As I read this book, I tried to picture where I would have been in April of 1994. What would I have been doing with my time while almost a million people were being slaughtered by their friends and neighbors. In April of 1994, I would have been a junior in high school. In just over a month I would have my appendix taken out and be in the hospital for a few days. As much pain as I was in during my appendix debacle (I should talk about THAT some time. I got punched in the belly during a drunken boxing match and then less than 24 hours later was in the hospital getting my appendix removed), it pales in comparison to the emotional anguish and physical pain of the roughly 800,000 Rwandans were being hacked to death with machetes and being shot. I’d like to say indiscriminately but that wouldn’t be the case. The reasons for their deaths were anything BUT indiscriminate. They were Tutsis. Their killers were Hutus. A simple but hateful and unbelievable premise; a difference of ethnicity.
The author of this book, Philip Gourevitch, has done an amazingly good job of taking a tragedy that noone on this side of the world seemed to care about and making it a collection of personal stories interspersed with a political backdrop. One of the many praises lavished on the book is the following from Tom Engelhardt of the Philadelphia Inquirer; “A staggeringly good book…Gourevitch’s beautiful writing drives you deep into Rwanda, his brilliant reportage tells you everything that can be seen from an event beyond imagining or explaining…He drives you, in fact, right up against the limits of what a book can do.”
There are several books that I have reread just to enjoy them again but I’ve gotta say that this particular book is the only one that I have reread IMMEDIATELY after my first reading. Yes folks, that’s right. I finished up with page 353 and flipped right back to the first page and began again. It’s THAT good. It is one of the best, if not THE best, books I’ve ever read.
There is no reply to a statement made like the following;
“…they did not kill simply. When we were weak, they saved bullets and killed us with bamboo spears. They cut Achilles tendons and necks, but not completely, and then they left the victims to spend a long time crying until they died. Cats and dogs were there, just eating people.”
Gourevitch does a great job of filling in the background details, mentioning the massacres building up to 1994’s genocide. He also gives us an idea behind some of the thinking of the two tribes (Tutsis are more “regal” with a fairer complexion and the Hutus are rougher looking and more “African” as John Hanning Speke documented in his Hamitic hypothesis). This worldwide documentation created animosity between the two tribes because the Tutsis were actually in the minority but had been given the upper hand and were placed in powerful positions by the Europeans. Naturally, the Hutus resented this and the inequality that came from this.
Starting in the late 1950’s up until 1994 (and even after 1994) there were, and still are, mass killings of Tutsis in Rwanda. Take for instance the following tale given to Gourevitch; “They (soldiers) broke the doors…They took everything, they tied up the house staff, and I had a son who was nine months old-they left grenades with him. He was there playing with a grenade in the living room, for three hours.” It’s tales like that showing how deep the rift went. A nine-month old was left with grenades? It seems the conventional rules of “war” were abandoned; no women and no children.
Gourevitch also breaks down, mathematically, the overall statistics so you have an idea of how truly horrid the genocide of 1994 was;
“Take the best estimate: eight hundred thousand killed in a hundred days. That’s three hundred and thirty-three and a third murders an hour-or five and a half lives terminated every minute. Consider also that most of these killings actually occurred in the first three or four weeks, and add to the death toll that uncounted legions who were maimed but did not die of their wounds, and the systematic and serial rape of Tutsi women-and then you grasp what it meant that the Hotel des Mille Collines (the scene of the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’) was the only place in Rwanda where as many as a thousand people who were supposed to be killed gathered in concentration…”
How about the trust of the holy men? (In a sidenote, the title of the book is actual verbage from a letter written to a bishop in town by several of the Tutsi ministers. They were slaughtered after being gathered to “safety” by aforementioned bishop). Being outright lied to by the men of God? Here’s another snippet;
“…on May 4 of that year (1994)…the bishop appeared there himself with a team of policemen, and told a group of ninety Tutsi schoolchildren, who were being held in preparation of slaughter, not to worry, because the police would protect them. Three days later, the police helped to massacre eighty-two of the children.”
To bring up Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle’s character in Hotel Rwanda who was a Hutu but married a Tutsi) once again, he gave the following quote to Gourevitch (he talks at length in the book and is a very interesting man, a very strong-hearted, centered man from what it sounds like);
“It was a disappointment. I was disappointed by most of my friends, who immediately changed, with that genocide. I used to see them just as gentlemen, and when I saw them with the killers I was disappointed. I still have some friends that I trust. But the genocide changed so many things-within myself, my own behavior. I used to go out, feel free. I could go and have a drink with anyone. I could trust. But now I tend not to do so.”
The thing that makes it even worse was that the rest of the world just sat around and watched. As Joaquin Phoenix’s character says in ‘Hotel Rwanda’, “I think if people see this footage, they’ll say Oh, my God, that’s horrible. And then they’ll go on eating their dinners.” That’s precisely what the rest of the world did. The UN refused to get involved and a handful of troops under Major General Dallaire was left there to basically watch the genocide. They were not allowed to fire their weapons except in self-defense and even then it was frowned upon. What will truly turn your stomach is the following passage from the book;
“…on April 21, 1994, the UNAMIR (UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda) commander, Major General Dallaire, declared that with just five thousand well-equipped soldiers and a free hand to fight Hutu Power, he could bring the genocide to a rapid halt. No military analyst whom I’ve heard of has ever questioned his judgement, and a great many have confirmed it….Yet, on the same day, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that slashed the UNAMIR force by ninety percent, ordering the retreat of all but two hundred seventy troops and leaving them with a mandate that allowed them to do little more than hunker down behind their sandbags and watch.
