on March 14, 2004
I have various views of this book. First, it is a very important account of one of the great tragedies of our time. It upsets me that we still only speak of this tragedy without enough specificity. It is too often just a conversation about the million killed in Rwanda without enough focus on who did the killing. It wasn't just a tribe against another. It was people hacking others to death. This book gets us to some of those individuals - both those murdered and those murdering - and that is the chief reason to appreciate the book and thank Mr. Gourevitch for it.
However, I wish there some images in the book beyond the couple of maps. Yes, Mr. Gourevitch is a fine writer and helps us see with words. But this kind of genocide cries out for photographic documentation. Maybe there isn't any that is appropriate for the book. But I feel the lack just the same.
Finally, this is an important document of the Rwandan terror, but it isn't the final story. It isn't the complete story. That has yet to be written. But I found reading this book a strange sort of nightmare. Everything seems real and it has its own frightening impetus, but it is like a dream where you want things to stop but it won't. It is horrifying and even worse because it all happened to real people and in our time.
And notice how everyone runs from accountability. It seems like everyone wants to pretend someone else did it and when you find someone who actually can't run away from involvement they want to pretend it was some awful force that made people unavoidably crazy and should therefore be forgotten. What hogwash.
Thanks to Mr. Gourevitch for getting these stories in print for us. I hope we burn these stories in our memory.
on February 10, 2003
If you're looking for a tightly written historical piece about an important event in recent history, this is not the book for you as the author seems to go back and forth between providing the details of the events, eyewitness accounts and his own sermonizing/attempts to comprehend what happened in Rwanda in the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, it is still a very worthwhile book to read and, in some respects, Gourevitch's style does the topic justice. As one reads about what transpired during these events it is next to impossible to not be outraged by the actions of the Hutu Power groups and the inaction/dysfunctional reaction of the international community. It is also next to impossible to overlook how horrific the entire event was. As a result, it is understandable that Gourevitch spends so much time wondering what the heck everyone was thinking and how this all transpired. It is hard to see how anyone can spend time investigating the event and write a purely objective, tight historical piece about it.
on October 3, 2002
Several reviewers have lambasted this book for a variety of shortcomings: poorly written, poorly edited, he doesn't interview the right types of people, he talks too much about himself. I hope to briefly explain why I don't agree with ANY of these criticisms and hope that people will read this excellent book.
Poorly written/edited: I'm a writer/editor myself and the pages of this book flew through my fingers. I was totally absorbed. I found it well written, but if you're worried, I have a feeling the subject matter is so important, you wouldn't even notice if stylistically it wasn't your cup of tea.
Sources: He interviews the following types of people: Hutus who killed, Tutsis who were attacked, government officials of many countries, foreign aid workers. Don't believe the people who say he only interviews the power players and leaves out the voice of the common man. The hotel manager's (just a middle class Hutu who did what he thought was right) story is awesome and could make a movie as powerful as Schindler's List.
Too self-centered: Yes, Gourevitch brings in his own observations and experiences. I felt they were insightful and interesting. Part of his quest is to see how people deal with the genocide, how they internalize it and incorporate it into their existence. As an American going to Rwanda from New York to learn about this genocide, Gourevitch has an interesting perspective and I'm glad he didn't choose to bury it.
One more thing: Several reviews crticized a particular passage where he talks about the "postmodern war" of relativism versus right/wrong. These reviewers misunderstood the passage. He's not talking about the genocide itself, but he's talking about THE WAR OVER THE GENOCIDE. In other words, people who think genocide took place versus those who would deny it or call it something else (it was a war, many people were killed on both sides, etc). In my opinion Gourevitch is right on -- to call this event something other than genocide is either a case of denial or a relativistic fantasy -- nothing is wrong, it's all context. Yes the particular sentence was a little over the top, but these reviewers had a knee-jerk reaction to it that obscured their understanding of his prose.
