We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is an account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, placed in historical context of what led up to it and what the aftermath of it was. Philip Gourevitch is a reporter who has written for the New Yorker and various other publications.
Rwanda as a nation was created by European colonialists, like African countries in general. Whatever formal and informal political borders there were before the arrival of the Europeans bore little or no resemblance to the maps the Europeans drew up while they were in charge.
The area that eventually became Rwanda historically has been populated primarily by Hutus and Tutsis—along with a smattering of pygmies and others—with Hutus being in the majority. This was also true of the neighboring area that became Burundi, and of neighboring areas that became small parts of larger countries.
Historically there wasn’t a lot of conflict between the groups. There weren’t even real strict dividing lines. Hutus mostly farmed and Tutsis mostly herded domestic animals, and there were various physical characteristics that tended to be more common in one or the other, but they married into each other’s families, lived and worked alongside each other, etc.
During colonial times, though, the French and the Belgians drew sharper distinctions between the two and favored the minority Tutsis in doling out administrative positions and such. Some of this was a ruthless, cynical divide-and-rule strategy of making one group directly dependent on the European masters while giving the other group a reason to resent the favored group. Some it was based on sincere if ludicrous racial theories having to do with the Tutsis being more like whites in certain physical or behavioral ways and therefore superior to and entitled to rule over the Hutus.
By the time the colonial empires were breaking up in the mid-20th century, if anything the Europeans (at least the more liberal ones who regretted colonialism) tended to swing to the opposite view that the Hutus were the ones especially wronged by colonialism, that the Europeans and the Tutsis were guilty of oppressing them, and that democracy in this context meant the majority Hutus should call the shots in post-colonial Rwanda.
When the Hutus of newly independent Rwanda engaged in periodic massacres of Tutsis, and passed laws making the categories of Hutu and Tutsi much stricter and more absolute than before the Europeans had arrived—for instance, requiring Rwandans to carry ID cards declaring which group they belonged to—the Europeans at best looked the other way and at times actively sided with the Hutus.
In 1994, Rwanda was ruled by a dictator (Juvénal Habyarimana) who used the internal threat of the scapegoat Tutsis as a way of deflecting attention from his own misrule, and who was not disappointed when Hutus let off some steam by massacring Tutsis. But an element in the ruling class called “Hutu Power”—with whom his wife was closely connected—believed he didn’t go far enough. They preferred to solve the problem of conflict between Hutu and Tutsi by simply removing all Tutsis from the face of the Earth.
For months those associated with Hutu Power used newspaper articles and radio broadcasts to spread their genocidal ideology. Weapons were distributed and people were trained to use them on Tutsis. References were made to the imminent elimination of the dictator as too much of a softy in this life and death struggle.
Then Habyarimana’s plane was shot out of the sky (killing not only him, but the leader of Burundi), Hutu Power members including prominent figures in the military seized power, and orders were issued to commence the genocide.
In the ensuing weeks, mobs went from village to village butchering every Tutsi they could find. There weren’t a lot of guns in the country; they mostly hacked their victims up with machetes. Any Hutu who opposed the slaughter—and indeed any who didn’t actively and enthusiastically participate in it—was treated as a Tutsi. The attackers sometimes killed their victims immediately, and sometimes preceded the killings with torture and rape.
No one knows how many people were slaughtered in the genocide. Evidently 800,000 is around the middle of the estimates, but it may have been a half a million and it may have been well in excess of a million.
The international community did virtually nothing, at least nothing effectual. Peacekeeping troops were dispatched to Rwanda, but they had strict orders not to use force, so they basically stood aside and let the genocide proceed.
Most countries, like the United States, were apathetic about the bloodletting. Legally they weren’t allowed to be, since they were obligated by international agreements they’d signed to actively combat genocide whenever and wherever it occurred, but they sidestepped this obligation through the tortured semantics of avoiding ever explicitly labeling the events in Rwanda as “genocide,” even though you can make a case that what was happening in Rwanda fit the definition of “genocide” as well as anything in history, including the Holocaust.
Some countries, most notably France, were worse in that they facilitated the genocide not just by omission but by commission, including arms sales.
