Africa Today 47.1 (2000) 141-142
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In May 1995 journalist Philip Gourevitch made his first journey to Rwanda. During this and subsequent visits he talked with people about the genocide which had taken place in Rwanda a year earlier. Led by a notion called Hutu Power, Hutu Rwandans killed about 75 percent of Rwanda's Tutsi population and an unknown number of Hutu unwilling to participate in the slaughter. Many have sought to relate the genocide to an invasion by the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), an army consisting mainly of Rwandans who had taken refuge in Uganda after earlier massacres, or to the death of Rwanda's president Habyarimana in a plane crash on 6 April 1994. The author, however, shows that the massacres had been planned well before that and that these events only served as a starting point for the killings. He relates the genocide to a history of divisive colonial policies, the political context after decolonization, and, as of 1990, a carefully designed propaganda network inspiring hatred against Tutsi people. He also points out that the international community chose to ignore reports about the preparations and was, for various reasons, unwilling to react when the killings started.
The book is primarily concerned with the memory of the genocide. The shadow of this memory looms large; even in conversations during which no mention is made of it, the genocide often somehow forms the point of reference. The author does not use these references to establish a chain of events or a factual account, but focuses on the ways in which Rwandans understood and understand their lives during and after the killings. As Gourevitch writes: ". . . this is a book about how people imagine themselves and one another--a book about how we imagine our world" (p. 6). The author takes this point far. After explaining that genocide is not necessarily related to the number of people killed, but concerns the intent to exterminate an entire people, he writes: "What does suffering have to do with genocide, when the idea itself is the crime?" (p. 202).
The first part of the book deals with the accounts of survivors. In grisly detail, these people explain how they were threatened, lost relatives, escaped and survived. These interviews with survivors stress the immediacy of the events: this is not only their world, but also our world. Although most of the stories come from people who were near victims of the killings, Gourevitch also renders an interview with a pastor who has been accused of leading the massacre of hundreds of his congregation at Mugonero hospital. The fact that the pastor was interviewed in the United States where he was staying at his son's place, makes it even clearer that nobody can dismiss this as a problem which does not concern people outside Rwanda. [End Page 141]
The second part of the book does not deal with the present, but with life after the genocide. The author describes the situation in Rwanda, the events in Zaire where many Hutu Power supporters fled after the RPF took over, and the repatriation of many of these people. This period includes both the massacre at Kibeho camp, during which many Hutu Rwandans were killed and the murder of Tutsi refugees in Mokoto church, Zaire. The tension and violence throughout this time indicate that although the genocide of 1994 has stopped, such events can happen again. The author talks with survivors of the genocide who feel misunderstood by returnees who have lived nearly all their lives in Uganda, with a man who manned a roadblock during the genocide, with a woman whose relatives were killed by this very man and now lives with him in the same village, with UN workers who suffer from the memory of having walked on the dead to pull out survivors. In...