We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families

by Philip Gourevitch. Picador USA, 1999. 356 pages.

Beginning in April of 1994, killers belonging to the Hutu majority of Rwanda massacred roughly a million of their Tutsi countrymen. Though the killers had no gas chambers or ovens for the quick disposal of their victims, they managed to kill the Tutsi at a rate even faster than the killing of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis. When it was all over and some of those responsible were brought to justice, they were charged under UN auspices for the crime of genocide -- the first time in history that this charge had been made.

For several years, beginning in 1995, Philip Gourevitch traveled through Rwanda and its neighboring countries, observing the scenes of the massacre and interviewing both survivors and killers in an attempt to understand what had happened. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families -- the title comes from a letter that went unheeded -- is an unusual and compelling blend of passion and analysis. It succeeds not only in conveying some of the horror of the bloodbath in Rwanda but in revealing the factors that made it possible and exploding many of the myths that have sprung up about it.

Gourevitch notes that apart from the victim of a car crash, he never saw anyone recently killed in Rwanda. His sense of the killings came indirectly. At the church in Nyarubuye in eastern Rwanda, where the bodies of Tutsi victims had been left where they died as a kind of memorial, he feels a flash of anger when a Canadian colonel accidentally steps on one of the "stray skulls" in the tall grass -- only to step on a skull himself a moment later. At a refugee camp in Zaire, he watches a Hutu refugee, perhaps one of the killers, butchering a cow. "It took many hacks -- two, three, four, five hard hacks -- to chop through the cow's leg. How many hacks to dismember a person?"

Most of all, however, he seeks understanding through the stories the survivors tell him. "I had eighteen people killed at my house," says a man named Etienne Niyonzima. "Everything was totally destroyed -- a place of fifty-five meters by fifty meters. In my neighborhood they killed six hundred and forty-seven people. They tortured them, too. You had to see how they killed them. They had the number of everyone's house, and they went through with red paint and marked the homes of all the Tutsis and of the Hutu moderates. My wife was at a friend's, shot with two bullets. She is still alive, only ... she has no arms."

In the face of the sudden and seemingly irrational eruption of cruelty, it was easy for many Westerners to believe this was an unplanned outbreak of what the New York Times called "the age-old animosity between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups." This "age-old animosity," however, dates back no further than 1959, when the first incident of political violence between the two groups occurred. Even to refer to the Tutsi and Hutu as "ethnic groups" is problematic, as Gourevitch points out. Although legend has it that the Hutu were an agrarian Bantu people while the Tutsi were taller and lighter-skinned cattle herders from the region of Ethiopia, the two groups had lived together and intermarried for so many generations that they were often indistinguishable even to other Rwandans. One of the most destructive legacies of the Belgian colonists in Rwanda was to introduce identity cards that made "Tutsi" and "Hutu" into rigid and inescapable categories.

Perhaps the most important insight of We Wish to Inform You is that mass violence must be organized. Gourevitch demonstrates that although the killing had no single obvious great villain behind it -- no Hitler or Pol Pot -- it was meticulously prepared and carried out in the interest of a political ideology. The killings were the work of a political movement bluntly called Hutu Power, whose supporters were bent on reversing the social and economic dominance of the Tutsi minority, whom they called "cockroaches." A climate of violence was nurtured by Hutu Power demonstrations, unrelenting anti-Tutsi radio propaganda on the radio, and even by Hutu Power pop singers.

The massacre of 1994 began less than an hour after the event that triggered it: the death of President Habyarimana, a Hutu, in a plane crash while returning from negotiations with an exiled rebel force that included many Tutsis. Many believe that Hutu Power was responsible for the crash as well as for the deaths of Hutu moderates who opposed the bloodbath.

In investigating the causes and consequences of what happened, Gourevitch doesn't stop at the borders of Rwanda. He is harshly critical of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, UN official Kofi Annan (not yet Secretary General), and other political figures for their failure to heed unambiguous warnings of the killings, and to send more than a token force of UN soldiers to Rwanda. (Though their orders prevented them from firing on the murderers, the soldiers later killed hundreds of dogs that were feeding on Tutsi corpses.)

Gourevitch also provides one of the clearest explanations available of how the agony of Rwanda affected its neighboring countries. When the Rwandese Patriotic Front, a rebel army led by Tutsi exiles, invaded the country and ended the genocide, thousands of Hutus fled from Rwanda. Humanitarian organizations fed and sheltered the Hutu refugees, many of them what the Tutsi termed the génocidaires, and allowed them to militarize the camps. The result was that the conflict spilled over into Rwanda's neighboring countries in a way that Gourevitch says, had it happened in Europe, would have been termed a world war.

From We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families:

"You cockroaches must know you are made flesh," a broadcaster gloated over RTLM. "We won't let you kill. We will kill you."

With the encouragement of such messages and of leaders at every level of society, the slaughter of Tutsis and the assassination of Hutu oppositionists spread from region to region. Following the militias' example, Hutus young and old rose to the task. 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. Within days, the Tutsi populations of many villages were all but eliminated, and in Kigali prisoners were released in work gangs to collect the corpses that lined the roadsides. Throughout Rwanda, mass rape and looting accompanied the slaughter. Drunken militia bands, fortified with assorted drugs from ransacked pharmacies, were bused from massacre to massacre. Radio announcers reminded listeners not to take pity on women and children. As an added incentive to the killers, Tutsis' belongings were parceled out in advance -- the radio, the couch, the goat, the opportunity to rape a young girl. A councilwoman in one Kigali neighborhood was reported to have offered fifty Rwandan francs apiece (about thirty cents at the time) for severed Tutsi heads, a practice known as "selling cabbages."