rwandan plight articulates for us that question in ways we dare not ignore, just as Leontius could not ignore that pile of bodies. We do so only at the risk of reducing genocide to the level of a cheese sandwich, like the American officer said in a Rwandan bar: "What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich? Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a s---? Crimes against humanity. Where's humanity? Who's humanity? You? Me?...Hey, just a million Rwandans..."
800,000 actually, in 100 days, in 1994. But who's counting?
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2000
IN the province of Kibungo, in eastern Rwanda, near the Tanzanian border, there's a rocky hill called Nyarubuye, with a church where many Tutsis were slaughtered in April 1994. A year after the killing, I flew to Nyarubuye in a United Nations helicopter, low over the hills in the morning mists, with the banana trees like green starbursts dense over the slopes. The uncut grass blew back as we dropped into the centre of a parish schoolyard. A lone soldier materialised, and shook our hands with shy formality. I stepped up into the open doorway of a classroom. At least 50, mostly decomposed cadavers covered the floor, wadded in clothing, their belongings strewn about and smashed. Macheted skulls had rolled here and there. The dead looked like pictures of the dead. They did not smell. They did not buzz with flies. They had been killed 13 months earlier, and they hadn't been moved. Skin stuck here and there over the bones, many of which lay scattered from the bodies, dismembered by the killers, or by scavengers - birds, dogs, bugs. The more complete figures looked a lot like people, which they were once. A woman in a cloth wrap printed with flowers lay near the door. Her fleshless hip bones were high and her legs slightly spread, and a child's skeleton extended between them. Her torso was hollowed out. Her ribs and spinal column poked through the rotting cloth. Her head was tipped back and her mouth was open; a strange image - half agony, half repose. I had never been among the dead before. What to do? Look? Yes. I had come to see them. The dead had been left unburied at Nyarubuye for memorial purposes - and there they were, so intimately exposed. I didn't need to see them. I already knew, and believed, what had happened in Rwanda. Yet looking at the buildings and the bodies, and hearing the silence of the place, with the grand Italianate basilica standing there deserted, and the beds of exquisite, death-fertilised flowers blooming over the corpses, it was still strangely unimaginable. All this is common In Africa. But Why? Please buy this book
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2005
Henry Kissinger was once asked why he invested so little time on Latin American diplomacy. His response was a sarcastic echo of Hitler's justification for the annexation of Czech Sudetenland: "South America is a dagger aimed at the heart of Antarctica."
And so it is with Rwanda, relegated to the interior of continent that is a geopolitical second-class citizen. At the same time Americans were building a museum to memorialize the Jewish Holocaust in World War II, our government, along with the U.N. bureaucracy and most of the rest of the world, was washing its hands of the blood in Rwanda.
Here is an exceptional piece of both political reporting and literature that brings light to a dark corner of modern history. If you're thinking about reading this book, I urge you to look at the reviews. Listen to what the readers are saying, the unanimity of feeling. It's so rare to see a review site where not one person trashes a book. And yet this book is so moving and powerful, I think it would take cynicism to the point of inhumanity to deny its impact.
I had read Romeo Dallaire's "Shake Hands with the Devil", which is a harrowing first-person account of the events in Rwanda. Dallaire was the commander of the woefully understaffed U.N. "peacekeeping" force, a force that could do little more than bear witness to the genocide that was unfolding around them. But if you have to read one book about Rwanda, it should be Peter Gourevitch's "We wish to inform you..."
It is not only difficult to put down because of its narrative force, but starting from the personal stories of genocide witnesses he is able to zoom out and see the larger picture in which the rest of the world is complicit. As Gourevitch observes, if what happened in Central Africa happened in Europe, it would have been considered a World War. Why were we so oblivious in the West? Are all men created equal?
To say it's a "must read" book really doesn't do it justice. You're denying yourself something important if you don't read it.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2002
As Joseph Stalin stated: "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."
I picked up Gourvitch's book on my way to Rwanda. I was sent on a humanitarian medical mission to help the government upgrade what was left of a ravaged, dilapidated, central hospital's medical system.
This book was my first read during my two week stay in Rwanda/Kigali. Unnerving, I was reading it while I sumptuously dined at the only five star hotel. I just finished my meal when I got to the part where Gourvitch mentions that it was at this hotel that scores of killing and atrocities occurred. Distressing.
Later, the next weekend, after I finished the book, I went to a hotel disco and the dance floor was full of Hutus and Tutsis dancing together. Very bizarre, for my Western mind to grasp, considering that just eight years ago 99.9% of those on the dance floor witnessed violence, 79.6% experienced death in their family and 57.7% watched the gore of killing or maiming with machetes. Not to mention how many were victims themselves or how many were perpetrators.
In this outstanding book, Philip Gourvitch lays it all out, and it is brutal and gruesome. His writing is forceful and forthright. He directly indites the U.S. and Europe, citing their deliberate indifference to the genocide. He writes, "Rwanda had presented the world with the most unambiguous case of genocide since Hitler's war against the Jews, and the world sent blankets, beans and bandages ... hoping that everyone would behave nicely in the future.� Especially damning is France's complicity with the Hutus.