This is not an objective book, but given the subject how could the author NOT be emotionally moved to make a judgment about people who would deny this event its importance in world history? I applaud his efforts.
on September 6, 2002
I purchased this book upon its release in an attempt to understand more about the Rwandan genocide, which in the early days got only a few inches of coverage a week in top U.S. papers and almost no mention in the broadcast media. Nothing prepared me for the reality and horror detailed by Philip Gourevitch in his book, "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families." Gourevitch not only examines the political and international botchery and neglect of this unforgivable debacle, he brings a human face to the terror. My only complaint is Gourevitch's extreme loss of objectivity toward the last quarter of the book. In the last chapters I could sense his growing frustration with each passing word, just before he launches into a "lecture" chastising the U.S. and other major foreign powers (while nearly absolving all African nations of responsibility for an event taking place in their own backyard). His speech is well intended and understandable, but unnecessary given that the depth of his coverage to that point in the book makes it easy for readers to connect the dots. Despite this, Gourevitch's book is a must read for anyone interested in the world. The nightmare and the monopolization of the Rwandan people have not been covered anywhere so completely, and with such humanity, as they have here.
on July 30, 2002
After reading all I have on the Holocaust, Cambodia and any other number of wars around the globe I would think that another book on a genocidal incident would not surprise or shock me. I was wrong. When I read this book I could not help thinking what is wrong with these people? Killing opposing soldiers during a war is one thing, but cutting up people with machetes just because of some almost indefinable characteristic is insane. And just what kind of person can kill babies and toddlers? These types of acts are just past my ability to comprehend.
The book first describes the background on the issue of the two tribes and the mass hatred that was built up by a few people in power. The author also covers some of the actual events of killing, but does it in a tasteful way - it is not blow by blow but you get the point. We then get the aftermath of how the world reacted or more accurately, did not react. Overall a good covering of the topic with just the right amount of detail to keep the book interesting and not get bogged down into the minor issues. The author does spend a little time focusing the blame on the United States for not rushing in to stop the killings, but that point comes with a large amount of world political baggage that was not addressed in the book.
The book will open your eyes to an event that really has not gotten the amount of press it probably should. How 1 million men, women and children where killed in 3 months is just amazing in its horror. If you are interested in this incident I would also suggest you read "Deliver Us From Evil". This book is a good overview of the UN work as peacekeepers during the 1990's and the horrible different wars that took place during the decade.
on May 6, 2002
In "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families," Philip Gourevitch goes far beyond the media descriptions of the Rwandan genocide in explaining not just how but why it happened.
His travels in Rwanda began in 1995 almost a year after the Hutu led government rallied its supporters and carried out the organized slaughter of the Tutsi minority. Much of the book tells the chilling stories of indidivual survivors as well as those who participated in the massacre. It is these stories that give the book much of its power because, much like Daniel Goldhagen's book "Hitler's Willing Executioners" they demonstrate how normal people can become tools of a corrupt and authoritarian regime that uses race as a means to control its people.
In explaining the causes of one of the worst cases of "democide" in the 20th century, Gourevitch exposes the complicity of the US, UN, and the French. But the real blame rests in the history of 20th century European imperialism. Gourevitch goes far back in the history of Rwanda to explain how the Hutus and Tutsis lived in peaceful coexistence until the Belgians, relying on outdated theories of eugenics, segregated the two tribes and favored the "regal" looking Tutsis over the Hutus. Racial identity cards and inequitable opportunities for education and employment that favored the Tutsi minority led to tensions that exploded after Rwanda gained independence in the 1950s. Blame for the resulting series of Tutsi massacres falls on those who established the system and perpetuated the myth of racial differences.
This book will leave you with doubts about the capability of the international community to prevent similar atrocities in the future as well as the sincerity of governments that, while professing the importance of human rights, allow hundreds of thousands to die before responding with too little, too late.
on January 6, 2002
If I could, I would have given this book four and a half stars. It is a superbly written and haunting account of one of the worst events in 20th Century, the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda in 1994. In a way, the genocide there was worse than the Holocaust because it happened as the author put it "with dazzling speed" (just in about 100 days).
I only have these problems with the book:
1. The author is correct to link the vicious "Hutu Power" ideology that drove the massacre of the Tutsis to practices of the Rwandans' Belgian and German rulers. It's important, however, to remember that these colonial powers never intended or directly taught the Hutus and the Tutsis to slaughter each other.
