To an outsider, Rwanda is a land of hills and endless possibilities that rest among the “eucalyptus trees [that] flash silver against brilliant green tea plantations.” The “jagged rain forests, round-shouldered buttes, undulating moors, broad swells of savanna, [and] volcanic peaks as sharp as filed teeth” make Rwanda beautiful. But Rwanda is also a land marked heavily by the scars of internal violent conflict, and the damage is obvious to those Rwandans who inhabit the country. “’Beautiful?’” asked a man named Joseph while speaking with journalist Philip Gourevitch. “‘The country is empty,’ he said. ‘Empty!’” Rwanda is not naturally empty; its characteristic absences are the result of its 1994 ethnic genocide, in which the Hutu people attempted to massacre nearly the entire population of the minority Tutsi people.
The roots of a conflict as unreservedly gratuitous as Rwanda’s genocide lay not in the immediate past, but in the very foundations of history, which, for Rwanda, can begin to provide explanation for the identity separation thrust upon its people. Exploring this past is the quest of Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Willed Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanada.
Gourevitch, who claims in his introduction that “this is a book about how people imagine themselves and one another—a book about how we imagine our world,” constructs his book through weaving both the subjective and objective. Found in the text alongside the bits of history from Rwanda’s past and present are the personal narratives of Rwandan survivors. One featured story is the account of Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the Hôtel des Milles Collines who sheltered more than a thousand refugees at the hotel during the genocide; Rusesabagina’s story served as the basis for the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda. Removed from—but not unaffected by—the Rwanda outside the gates of the hotel, Paul assumed the rest of his fellow men would choose his same course of action because it seemed a natural instinct: he said, “I thought so many people did as I did, because I know if they’d wanted, they could have done so.”
Unfortunately, for every courageous story similar to Paul’s, there are many more instances of just the opposite. But Gourevitch goes further than simply presenting the stories of the genocide; he includes a post-genocide account of a Rwanda grasping to recover the broken pieces. Simultaneously, the reader, too, struggles with what Gourevitch explains as “the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.” If it is clear that genocide is wrong, how can it occur so easily, particularly in our modern era, and how can countries and individuals begin to seek justice for the atrocities perpetrated?
Whether the reader has full knowledge of the Rwandan genocide or not, Gourevitch’s journalistic efforts are fascinating; it is impossible to remain unaffected. Offering a captivating picture of the human condition, Gourevitch makes his point well known but leaves the reader open to drawing various conclusions suited to each individual’s response. One of the many overarching themes, however, is that the implications of genocide are more far-reaching and widespread than society can, or perhaps would like to, perceive.