There are a few areas of shortcomings. The lack of an index and noticeable is Philip Gourvitch remiss to lay any blame at the door step of any of the African nations for their disengagement.
Also, if you selected this book, hoping to have a rational and sane answer for how and why this insanity happened, how 1,000,000 people could be hacked to death by friends, family, teachers, physicians and coworkers in 100 days; you will come away empty handed.
But, this is not a shortcoming of Philip Gourvitch book. For there can never be adequate explanation for such demonic decimation. The genocide of Rwanda, the base brutality, the inhumanity, the cries and pleading prayers of the victims and the vacuum of morality and compassion have made these actions uncircumscribible.
Finally, this book should be read in several sittings. The despairing denseness of the inhumane acts are too heavy to be comprehended without breaks, ie "Hutus young and old rose to the task. Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in their home and colleague hacked colleague to death in their work place. Doctors killed their patients, and school teachers killed their pupils.�. Highly Recommended.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
PRODUCT ADVISORY--Do not read this book (or this review) if any of the following are true:
You have no stomach for descriptions of graphic violence and human cruelty.
You believe and want to keep believing that serious problems in faraway countries should always be handled by the U.N.
You cherish a belief that people are rational.
If any of those statements applies to you, you'll have serious issues with this book. It's not for the faint of heart or queasy of stomach, it forces the reader to come to terms with the ineffectiveness of international institutions, and, most importantly, it shows the full dark potential of man's cruel, brutish, irrational side.
Gourevitch's book is difficult to read but impossible to put down. He writes excellently and knowingly about a difficult topic many people chose to remain ignorant of: the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans over the space of a few short months in 1994.
Few people outside Rwanda realized what was happening until it was too late, and no one of consequence took any meaningful action to stop the massacres--the U.N. and the U.S., stung by their failure in Somalia less than a year before, sat on the sidelines. Meanwhile, mobs of Hutus, whipped into a frenzy by radio broadcasts spewing anti-Tutsi propaganda, hacked hundreds of thousands of people to death with machetes.
To his great credit, Gourevitch gets beyond statistics, facts and figures, telling stories that bring these events to life in horrifying, vivid detail. Readers feel the terror of Tutsis who had their Achilles tendons cut, who were left writhing in pain on the ground while their assailants ate, drank, and came back to kill them after dinner.
While writing this book, Gourevitch traveled extensively in Rwanda and elsewhere, even as the aftershocks of the massacre reverberated through the surrounding nations. This research paid off well, and he paints an indelible picture of a country and a region wracked by a massive human catastrophe. Indeed, "We Wish to Inform You" reads like a travelogue from hell, a visitor's guide to a blood-soaked patch of God's green earth where the perpetrators of genocide now live side by side with the friends and family of their victims.
Other reviewers have criticized this book for meandering too much after the initial descriptions of the massacres. These passages, though, work well to illustrate how the U.N., having sat on its hands during the killings, bungled their aftermath, and how the problems in Rwanda were ultimately best solved by Rwandans and other Africans. And that is perhaps the best and most surprising thing about Gourevitch's book; after all the bloodshed and all the killing and all the cruelty, it ends on a note of peace, optimism--and humanity.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2005
This book has been very highly praised. Is it really that good? As far as I'm concerned, yes, it is.
That does not mean that those who want to learn something about the genocide in Rwanda ought to read this book and no others! But this book ought to be one of the ones that you do read.
Gourevitch explains that there really was a carefully planned genocide, in which about 800,000 of Rwanda's 900,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in about 100 days, decimating (reducing by 10%) the population of the country as a whole. He shows that many rather ordinary Rwandans carried out these murders, often with machetes. And there are a number of individual stories that make it all horrifyingly real to us readers. Although I often dislike an anecdotal approach to events, I think Gourevitch does a superb job with it.
There are numerous issues that beg to be discussed, and Gourevitch addresses them. He shows how the genocide was planned, he describes how it was accomplished, and he shows the extent of retaliation for it. Throughout, he manages to keep his moral compass. He properly dismisses excuses by the killers that there was nothing they could do, or that they were merely following orders, or merely giving orders. Nor does he try to make the intentional attempt to get rid of all Tutsis equivalent to incidents in a war to conquer or liberate parts of Rwanda.
Some of the issues Gourevitch raises deal with responsibility of other nations. Where was the UN in all of this? Or France? Or the United States? He points out that there is a Genocide Convention whose premise is "that a moral imperative to prevent efforts to exterminate whole peoples should be the overriding interest animating the action of an international community of autonomous states." Germany was indeed conquered in 1945, its leaders were brought to justice, the country was then reconstructed. Does the international community have the same attitude about similar threats today? Obviously not. In fact, France tended to support and arm the Hutu killers. The United Nations never obtained the authority to try to stop any of the atrocities. And the United States helped delay sending more UN forces, so that even had the UN decided to try to take action, it would have been unable to do so at the height of the massacres.
Rwanda is an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, and I wondered about the role of the Church in the genocide. After all, the killers and victims tended to be of the same religion. It was disappointing to discover how little the church leaders did to speak out against the killings, let alone stop them.