2. The author tends to make the Tutsi rebels out too much as heroes. Unfortunately, they have committed massacres of their own since the 1994 genocide. Their doing so is understandable but hardly excusable.
Finally, I have to say that I find it very annoying to hear the Rwandans complain that their country was betrayed by the United States and the UN. I believe that America and the UN should have acted to prevent the genocide, and their failure to do so is shameful. Yet in the end, it is important to remember whose hands were on the machetes. They weren't German, Belgian, American hands, they were those of the Hutu and sometimes the Tutsi. In the end, to find the real killers, the Rwandans only have to look in the mirror. They did it to themselves
on August 20, 2001
Philip Gourevitch is a journalist with a great story and the talent to write an interesting, informative, and intelligent book. He knows that we love to hear sad stories, and disasters always catch our attention. There are many moving stories here told by Rwandans he interviewed, and they effectively portray the suffering that Tutsis suffered at the hands (or rather, machetes) of their friends and neighbors.
But when something happens like the events in these accounts, you eventually stop marveling at the gruesome nature of the slaughter, and you instead wonder about how such a thing happened in the first place, and why, with the world as witness, so little was done to prevent or end it. The story of Rwanda is disturbing because you can't just read this book the way you would watch "Schindler's List"-that is, fifty years after the fact, with a clear delineation between good and evil, knowing that we were not on the side of evil. These massacres occurred in 1994. America and other industrial nations were aware of it, and we didn't play the good guys. We let it go on, while we absorbed OJ Simpson's crime drama as it unfolded on TV.
Covering the story from before the genocide to its aftermath, Gourevitch is clearly disturbed by the lack of international response to the situation, and our half-hearted attempts to help. The real moral questions of this book concern not just Hutu Power and their propaganda and ethnic hatred, but also us. Discussions of whether America should have intervened in the crisis always involve questions of what our "national interests" are, but do we have the right to feel such indignant, self-serving rage when we hear other stories about the Holocaust if we are unwilling to act when Tutsis in Africa are being killed as a race?
The stories that the people involved tell in this book are chosen well. Gourevitch wants to gain insights from the interviews into what exactly was going on, and how such seemingly inhuman acts could occur. If he did not succeed in finding all the answers to his and our questions, he at least imparts a work that seriously investigates a tragic and troubling event that should affect anyone interested in the global community.
on April 6, 2001
This is a tragic book, that leaves the reader with the impression that humanity is still a far cry from its ideals. Rwanda is a country familiar with bloodshed, whose people followed their leaders in killing their countrymen. Doctors killed their patients and fellow doctors, teachers massacred their students, priests murdered their congregants, and neighbor rose up against neighbor. There was no rationality or reason given for these killings, and there was no power struggle or past wrong being avenged. It was murder only for the sake of elimation of another human. No higher justification (not that there ever could be a rational justification) was needed.
There was only chaos and bloodshed - and the international community did nothing to stop it. When they did intervene, they were incompetent, and spent most of their time and money aiding the aggressors and not the victims. President Clinton did all he could to keep American troops out of Rwanda, and the French, who colonized Rwanda, and should have felt some responsibility for the country, did little until it was too late.
This is a story of tribal brutality, and international indifference. This book does not stray far beyond those themes. Read this book and you will understand the Hobbesian rational.
on November 17, 2000
In a transcendent tour de force, Philip Gourevitch takes one of the most horrifying events of the late 20th century, and manages to find the elements of hope and meaning that make this book more than the sum of the body parts it describes as scattered around a church in Nyarubuye, Rwanda.
On the surface, "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families" is a graphic account of the 1994 genocide in which the "Hutu Power" government led its citizens to slaughter 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors in only 100 days ... while the international community stood by and watched helplessly. In a greater sense, however, this is a story about how people imagine the world to be, and the terrible consequences that follow when they lose their humanity in trying to create such a world. It is about the nature of evil, and the power of forgiveness and justice to reclaim the future without forgetting the past.
