Ricardo Mazalan, AP/Wide World


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 Times Book 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.

That’s right. If one thinks about it: If there are 800,000 people who have been murdered, that would in principle mean that by our idea of justice there are 800,000 murder cases that need to be tried, and our system of justice would be taxed beyond its capacity, so certainly Rwanda’s would be as well.

You’re told over and over, as you write in the book, that Rwandans never tell the truth. And at different points you write about people exaggerating to you, lying to you, telling you stories. How did you find the truth?

A lot of things about Rwanda are like the rest of the world except a lot more so, because it’s so extreme and so complicated. And one has to presume, not that one is getting it straight right away, but that one doesn’t know. You have to be suspicious of your own knowledge. But with time you basically find that certain things are confirmable. Sometimes in the refugee camps [where the Hutus, many of whom participated in the killings of the Tutsis, retreated after the genocide] I would talk to people, and they would say, “You know, there are two sides to every story. You must be objective.” And I would say, “That’s true. But one has to not confuse objectivity with neutrality.” I sometimes clung to the line that the novelist William Gaddis has in one of his books: Keep an open mind and your brains will fall out.

I picked up this book primarily because I wanted to understand — in the context of what’s going on in Kosovo — how people live together and intermarry and have family and friends and neighbors and doctors who are this “other” and everything is fine, and suddenly everything isn’t fine and people are killing one another or completely rejecting one another. And that, to me, fundamentally, is where the similarity lies between Rwanda and Kosovo. I was hoping that your book might help me understand how that happens, but it didn’t.

I think on some level one has to respect that mystery. I can explain how it happened, and I can show the many elements that contributed to making it possible, and yet in the end there’s still this mystery. With time, I think, people can be made bad. It’s quite clear. The less information they have, the more narrowly they’re confined, the more they’re sort of programmed to it, they’re conditioned in this Clockwork Orange–y sort of way. That helps explain it. But I think even Rwandans are totally bewildered by it. They sit there and they explain all the mechanisms of the old mentality: the dictatorship and the economic conditions and all the different factors that made the people pliable and how the plying was done. But in the end, I think, even they are bewildered — and spooked. In the end, I think, there really isn’t an answer.

Philip Gourevitch will speak on “Rwanda’s False Histories: The Logic of Genocide” at the Getty Center on Monday, May 3, at 3:30 p.m. He will read from his book at the Los Angeles Central Library at 7 p.m.

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