Skip to main content

Survivors' long way home;Book of the week;Books

We WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES: Stories from Rwanda. By Philip Gourevitch. Picador pound;16.99.

Adam Lively reviews an unsensational but devastating piece of reportage on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda

Between April and July 1994, within the space of about a hundred days, around a million people were massacred in Rwanda. Most, though not all of them, came from the Tutsi ethnic group, and in the following weeks and months, as an invading army, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, took control of the country from its bases in Uganda, hundreds of thousands of Hutus - many of whom had taken part in the massacres - fled across the border into refugee camps in neighbouring Zaire.

This further destabilised the tottering Zairean dictatorship of Mobutu, and in 1996-97 he was swept from power by a rebel force led by Laurent Kabila.

Central Africa had seen one of the most appalling acts of genocide this century, and also one of the most profound political upheavals in its history. The process goes on. The British and American tourists murdered last month in southern Uganda were killed by remnants of the Hutu militias who carried out some of the atrocities five years ago.

The title of journalist Philip Gourevitch's outstanding book of reportage comes from a letter written by a group of Adventist pastors trapped in a church hospital in Mugonero, eastern Rwanda, along with some 2,000 Tutsis. The note was addressed to their boss, Pastor Ntakirutimana, who had sided with the Interahamwe, the Hutu Power militia. His reply came back: "Your problem has found a solution. You must die." According to another version, the pastor wrote: "You must be eliminated. God no longer wants you." Next day the Tutsis were killed, most of them hacked to death with machetes.

Gourevitch's book is marked by a determination to go beyond the cliches of western reporting on Africa, with its emphasis on victimhood and its glib explanations in terms of "age-old ethnic conflicts". Above all, he takes the politics of the region seriously. The massacre of Tutsis in 1994 was not a spontaneous, atavistic outburst. It was carefully planned and orchestrated by politicians. Although the history of Rwanda in the 30 years since independence has been bloody, Hutus and Tutsis had lived reasonably peacefully alongside each other for centuries, and neighbouring Burundi, which has the same mixed population as Rwanda, remained stable.

Rwanda was one of the last areas of Africa to be penetrated by European explorers and colonisers in the late 19th century. And the irony of Rwanda is that it was not one of those nations that was artificially created by Europeans drawing straight lines on a map. It had a long history as a cohesive state, feudal and hierarchical, with the Tutsi minority - traditionally the cattle-owning pastoralists - on top and Hutu peasantry beneath. Gourevitch argues that these divisions were permeable - there has always been intermarriage, and many Hutus died in the 1994 massacres - but that the tradition of blind deference to authority played a large part in the ability of the Hutu extremists to cajole ordinary peasants to commit unspeakable barbarities towards their neighbours.

With independence, the French, the most important colonial power in the region, latched on to the Hutus as their client group. And continue to do so. (Witness the way the Hutu gang who murdered the British and Americans in Uganda let the French tourists go.) Gourevitch has assembled a devastating indictment of France's role in the whole affair. Some members of the French establishment, such as the son of the late, former president Francois Mitterrand, seem to have directly benefited from peddling arms to the Hutu genocidaires.

Other western governments, the western aid organisations and the United Nations come off little better. The first television pictures to come out of the region showed the massive Hutu refugee camps around Lake Kivu on the Zairean Rwandan border. Here was another "natural" African disaster - never mind that many of those huddled under tarpaulin were murderers fleeing justice, and the others were being forcibly kept there as a human shield by the Interahamwe. The aid organisations poured in food and logistical help, much of which went straight to the militias. The camps were becoming military bases for attacks on Zairean Tutsis, and for an eventual Hutu re-invasion of Rwanda.

Against this western apathy and ignorance, Gourevitch sets the efforts of the new RPF regime in Rwanda - which includes both Tutsis and Hutus - to build a new nation. There are long interviews with Paul Kagame, vice-president in the new regime and an impressive figure whom Gourevitch compares to Abraham Lincoln. His realism and courage in the aftermath of genocide contrasts strongly with western hypocrisy and hand-wringing. Gourevitch's book - clear, unsensational and devastating - should be required reading in foreign ministries around the world.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you