Eventually Rwanda fell into such a weakened state of chaos that a small rebel force led by Paul Kagame was able to overthrow the Hutu Power regime surprisingly easily and more or less put an end to the genocide. A new dictatorship was formed, led by Tutsis and by Hutus who had opposed the genocide. They insisted they did not seek revenge, and certainly not counter-genocide against Hutus, but a just multicultural Rwanda.
The members of Hutu Power and a massive number of rank and file Hutus—who’d participated in the genocide to varying degrees, ranging from actively to not at all—fled the country, eventually forming giant refugee camps along the border, which were ruthlessly ruled over by Hutu Power, and supplied with food and medical supplies and such to sustain them by the international community, including numerous non-governmental humanitarian organizations.
The camps became staging grounds for raids back into Rwanda. There had been no change in ideology in the meantime. Whenever they had the chance, the raiders massacred Tutsis. Hutu Power didn’t want to seize property or territory from Tutsis, or put them in a subordinate, oppressed position in society, or force them to leave the country; it wanted them all dead.
Some neighboring countries sided with Kagame’s new regime against Hutu Power. Some exploited the camps and the conflicts to serve their own purposes. The ailing and increasingly insane dictator of neighboring Zaire, Mobuto Sese Seko, welcomed the slaughter of Tutsis in his own country when he perceived it as facilitating his own clinging to power a little bit longer.
The new government of Rwanda protested at every opportunity, but the international community insisted the camps were to be protected and generously supplied (as people in Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide suffered much greater privation and received precious little aid). They sometimes paid lip service to the notion of disarming those in the camp or imposing more order, but they were afraid to take any action to actually do so. Some people in the camps were itching to get back to killing Tutsis, if they weren’t already doing so, but a lot were basically being held as hostages by Hutu Power.
Eventually the new government of Rwanda managed to defuse the situation as best they could. They aided rebels in overthrowing Mobuto in Zaire to put a stop to his meddling. They arranged for the repatriation of the people who had fled the country.
The return of massive numbers of Hutus who had left after the genocide was obviously a time of great tension. The new government was mostly lenient toward the killers, with the exception of those who had had leadership positions. At some times and places things broke down and vigilantes sought their own justice against the Hutus, or Hutus attempted to restart the genocide, but the bloodletting never remotely approached the level of 1994.
The author is not content just to sketch out the history of what happens; he also seeks to counter various claims he regards as myths, and to morally evaluate how various parties behaved.
It is a book not just written from a position of sadness, but of anger. You can feel the author’s outrage building as the story unfolds. He can be sarcastic, and does not hide his disgust.
I’ll mention a few of the main points I believe he wants to get across in this book:
• The efforts by the world press and other parties to be “evenhanded” or “objective” were misguided, and resulted in them not reporting the truth. No matter how much they reported otherwise, this wasn’t a case of two equally brutal, murderous sides intent on slaughtering each other. It wasn’t totally one-sided, but there were good guys and bad guys to as great an extent as you can ever hope to find in a complex political conflict. I don’t recall that he uses this analogy, but the events in Rwanda were typically—inappropriately—reported in a way analogous to if World War II and the Holocaust were reported as a struggle between moral equals, just a bunch of white people slaughtering each other with no more and no less justification on the side of the Nazis than that of their enemies (the Allies, Churchill, the Jews, etc.).
• The notion that Hutus and Tutsis had been at each other’s throats for centuries is false. The genocide wasn’t the continuation of some ongoing tribal conflict from the distant past. Hutus and Tutsis didn’t start killing each other in significant numbers until 1959 when Hutus massacred Tutsis in the newly independent Rwanda, and that had come about in large part due to the propaganda and ruling methods of the colonial powers in Africa.
• Any attempt by the United States, the United Nations, the press, or anyone else to make it seem like there is some ambiguity as to whether the events in 1994 in Rwanda count as a genocide is blatantly, insultingly false.
• The genocide was not some utterly spontaneous, unpredictable explosion of mob rule in the wake of the dictator’s assassination. It was planned, prepared, announced, and largely supervised by the political movement that took power following that assassination.
