|Ricardo Mazalan, AP/Wide World|
WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES | By PHILIP GOUREVITCH | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 356 pages | $25 hardcover
Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer at The New Yorker, spent more than three years working on We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, his account of the systematic Hutu slaughter of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in the spring and summer of 1994. By far the most extensive reporting on the genocide, the book has received the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award, the Overseas Press Club Award and the Los Angeles TimesBook Prize in the current-interest category.L.A. Weekly: How would you compare the U.S. reaction to the genocide in Rwanda to the ethnic cleansing now under way in Kosovo? Philip Gourevitch: It’s complicated to compare the world’s deliberate policy of nonintervention in Rwanda with its policy of intervention — however inadequate and poorly conducted it may be — in Yugoslavia. I do think that the burden of shame clings to the memory of our decision to let Rwanda have a genocide without doing anything about it, and having done nothing significant for the first three years of the Bosnian war until after Srebrenica had happened under our noses, and in a so-called U.N. safe haven. I think the shame of that memory certainly shadows the decisions that are being made today.
On the other hand, if one looks at what’s happening in Kosovo, it’s pretty clear that nobody thought through the action. There’s no policy. There’s no objective. They said it was to stop ethnic cleansing and now say it’s to reverse ethnic cleansing. They didn’t have a plan beyond the idea that Milosevic should capitulate. Nobody seems to have planned for worst-case scenarios. And in that respect it seems to me that the very truest lesson of Rwanda hasn’t been learned, which is that endangered people who rely on the international community for protection are undefended.Throughout the book you remark on the dearth of media coverage of the genocide. Do you think that better coverage would have affected U.S. policy?
Yes. When I’m in a place like Rwanda and people come to me and say, "Oh reporter, you must take our story and tell the world," and they believe in some deep way that [journalists]can have influence, I tend to discourage them. I tend to say, look, don’t believe that by telling your story anybody’s really going to listen or pay attention. But there’s no question that if one makes noise and puts it under people’s noses, it becomes an issue that’s harder to ignore. It creates pressure.So why did we ignore Rwanda?
Nobody knew anything about Rwanda in advance. I suspect that the coverage of the first couple of months of the Yugoslav war wasn’t great either. And remember, Rwanda was fast. So in some sense nobody ever really dug in. I don’t blame the reporters. A lot of the blame falls at the editorial level. Because there were great reporters there, and I know that a lot of them saw what was going on. And some of them were writing it. And many of their stories weren’t getting in or weren’t getting listened to or were getting cut. But the decision was that this was a faceless, anonymous mass involved in some kind of animal kingdom. This is what we get from Africa. We get pictures of animals at the watering hole, and we get pictures of these Darwinian struggles. They’re killing each other. That’s what they do. There’s nothing about it that contradicted the way the press tends to cover Africa, which is of a place plagued by meaningless violence at a very graphic level.So what compelled you to pursue it?
I was interested in part because I couldn’t make any sense of it from here. It was evidentially the worst and most unambiguous case of genocide — of a systematic attempt by a government to mobilize its population to eliminate an entire class of humanity — and journalistically nobody else was doing it. I found that bewildering.
I went not only because I wanted to understand what had happened, but also because I didn’t feel the story could possibly be over. There was no territorial partition or division between the people in Rwanda. There was no Hutu area or Tutsi area. So people were living intermingled again.You observe that the genocide is a form of community building, and then, later on, when you talk about Rwandans recovering from the genocide, you observe that during the killings the world was just "us against them," but that the reality is far more complex. How do these disparate groups come together?
It’s a very difficult proposition. The line [spoken by one of the characters in the book] that people can be made bad and can be taught to be good is simultaneously one of the most terrifying and one of the most optimistic propositions you could ask for. Because it suggests that the potential for the kind of horrific inhumanity that was unleashed in Rwanda is a sort of core ingredient of the human condition and the potential for even the people who have been capable of that to be made into a working and viable society is also there. If you put those two things together by almost the same mechanism, it’s chilling, but I think it’s probably not untrue.You state that it’s impossible to obtain true justice in the wake of genocide.