Synopsis: Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker spends two years travelling in Rwanda in 1995-97 and produces an illuminating, if not always objectively rigorous, account of the Rwandan genocide, its causes and its aftermath.
My Take: Philip Gourevitch’s account of the collective insanity of late 20th century Rwanda is a moving account.
Not simply because it tells a horrific story mainly from first hand accounts, but moreso because it is told unashamedly from a position of moral clarity. Gourevitch doesn’t equivocate in this book. He tells the stories he’s heard directly and with clear moral verdicts. His writing isn’t annoyingly hectoring or self-righteous, but it clearly places blame where it belongs (ie the Belgians, the French, the Hutus, the UN, the French, the Americans, the UNHCR, the French). No where is this approach more clear than in the title of the book, which comes from a letter written by several local pastors to their regional superior, Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, a Seventh-Day Adventist Pastor who was later convicted in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda with aiding their killing the following day.
In many ways Gourevitch’s approach reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s writing on the holocaust in this regard – more interested in humanity, and what the genocide said about it, than in providing an objective political history. He delves into some detail into Rwanda’s history and culture, but more for philosophical reflection on the absurdities of human nature than to factually enlighten the reader. One particularly interesting section of the book in this regard was its discussion on the absurdly vague distinction drawn within the country between Hutus and Tutsis.
The very nature of the distinction between Hutus and Tutsis is difficult to articulate. Ethanographers and historians agree that they cannot properly be called distinct ethnic groups. Similarly, the difference does not quite fit the description of classes, castes or ranks. What can be said is that the perceptions of difference probably sprung from historical occupational distinctions between Tutsi as herdsman and Hutu as cultivators. Allegedly, the increased value of cattle gave the numerically inferior Tutsis some social and political cache that was entrenched by entrenched in the 19th century when the Mwami Kigeri Rwabugiri, a Tutsi, ascended the throne, and expanded the state to around its present borders.
All of the above is difficult to verify as a result of the ambiguities of oral history and the substantial distrust that now overlays the area. However, what can be confidently said is that it was the Belgians that entrenched and perpetuated these distinctions in order to administer their colonial rule. As Gourevitch tellingly recounts:
“Colonisation is violence, and there are many ways to carry out that violence. In addition to military and administrative chiefs and a veritable army of churchmen, the Belgians dispatched scientists to Rwanda. The scientists brought scales and measuring tapes and callipers, and they went about weighing Rwandans, measuring Rwandan cranial capacities, and conducting comparative analyses of the relative protuberance of Rwandan noses. Sure enough, the scientists found what they had believed all along. Tutsis had a ‘nobler’, more ‘naturally’ aristocratic dimensions than the ‘coarse’ and ‘bestial’ Hutus. On the ‘nasal index’ for instance, the median Tutsi nose was found to be about two and a half millimetres longer and nearly five millimetres narrower than the median Hutu nose.”
“In 1933-34, the Belgians conducted a census in order to issue ‘ethnic’ identity cards, which labelled every Rwandan as either Hutu (85%) of Tutsi (14%) or Twa (1%). The identity cards made it virtually impossible for Hutus to become Tutsis, and permitted the Belgians to perfect the administration of an apartheid system rooted in the myth of Tutsi superiority… Whatever Hutu and Tutsi identity may have stood for in the pre-colonial state no longer mattered; the Belgians had made ‘ethnicity’ the defining feature of Rwandan existence.”
Combine this institutionalised societal division with the brutality and repression of the Belgian colonial administration and the die was well and truly set. But again, Gourevitch does not recount this history to offer lessons, but more so to muse on the nature of humanity. It’s an approach that works in literature, if not in conflict studies. No doubt the causes of the genocide were more nuanced and ambiguous than Gourevitch recounts. No doubt it’s also important for subject matter scholars to study and analyse these reasons. But for the broader mass of humanity, the rights and wrongs of genocide are patently clear. Gourevitch’s moral clarity in the face of the victims he has encountered seems appropriate and his reflection on the nature of humanity seems the best thing that anyone from outside of Rwanda can take from the tragedy.
“Like Leontius, the young Athenian in Plato, I presume that you are reading this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some insight, some flicker of self-knowledge – a moral, or a lesson, or a clue about how to behave in this world: some such information. I don’t discount the possibility, but when it comes to genocide, you already know right from wrong. The best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda’s stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it. The horror, the horror, interests me only insofar as a precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy.”