This is a difficult and painful book to read, but not for the obvious reasons. The atrocities committed by the killers are brought to light in considerable detail, however Gourevitch does this in an almost semi-detached and dispassionate way. His real moral outrage seems to be reserved for the so-called "civilized" countries that could have stopped the genocide, but instead did nothing until it was too late ... and then compounded their foreign policy sins by aiding the Hutu murderers in refugee camps.
There is certainly plenty of blame to go around. Gourevitch provides extensive evidence that there were many warning signs of the impending massacres. He outlines the brief history of ethnic antagonisms that led to the crimes, and explains why the Clinton Administration, the United Nations (including current U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan), and the former colonial powers in Africa (such as France) all refused to intervene to halt the butchery. The French even took steps to keep it going. Gourevitch is particularly good at placing the genocide into a context that shows why our political leaders were too paralyzed to get involved and risk doing anything to save lives. Basically, it seems to come down to the fact that Rwanda has no oil, the victims were black, and the timing was all wrong (U.S. Rangers had just been shot to death and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia only weeks earlier).
Putting aside the official excuses for inaction, though, perhaps the best thing about this book is how Gourevitch tells so much of his tale in the words of the Rwandans themselves--both those accused of condoning or participating in the violence, and those who suffered from it.
From Odette Nyiramilimo, a doctor who had several members of her immediate family killed, to Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who protected 1,000 or more Tutsis from harm by using a mixture of simple bravery and shrewd psychology, the writer has extracted narratives of extraordinary courage under even the most brutal conditions. He struggles not to judge pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, the clergyman who ignored his doomed ministers' pleas to be spared the carnage, but cannot conceal his admiration for Rwandese Patriotic Front Major General Paul Kagame, who eloquently said: "People are not inherently bad. But they can be made bad. And they can be taught to be good." Contrasted with the American military intelligence officer who cynically compared the genocide to a cheese sandwich (because nobody cares about either), it is easy to understand why Gourevitch holds Kagame in higher esteem.
"We Wish to Inform You ..." is not a perfect book. As others have noted, it really needs an index (or at least a glossary) to help the reader keep track of the various acronyms of organizations (for example, RPF, FAR, UNAMIR), characters (Major General Romero Dallaire, Rwandan ex-President Habyarimana, and USAID worker Bonaventure Nyibizi) and groups (such as the "interahamwe" Hutu Power militias).
Also, Gourevitch begins to lose his focus on the genocide in the second half of his story. He spends a lot of time and dozens of pages pursuing blind alleys about the misguided humanitarian relief efforts in the nearby Congolese refugee camps, and getting sidetracked with the downfall of Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko. When the author returns to Rwanda, and explores how the new government there had to struggle to pull the nation together again, he is clearly back on firmer ground. His investigation into the problems faced by survivors of the genocide, being asked to live peacefully alongside their former tormentors, is especially moving.
The mass murder of the Tutsis in Rwanda occurred even more efficiently and ruthlessly than did the Nazi measures to impose a "final solution" on the Jews during the Holocaust in World War II. And yet, for all of the promises that the Western democracies uttered 50 years ago to "never again" permit the attempted extermination of an ethnic group anywhere else, it did ... and very recently, too. The rate at which the Hutus killed the Tutsis was truly sickening, but maybe the way it was allowed to happen should trouble us even more.
As Gourevitch points out in this fine book, which won the coveted George K. Polk Award for Foreign Reporting, the nightmare that gripped Rwanda in April 1994 went largely uncovered by the international press. Americans heard little about it. "We Wish to Inform You ..." may change that. It ranks up there with "Night" by Elie Wiesel and "Forgotten Soldier" by Guy Sajer as one of the most disturbing but inspirational tales of human savagery and individual nobility one is ever likely to read. In a self-absorbed pop culture that too often force feeds the public a steady diet of happy talk, "We Wish to Inform You ..." offers a strong dose of perspective, with a sobering reminder that we share this planet with other people who have real problems.
There is always a danger in taking action. There is always a cost in not taking it. Maybe next time, when faced with such a bloodbath, the world will show some of the same simple human decency as those Hutu girls who, when told to separate themselves from the Tutsis, "could have chosen to live, but chose instead to call themselves Rwandans."