On reading about the Rwandan genocide 28 years later

November 7, 2022 7:57 am

KIGALI, RWANDA — People hold candles during a commemoration ceremony of the 1994 genocide on April 07, 2019 at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali, Rwanda. The country is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed over a 100-day period. Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images.

I’m old enough now that books of my youth have new resonance in an entirely different time. 

A U.S. military veteran I know recommended a 1998 book called “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families” by Philip Gourevitch. 

It’s an account of the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi population by the majority Hutu in the spring of 1994. 

“Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in their homes, and colleagues hacked colleagues to death in their workplaces. Doctors killed their patients, and schoolteachers killed their pupils,” Gourevitch writes.  

The best estimate is that 800,000 were killed in 100 days, or 333.33 murders per hour

The killing was cheered on by the radio station of Hutu Power, RTLM: “You cockroaches must know you are made of flesh… We will kill you,” an announcer intoned, using a word commonly used for Tutsis. 

RTLM would become infamous for inciting brutality and playing a key role in the genocide, even “reminding listeners not to take pity on women and children.”  

No place was safe. “The largest massacre (in Kibeho) had occurred in the cathedral and it lasted several days, until the killers got tired of working by hand and set the building ablaze,” Gourevitch writes. 

A priest who tried to protect the Tutsis was murdered, while another joined in, “Clad, like the militia members, in a drapery of banana leaves, Father Thadee reportedly carried a rifle and shot into the crowd.”

A recurring theme of the book is that you can’t kill 800,000 people with ecstatic rage. It must be buttressed by ambition, strategy, coordination — all undergirded by ideology. 

“Mass violence… must be organized; it does not occur aimlessly. Even mobs and riots have a design, and great and sustained destruction requires great ambition. It must be conceived as the means toward achieving a new order.”

The foot soldiers of terror must be won over by something more, he writes, than sheer mass hatred. 

“To move a huge number of weak people to do wrong, it is necessary to appeal to their desire for strength — and the gray force that really drives people is power… You surrender to hatred but you aspire to power.”  

Gourevitch, whose own parents and grandparents were refugees of Nazi Germany, writes about the perverse “exercise in community building” required to accomplish mass killing like that carried out by the Hutus. 

The political conflict was depressingly familiar: Us vs. them. 

“Following the logic of the regime — that identity equals politics and politics equals identity — all Tutsis were to be considered ‘accomplices,’ and Hutus who failed to subscribe to this view were counted as Tutsi-loving traitors.”   

Rwandan politics centered around Hutu “self defense.” 

“All of us against all of them: anybody who dared to suggest an alternative view was one of them and could prepare for the consequences.” 

The Clinton administration, Gourevitch reports, went to almost comic lengths to avoid any obligations that might arise from UN Resolution 260A(III), which required contracting nations to “prevent and to punish” acts undertaken to destroy a group of people, i.e., the Tutsis. 

Following the media unpleasantness surrounding the American mission in Somalia, the administration put in a presidential policy paper what Gourevitch calls a “checklist of reasons to avoid American involvement in U.N. peacekeeping missions,” while also urging other nations to follow suit and avoid involvement. 

There were the midterms to think about, after all.

The administration also engaged in semantic acrobatics about whether the genocide should be called a genocide. 

I won’t bore you with some facile and provincial take about parallels between Rwanda and the current American moment. 

I’ll just say reading this book serves as a dark but necessary reminder that beneath the veil of human decency is a plotting and often murderous quest for power, and that it’s so common in human history that we would be foolish to ignore it. 

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children