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  • Hate Crimes: Race and retribution in Rwanda
  • René Lemarchand (bio)


The tale hardly bears retelling: in Rwanda an estimated 1 million people died in a frenzy of genocidal killings that was one of the most appalling bloodbaths of the twentieth century. Most of the victims were members of the country’s Tutsi minority. Few were lucky enough to be shot; the majority were hacked to pieces, drowned, speared, or beaten to death with clubs, their bodies left unburied, at the mercy of stray dogs and vultures. Although the worst of the killings was the work of militias—the notorious Interahamwe, “those who stand together”—the slaughter rapidly gained a momentum of its own, drawing participants from a wide cross section of the population that included government officials, town mayors and councillors, members of the clergy, teachers, and nurses.

This almost unthinkable crime is like a black hole, swallowing past, present, and future in its unfathomed enormity. It is a crime that demands justice, and there are now two autonomous jurisdictions prosecuting thousands of individuals accused of participating in the genocide—the Rwandan Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. In Rwanda the recent past is a crushing burden. But if the past is horrific, the question of the future still remains: the question of whether there can be reconciliation without justice, or justice without truth. Rwanda is more profoundly divided now than at any other time in its history. Although the Tutsi-led government espouses nonracialism, dissension between Hutu and Tutsi has never been sharper. The Tutsi minority has no illusions about the threat posed to its security by Hutu-instigated raids across Rwanda’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Meanwhile, Hutu fears of Tutsi vengeance acquire fresh urgency with each new report of violence in eastern Congo, much of it under Rwandan control.

Thinking critically about the genocide and its legacy is difficult, not least [End Page 114] because the wounds are still so raw, the victims so many, the apportionment of guilt and responsibility so controversial.

That the story of Rwanda is at all known in the United States today owes much to the work of Philip Gourevitch and Alison Des Forges.

Gourevitch is a staff writer at the New Yorker. His reports from Rwanda are lively and informed; he has access to many of the principals, especially the leadership of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). He is also an essayist in the tradition of Ryszard Kapuscinski and Robert D. Kaplan, and his book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, is not just a masterwork of travel writing but a chilling account of the individual tragedies endured by genocide survivors. It has received numerous accolades—We Wish to Inform You won the 1998 National Book [End Page 116] Critics Award—and sold surprisingly well for a book about Africa—and a book about genocide, at that.

But as the author himself would admit, it is not a scholarly work. There are no footnotes, no indexes, and little documentation; much was left out or papered over in the crafting of this narrative. What is missing from Gourevitch’s account is the how and why of the killings. It is one thing to describe the horror, another to explain the motivations that occasioned the carnage. Little is said of the impact of the colonial and precolonial past on Hutu-Tutsi relations, of the significance of regional differences in Rwanda’s political culture, of the 1959–62 Hutu revolution, of the divisions among Hutu in the days immediately preceding the invasion of the country by the RPF—or the invasion itself for that matter. The absence of attention to the history and politics of the country creates a portrait of genocide that is insensitive to the complexity of its circumstances. In essence, Gourevitch’s story reduces the butchery to a tale of bad guys and good guys, innocent victims and avatars of hate. His frame of reference is the Holocaust.

Very different is the story told by Alison Des Forges, an activist, writer, and consultant at Human Rights Watch, in her 750...