Of course, reading about such terrible inhumanity does make one wonder about our species as a whole. Are we humans really this awful? Well, yes, sometimes we are. But this book also left me with a feeling of hope and a sense that we can do much better. I think the book made me realize that if we were to show just a little more respect for truth and human rights and pay just a little more attention to events, we would be likely to avoid tragedies such as this one.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 2004
This book starts with a close-up view of some horrific and shocking stories of massacres in Rwanda during the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in 1994. It's immediately gripping. Then Gourevitch pulls back a bit, to explore the immediate circumstances of the genocide. Finally, the lens is adjusted all the way to wide angle, to encompass the history of Hutu and Tutsi identity and conflict, the causes and implications of the conflict in Africa and the rest of the world. It's the kind of context that's nearly impossible to come by through news reporting or concise historical texts. Along the way, Gourevitch shares his own meditations and commentary as a visitor, investigator, journalist, and human in Rwanda. This is not a dry, objective historical text, nor is it a purely sensationalist fictionalized view of the genocide. It is that rarest of nonfiction texts--a personal, historical, and political view that gives the reader a clearer picture of what is usually portrayed as a muddy conflict between savages. I highly recommend this book to anyone.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2004
There are so many unbelievable parts of this story of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, that it's impossible to sum it up in a review. I had to remind myself several times that these are real people, and this really happened. It is not fiction.
For a long time, Rwandans have classified themselves into two "ethnic groups," Hutus and Tutsis. (I put that in quotes because neither ethnographers nor anthropologists classify them in different groups.) Historically, up to the mid 20th century, Tutsis have been a more socially elite group, and occasional minor conflicts between the groups took place. But when the Belgians decided to make Rwanda a Belgian colony, they enacted laws that exacerbated this racial divide, including but not at all limited to requiring ethnic identity cards.
This book wonderfully tells the story of the buildup of tension to the breaking point, and the ensuing massacre of 800,000 Rwandans in 100 days. It was a state-sponsored genocide, one eerily similar to Hitler's in many ways except for the lack of international attention it received. Although the Akagira River, which feeds Lake Victoria, was literally clogged with mutilated bodies, the international community remained ignorant and passive. The UN debated. The media more or less ignored the situation.
I haven't been able to stop thinking about the book since I finished it. There are so many horrifying stories contained within, and Gouretevich rightly won a handful of awards for his reporting. He tells the story several times, each time adding new layers--the history, the politics, the personal stories, the international reaction, the aftermath, everyday life in Rwanda after the genocide--and each layer is more sickening. But you need to hear the story several times before it starts to sink in. For a well-off American to understand that somewhere in the world a man's family was attacked, butchered, and thrown into their latrine still alive--this is a very difficult thing to grasp. And that is one of 800,000 stories, many even more horrific. It takes a lot of time and thought to digest. But you still hear of ongoing violence in Rwanda. Recently 100 people were butchered by soldiers with machetes. Although in the western world we will never be able to understand why, this book helps explain the history of it.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2004
I liked the book so much that I felt a sudden sorrow as I read the last page. I just wanted to keep reading on and on. I have read a lot of articles and books on Rwanda, but this one is just exceptional. This is the closest I have come to comprehending what took place in Rwanda. The book uses several key individuals to narrate the stroy of all other
Rwandans and their experiences in the genocide. Philip Gourevitch did an extraordinary job, and I think the book is very well-deserving of its five-star rating. I could hardly keep my fingers off the book for the whole period.
The book explains how the "international community" not only sat and watched the genocide unfold, but also demonstrates how this "international community" HELPED the Hutu extremists kill more people by feeding and funding them. There were many times when I stopped reading and simply glared into the ceiling to ask myself if what I was reading was really true. Doctors killed patients, doctors killed fellow doctors, patients killed doctors, neighbours killed fellow neighbours, and family members and friends killed each other. Some priests, nuns, and prominent politicians also carried their machetes and rifles and helped out too. Children as young as seven were also participants in the horror. Whole villages were wiped out in a matter of days, and whole families were decimated. What is most striking is that the genocide started long before 1994. Numerous Tutsis were being massacred in the 50's and 60's (and further on)...and nobody did anything. April 1994 was largely a culmination of the impunity that had been tolerated for decades. One does wonder how all the survivors today live knowing that the very killers who killed their families are living among them, unpunished.
Gourevitch also goes into the camps in North and South Kivu (near the border with the DRC), and explains the workings of Hutu malitia there. He intelligently delves into the post -'94 politics of Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC - as well as the workings of Mobutu and other politicians. I had a much deeper understanding of politics in Central Africa when I finished the book. The book also ends with an interview with Rwanda's current president (Kagame), and his own insight into what happened, and also what's in store for Rwanda's future.
I would recommend this book any day. In fact, I advise anyone who gets the chance to go ahead and read it. It gave me a better appreciation of life, the sad reality of world politics, and a profound sense of regret for what happened in Rwanda. I don't take it lightly either, that I finished this book on my birthday.