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Gourevitch on the Rwandan genocide

After letting it glower at me from the shelf for a couple of years, I finally read Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, an account of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. I suppose I procrastinated because I expected a grim catalog of horrors. The horrors are there, but this is no catalog: Gourevitch's writing is nuanced, not numbing.

There's a good introduction to the book in this section of an overall rather pedestrian interview with the author. Some take-home points: the Hutu-Tutsi conflict was not ancient but a product of colonialism and 19th century racist pseudoscience. The West and the UN failed to act in 1994 when Hutus killed 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors in 100 days, an efficiency that put Nazi Germany to shame. Then when exiled Rwandans (both Tutsi and Hutu) mounted an invasion to stop the genocide, the West and the UN prolonged it by setting up mismanaged refugee camps which the Hutu forces used as bases from which to continue their attacks. Ultimately the anti-genocidal forces prevailed, not only taking Rwanda but spawning the force which overthrew dictator Mobutu of neighboring Zaire, arguably the most cruel and corrupt despot in Africa.

Gourevitch explores both causes and consequences of these events in detail. I found his portrait of Paul Kagame, leader of the anti-genocidal RPF, particularly thought-provoking. Kagame seems to combine military brilliance with the restraint and self-criticism of a Gandhi. Is such a combination really possible? If Gourevitch and his army of fact checkers are correct in their assessment of Kagame, then he deserves to be a household name like Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama.

books 2002.03.11 link