A share in the genocide
The West must share the
responsibility for killings in Rwanda and Bosnia. Victoria Brittain and Jonathan Steele on the price of doing nothing
We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch
356pp, Picador, £18.99
Saturday March 13, 1999
The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 changed the course of African history. It brought down the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko in neighbouring Zaire, the lynchpin of successive US and French
governments' destructive policies in Central Africa, and unleashed waves of instability which have threatened to engulf not only the re-named Congo, but also Congo-Brazzaville, Angola, Central African Republic,
Zimbabwe, Burundi, Southern Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda itself.
Philip Gourevitch, a writer on the New Yorker with no previous experience in Africa, has written the book which is the key to these dramatic
and terrifying events still being played out. When he says, 'A precise memory of the offence is necessary to understand its legacy,' he is talking of Rwanda itself, but the point goes too for the whole region now
The very title of Gourevich's book, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, catches some of the terror of those three months of killing, in which the victims knew
their fate only too well, and mainly accepted its inevitability. The title comes from a letter written in April 1994 by seven Adventist pastors to their boss, Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, president of the
US-supported Seventh Day Adventist church in the region of Kibuyu. These seven were among 2,000 Tutsis gathered in the church and hospital complex at Mugonero, believing it could be a sanctuary from the massacres of
Tutsis spreading rapidly throughout Rwanda under the direction of the Hutu Power government which took power after the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana in a plane crash. The pastor replied, according to one
survivor of Mugonero, 'your problem has already found a solution. You must die.' Another remembered the words differently, 'You must be eliminated. God no longer wants you.' Gourevich later visits Pastor Ntakirutimana
in Laredo, Texas where he is living in comfort with one of his sons, after fleeing Rwanda through Zaire when Hutu Power lost out to the guerrilla army of the Rwanda Patriotic Front and the pastor was on the list of
those wanted by the UN's tribunal. He was to be charged with three counts of genocide and three of crimes against humanity. Like the survivors of Mugonero, he sits down with Gourevitch and talks to him.
is interviews like these which make the book not just bearable, but compulsive reading. It is impossible to trick your mind into veering away from the enormity of what happened in this tiny country in the centre of
After describing standing among the bodies, bones and skulls in one of the massacre sites, Gourevitch writes to his readers, 'Like Leontius, the young Athenian in Plato, I presume you are reading
this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some flicker of self-knowledge - a
moral, or a lesson, or a clue about how to behave in this world . . . the best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda's stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence
and my place in it.' One part of the legacy of the genocide is its heroes. Paul Rusesabagina
was the manager of the Hotel Milles Collines during the first week of genocide, and he is one such. Gourevitch describes how Rusesabagina spent his days buying lives of Tutsis with liquor, reasoning, persuading, so that each band of killers who came to the hotel to take out various Tutsis on their lists for killing somehow ended up going away. Mr Rusesabagina would then stay up until four in the morning using the one phone line which the Hutu Power authorities had not managed to cut off as they did not know its number, sending faxes to Bill Clinton, ringing the French Foreign Ministry, ringing the King of Belgium, telling them what was going on.
One of the Tutsis he protected, Thomas Kamilindi, a journalist who had had several brushes with death before he managed to get to the hotel, used the phone to give an interview to French radio. 'I
described how we lived, with no water - drinking the swimming pool - and how it was with the killing . . . '. The interview was broadcast and next day a soldier arrived at the hotel to assassinate him. In this
extraordinary intimate genocide most people knew their killers, friends, neighbours, family members. Thomas moved into a friend's room, used the house phone to get his wife to find out the name of the soldier. 'He had
been a friend since childhood, so I called him and said, 'OK, I'm coming,' and I went. He explained that the military command wanted me dead. Then he said, in effect, 'I don't know who's going to kill you. I can't do
it. But I'm leaving the hotel and they'll send someone for sure to kill you.' Nobody else came for me.' The Rwandese individuals who spent time with Gourevitch have lived through the unthinkable, and many made choices
of unbelievable bravery. From the hotel manager to Vice President Kagame, who finally emerges here from the usual cliches of the 'strongman', these are modest people, who see their extraordinary lives as just a series
of problems which had to be solved. Gourevitch's pages make them live. Knowing them, Rwanda becomes not just a word associated with horror.
The real horror in this story is how well Gourevich brings out
that it was not only the victims who knew precisely what Hutu Power planned and how it was carried out: the UN's appalling negligence has been well documented, as has the responsibility of many church leaders. Bill
Clinton, unlike the others whose guilt springs fresh out of these pages, has even made an apology.
This is not quite good enough. Many of the players themselves and their international supporters now
involved in the wars in and around Congo have preferred not to understand either the genocide or its perpetuation for more than a year by the UN's camps in Zaire. To understand what happened is to know who is guilty of
this historic crime against humanity, and to know that the guilty men are not just the tens of thousands in pink pyjamas in Rwanda's overcrowded prisons. This crime is one which our common humanity has an obligation to
pay for. Gourevitch's short book should be compulsory reading for Heads of State and Ministers of Defence all over Africa, as well as for all UN officials involved in peace- keeping operations and humanitarian aid, from
the Secretary General on down, and the heads of missionary orders in the US, France and Belgium.
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999