2005-02-05: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families

Stories from Rwanda (1998)

by Philip Gourevitch (1961-)

This is a very interesting, if somewhat depressing, book. The title is a sentence from a letter sent by a group of Seventh-Day Adventist pastors to Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, the head of their church, an appeal for him to find a way to prevent their murders in the 1994 genocide. His reply was “Your problem has already found a solution. You must die.” They were Tutsis and he was Hutu. Gourevitch obtained a copy of the letter from Ntakirutimana when he interviewed him in Laredo, Texas.

The book is about the background of the genocide, the planning and carrying-out of the genocide, and the aftermath of the genocide, through 1998. Gourevitch visited Rwanda several times from 1995 to 1998, and seems to have had good access to the new regime that came in after the Hutu Power regime was pushed out, particularly Kagame. He is sympathetic to the Tutsi victims, and critical of the way that the international community, including the UN and the US, failed to act in time to prevent a terrible tragedy. He also portrays the difficulties of Hutus and Tutsis continuing to live together in post-genocide Rwanda.

Among the comments I found interesting:

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. (page 129)

[P]ower largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality, even if you have to kill a lot of them to make that happen. In this raw sense, power has always been very much the same everywhere; what varies is primarily the quality of the reality it seeks to create: is it based more in truth than in falsehood, which is to say, is it more or less abusive of its subjects? The answer is often a function of how broadly or narrowly the power is based: is it centered in one person, or is it spread out among many different centers that exercise checks on one another? And are its subjects merely subjects or are they also citizens? In principle, narrowly based power is easier to abuse, while more broadly based power requires a truer story at its core and is more likely to protect more of its subjects from abuse. (page 181)

Bonaventure [who escaped the attacks] believed that survival was meaningless until one found “a reason to survive again, a reason to look to tomorrow.” This was a widely held view in Rwanda, where depression was epidemic. The so-called survival instinct is often described as an animal urge to preserve oneself. But once the threat of bodily annihilation is relieved, the soul still requires preservation, and a wounded soul becomes the source of its own affliction; it cannot nurse itself directly. So survival can seem a curse, for one of the dominant needs of the needy soul is to be needed. As I came to know survivors, I found that, when it comes to soul preservation, the urge to look after others is often greater than the urge to look after oneself. All across the ghastly countryside, survivors sought each other out, assembling surrogate families and squatting together in abandoned shacks, in schoolyard shanties and burned-out shops, hoping for safety and comfort in hastily assembled households. A shadow world of the severely traumatized and achingly bereft established in the ruins. The extent of orphanhood was especially staggering: two years after the genocide, more than a hundred thousand children were looking after one another in homes that lacked adult presence. (page 228)

While he was interviewing a survivor, Odette Nyiramilimo, she asked: “Do the people in America really want to read this? People tell me to write these things down, but it’s written inside of me. I almost hope for the day when I can forget.” (page 238)

Nobody ever talked seriously about conducting tens of thousands of murder trials in Rwanda. Western legal experts like to say that even the lawyer-crowded United States could not have handled Rwanda’s caseload fairly and expeditiously. “It’s materially impossible to judge all those who participated in the massacres, and politically it’s no good, even though it’s just,” the RPF’s Tito Ruteramara told me. “This was a true genocide, and the only correct response is true justice. But Rwanda has the death penalty, and – well, that would mean a lot more killing.”

In other words, a true genocide and true justice are incompatible. (page 249)

On my return to Goma [to see Hutu refugee camps in Zaire], I learned that it was true that the International Organization for Migration had planned an evacuation convoy to rescue the Tutsis in Kitchanga [where Hutus continue to massacre Tutsis], but that the plan had been scrapped. The IOM mandate did not permit it to assist “internally displace” people in crossing international borders. The UNHCR and dozens of other humainatarian organizations that had the lucrative catering contracts for the camps in Goma all had similar limitations in their mandates, which prevented them from saving the Mokoto survivors. Most aid organizations prohibited themselves from transporting anyone anywhere, and cold provide relief only on the spot; many refused to conduct operations that involved armed security, lest their “neutrality” should be compromised; still others maintained that it would violate their humanitarian principles to further the aims of “ethnic cleansing” by removing Tutsis just because Hutus threatened them. Individual aid workers I spoke with agreed that it was more human to “ethnically cleanse” people than to leave them to be murdered. But it became clear that their organizations’ first commitment was not to protecting people but to protecting their mandates. “Everything is lies here,” Father Victor, the Mokoto monk, told me in Goma. “All these organizations – they will give blankets, food, yes. But save lives? No, they can’t.” (page 289)

[General Kagame said,] “I think we should start accusing these people who actually supported the camps, spent a million dollars per day in these camps, gave support to these groups to rebuild themselves into a force, militarized refugees. When in the ned these refugees are caught up in the fighting and they die, I think it has more to do with these people than Rwanda, than Congo, than the Alliance. Why shouldn’t we accuse them? This is the guilt they are trying to fight off. This is something they are trying to deflect.”

It was true that the victory of the Pan-African alliance Kagame had put together in the Congo had constituted a defeat for the international community. The major powers and their humanitarian representatives had been pushed out of the way, and, he said, “they are angered, and the guilt is exposed by the defeat.” He said, “they have not determined the outcome, so again this is something they cannot stomach.” He said, “Kabila emerges, alliance emerges, something changes, Mobutu goes: things happen, the region is happy about what is happening, different people have had different ways of supporting the process. And they are left out, and everything takes them by surprise. They are extremely annoyed by that, and they can’t take it like that.” (page 340)

It would be interesting to get other views about Kagame, who is portrayed as a heroic founding-father figure for Rwanda. But regardless of the accuracy of the portrayal of him and his movement, the stories of Rwanda are disturbing and interesting.


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