Date: 14 January 2002
Philip Gourevitch's account of Rwandan history pre- and post- the 1994 genocide is an extraordinary critique of international peace-keeping and intervention in the developing world. Based on over half a dozen visits to Rwanda in the years following the genocide, Gourevitch, a journalist for the New Yorker, tells the story of a small civilised country in the middle of Africa which is, over a period of forty years, inexorably dragged through a whirlpool of hatred, fear, genocide and psychological torture aided and abetted by the greed, righteousness, cowardice and sheer incompetence of the international community. Gourevitch reveals the tragedy in a series of remarkable instalments based upon his many conversations not only with Rwandan survivors and current leaders, but also instigators of the genocide, many of whom remain alive and untouched in Rwanda.
If the story is not familiar to you, this is an ideal, if emotionally draining, introduction to a genocide which, in its systematic planning and organisation of state apparatus, can be compared only with the Nazi holocaust for genuine historical insight. The difference in this case was the physical means of execution, with the 800,000 minority Hutsi's mainly hacked to death with machetes normally used for farming in only two months, a faster rate than Nazis achieved at any point. The second important difference was the international community's complete failure to realise the potential horror that was unfolding in front of their eyes (there were Belgian, French and UN troops in and around Rwanda throughout the period) and then take effective action once the killing had begun. The description of Kofi Annan's non-reaction to a fax from the head of the peace keeping force in Rwanda warning of impending genocide will destroy in remaining illusions of the UNís moral dignity.
The years following the genocide are perhaps less well known amongst western audiences, as media attention inevitably lagged and attention turned to Mobutu's collapse in Congo, but equally remarkable. According to Gourevitch the French and UN forces in Rwanda basically looked after the genocidaires after they fled Rwanda following the Rebel Tutsi invasion in well maintained UN camps. The Hutus continued to import arms from the French and Zaire and were able to remilitarise and begin more massacres against Tutsis in Rwanda. The war, it seems, goes on.
Gourevitch's excellent grasp of the historical and political patterns and shaped the genocide provides a vital objectivity. But the book is made master-piece of journalism firstly because of his superb and stark writing and secondly the consistent focus on the individuals' experience, which is, after all, the only way outsider's can relate to unimaginable events.
These stories, of the greatest levels of human desperation, degradation and courage, fill you with despair one minute and make you cry with joy the next. The overwhelming emotion when you finish is one of sheer admiration and hope for the Rwandan people who have endured the psychological destruction of their moral and social universe yet still carry on, determined to reclaim and remake the fabric of their society.
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