• In determining whom to blame and hold responsible for the genocide, while there were a few identifiable ringleaders there were also an enormous number of people at all levels involved to varying degrees. The leaders pursued a strategy of encouraging do-it-yourself murder and mayhem to diffuse the responsibility as much as possible. Even compared to other genocides, the striking thing is what a high proportion of the population directly participated. This wasn’t just an army or some internal Gestapo-like force descending on cities and villages and killing people. This was mobs of local people going from house to house killing every Tutsi in town, teachers killing their students who were Tutsis, priests killing their parishioners who were Tutsis, neighbors killing neighbors, friends killing friends, and sometimes family members killing family members. A Hutu husband who had married a Tutsi wife, for instance, might participate in the killing of his wife’s entire family.
• The “refugees” in the camps in bordering countries were not refugees in any conventional sense. They were the worst kind of criminals—those who’d committed genocide and desperately wanted to finish the job they’d started—and people they’d duped or intimidated into remaining with them as human shields rather than returning to Rwanda.
• Humanitarian organizations and others are dishonest or naïve to pretend that providing sustenance to a genocidal regime is somehow neutral or non-combatant or non-political. Again this is not his analogy, but it would be like me saying I could give billions of dollars of food, oil, clothes, medical supplies, etc. to North Korea because its people are suffering, and as long as I included no bombs or bullets in my shipments I would be a politically neutral humanitarian. Supplying all that stuff affects the internal dynamics in a country (just as blocking them through sanctions does). If nothing else it frees up the equivalent amount of the dictator’s resources so he can buy his own bombs and bullets.
• The cynical actions of France, the United States, the United Nations, and just about everyone else outside of Rwanda before, during, and after the genocide either accomplished nothing or all too often made the situation worse. Finally when it was over and it was basically too late, the United States started saying the right things. The public assessments offered by the President, the Secretary of State, and others, very much matched the conclusions reached by the author. The press, though, all but ignored the changed tune, and certainly didn’t highlight the fact that among those who’d held the positions the United States was now admitting were wrong all along was the press itself.
I think the author makes a convincing case that there wasn’t a moral equivalency between Hutu Power on the one hand, and those who opposed or were victimized by it on the other. I do wonder, though, if he goes a little too far in his efforts to justify his labeling Hutu Power as the clear bad guys in the conflict while explaining away any dubious thing its opponents did.
Again, not saying both sides were equally in the wrong. But if false equivalency would say the fault was 50-50, and the author would say it was 98-2 the fault of Hutu Power, maybe it was really more like 90-10.
It’s possible he was influenced by something as simple as who would talk to him and tell their side of the story. He was able to hear and pass along the stories and opinions of many Tutsis and non-Hutu Power Hutus who had been targeted in the genocide, as well as those of Kagame and his rebels who eventually overthrew the Hutu Power regime, but the perpetrators of the genocide either declined to talk to him entirely or simplistically denied everything.
I know that the fact that he was able to get little of substance from that side is revealing in itself, but I’d still feel more confident about drawing conclusions if I could also hear from those who were victimized—or thought they were—by Tutsis over the years, by the rebels under Kagame, by the new government Kagame established, etc.
The author clearly had a great deal of access to Kagame himself, and the book—whether there is a causal connection here or not—is very flattering and sympathetic toward Kagame. Kagame’s perspective on everything was made available to the author, and then in turn is passed along to the reader. When his people commit atrocities, or he is caught lying about something, it’s always something he’s not responsible for, or is the “necessary evil” kind of violence and deception that politicians in the real world simply have to engage in if they are to have any success at all in doing good for their country.
Maybe, but again it feels just a little too hagiographic about Kagame at times. And after doing a small amount of reading online about what’s happened with Rwanda and Kagame since this book came out, I’m even more inclined to say this book is too morally black and white. In terms of atrocities and such, the Kagame regime sounds like it has been pretty awful.
Overall, though, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is an excellent and important book, and I suspect that most of the author’s conclusions are close to being on the money.
One of the things that sticks with me about the account of the genocide is that it was one of those situations where it was almost impossible to survive without joining in the evil. Some managed it, but very, very, very few. For the most part, you were either a martyr or a murderer. Refusing to participate in the torture and killing while also not actively trying to prevent it—a neutrality which is itself morally dubious, albeit less bad than murdering—generally wasn’t an option.
I wonder how many of us would have the courage to choose death in such circumstances.