The desertion of Rwanda by the UN force was Hutu Power’s greatest diplomatic victory to date, and it can be credited almost single-handedly to the United States. With the memory of the Somalia debacle still very fresh, the White House had just finished drafting a document called Presidential Decision Directive 25, which amounted to a checklist of reasons to avoid American involvement in UN peacekeeping missions. It hardly mattered that Dallaire’s call for an expanded force and mandate would not have required American troops, or that the mission was not properly peacekeeping, but genocide prevention.
…So May became June. By then a consortium of eight fed-up African nations had proclaimed their readiness to send an intervention force to Rwanda, provided that Washington would send fifty armored personnel carriers. The Clinton administration agreed, but instead of lending the armor to the courageous Africans, it decided to lease it to the UN-where Washington was billions of dollars in arrears on membership dues-for a price of fifteen million dollars, transportation and spare parts included.”
There is stinging criticism of the Clinton administrations inactivity (as if you didn’t already pick that up from the previous passage) such as Gourevitch’s trip to the Holocaust memorial in Washington DC (I’ve been there twice myself, it’s a very humbling experience);
“…several (staff members) wore the lapel buttons that sold for a dollar each in the museum shop, inscribed with the slogans ‘Remember’ and ‘Never Again’. The museum was just a year old; at its inaugural ceremony, President Clinton had described it as ‘an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead.’ Apparently, all he meant was that the victims of future exterminations could now die knowing that a shrine already existed in Washington where their suffering might be commemorated…”
And oh yeah. We helped out eventually. We helped the Hutus fleeing over the border into Zaire from the Tutsi rebels attempting to squash the genocide;
“Rwanda has presented the world with the most unambiguous case of genocide since Hitler’s war against the Jews, and the world sent blankets, beans and bandages to camps controlled by the killers, apparently hoping that everybody would behave nicely in the future.”
When the US began pouring money and support into what was truly the “fallout” of the genocide, we provided support for breeding grounds of more Hutu extremists.
“When the people receiving humanitarian assistance in those camps come and kill us, what will the international community do-send more humanitarian assistance?”
The emotional fallout was intense as well. I can’t find the exact statistic he lists in the book on how many children were affected by the violence by either receiving injuries themselves or witnessing their families butchered in front of their eyes, but it’s an unholy amount of people affected. On both sides of the fence, the 1994 genocide changed people’s thoughts on life. Hutus and Tutsis both were expected to live in peace after being herded back into Rwanda from the refugee camps. Take the following passage;
“There was a girl-a woman, really-about Bosco’s age, an acquaintance of his. She was at a disco, and a guy came on to her. She turned him down. He said she’d be sorry. She laughed. He persisted. She told him to go away, to quit bothering her; she said he was crazy. He went away, then came back with a jug of petrol and a match. Four people were killed. The rejected suitor himself wound up hospitalized with burns. When he was asked why he killed four people, he said it was nothing to him after what he’d done in 1994-he could kill as many as he liked.”
The book brings up the quandary of cohabitation without vigilante justice as well. He tells of several prominent Hutus who “mysteriously” were found dead shortly after returning to Rwanda. He talks about the whispers of Tutsi neighbors who witnessed their Hutu neighbors’ insanity during the genocide, of the desire to “set things right” and avenge Tutsi deaths. I can’t even begin to imagine the difficulty in maintaining the constraint on the citizens who have known that much fear, who have so much anger built up in them that they want to take care of business on their own. It’s crazy.
The book wraps up with a great anecdote of some Rwandan schoolgirls;
“So I’ll leave you to decide if there is hope for Rwanda with one more story. On April 30, 1997-almost a year ago as I write-Rwandan television showed footage of a man who confessed to having been among a party of genocidaires who had killed seventeen schoolgirls and a sixty-two-year-old Belgian nun at a boarding school in Gisenyi two nights earlier. It was the second such attack on a school in a month; the first time, sixteen students were killed and twenty injured in Kibuye.
The prisoner on television explained that the massacre was part of a Hutu Power “liberation” campaign. His band of a hundred fifty militants was composed largely of ex-FAR and interahamwe. During their attack on the school in Gisenyi, as in the earlier attack on the school in Kibuye, the students, teenage girls who had been roused from their sleep, were ordered to separate themselves-Hutus from Tutsis. But the students had refused. At both schools, the girls said they were simply Rwandans, so they were beaten and shot indiscriminately.”
In summation, like I said earlier, this is one of the best books I have ever read. My curiosity on this tragedy is piqued and I’m planning on reading up more on it, but after some more light-hearted fare. I’d also like to watch Hotel Rwanda again. And oh yeah, some documentaries. Wow.
posted Sat, 06-04-05