Genocide, After All, is an Exercise in Community Building

Posted: December 19, 2010 in Evidence Material
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By Imre Szeman.

Published in Other Voices, v.2, n.1 (February 2000)

In the aftermath of the one hundred days of terror inflicted by the roving bands of Hutus known as the interahamwe—”those who attack together”—the small green country of Rwanda is left strewn with bodies. Even the churches throughout the country where Tutsis had sought refuge have become little more than open graves: the bodies of men, women and children lying where they were felled by the machete blows of their neighbors. The viciousness of the killings is as hard to comprehend as its scale. Tutsis were not just killed, but raped, maimed, tortured, crippled and disfigured; in some cases, when the interahamwe grew tired, they cut the Achilles tendons of those Tutsis they had yet to murder, giving them time to rest, eat and celebrate before resuming their bloody work. When we hear the stories told by the survivors of these atrocities, it is hard to comprehend what it is that keeps them clinging to this pale life: whole families and entire villages were lost in the brutal onslaught of Hutu Power, and there remains not a single living Rwandan Tutsi who did not witness firsthand the slaughter of scores of his fellow countrymen. This is the outcome of what author Philip Gourevitch describes as “the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (3)—eight hundred thousand people massacred in just over three months. And though there is something terrible about comparisons of this sort, in attempting to make sense of Rwanda and of the historical and social conditions that produce genocide, it is important to know that the dead piled up at “nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust” (3). Hutu machetes have rendered the neutron bomb obsolete.

To fully understand the significance of the genocide in Rwanda, it is important to be aware of other events as well—events that seem, at first, to have little connection with the insanity that took place in Central Africa in 1994. Gourevitch writes:

“In May of 1994, I happened to be in Washington to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an immensely popular tourist attraction adjacent to the National Mall. The ticket line formed two hours before opening time. Waiting amid the crowd, I tried to read a local newspaper. But I couldn’t get past a photograph on the front page: bodies swirling in water, dead bodies, bloated and colorless, bodies so numerous that they jammed against each other and clogged the stream. The caption explained that these were the corpses of genocide victims in Rwanda. Looking up from the paper, I saw a group of museum staffers arriving for work. On their maroon blazers, several wore the lapel buttons that sold for a dollar each in the museum shop, inscribed with the slogans “Remember” and “Never Again.” The museum was just a year old; at its inaugural ceremony, President Clinton had described it as “an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead.” Apparently, all he meant was that the victims of future exterminations could now die knowing that a shrine already existed in Washington where their suffering might be commemorated, but at the time, his meaning seemed to carry a bolder promise.” (151-52)

Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You… is a brave book, and a necessary one. It is necessary not simply because it bears witness to an incalculable human tragedy (Gourevitch, a writer for the New Yorker, was the only Western journalist to travel widely through Rwanda after the 1994 genocide) or because it manages through the stories of its survivors to humanize the inhumanity of the Rwandan genocide. What makes this an essential book for anyone interested in grappling with some of the more obscene contradictions of the present is Gourevitch’s careful reconstruction of the historical events that led up to the genocide, and even more importantly, his savage indictment of the actions (or lack thereof) of the international community in attempting to prevent the slaughter of the Rwandan Tutsis. Of genocide itself, there is in a sense little to say: it is an example of radical evil, an offense against humanity, an event that should never be allowed to happen. Of the causes of the Rwanda tragedy, however, there is a great deal that has thus far been left unsaid by the mainstream media, but which is essential for us to understand if we are to properly gauge the significance of Rwanda. “The horror, as horror,” Gourevitch writes, “interests me only insofar as a precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy” (19). It is this legacy that Gourevitch addresses by tracing out the present conjunction of geopolitical conditions that makes it possible to proclaim “Never again,” at the very same time as the unimaginable happens once again.

Given the context in which this review appears, I should make it clear that Gourevitch’s book is not a work of “cultural criticism” in the sense in which this has come to be understood in the academy. It does not, for example, propose to examine the problem of “evil” and the excessive violence that we have witnessed in this century from some new theoretical perspective (as, for instance, Slavoj Zizek has done in the past few years in works such as The Metastases of Enjoyment [1994] and The Indivisible Remainder [1996]). We Wish To Inform You… is rather a work of “literary” reportage in the tradition perhaps best exemplified by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who has perfected the form in books such as The Emperor (1983), his account of the dictatorship of Haile Selassie, and Imperium (1994), a powerful narrative about his travels through the darkest regions of post-Soviet Russia. For scholars who devote themselves to the study of genocide, Gourevitch’s book may thus seem to be most useful as a detailed and fairly sophisticated account of the genocide in Rwanda. But even if Gourevitch’s politics reflect a kind of mainstream left liberalism, with all of the limits that this implies, there is nevertheless a great deal to be learned from this book for those of us engaged in supposedly more “radical” forms of cultural criticism. I’m not sure if there has ever been a book that has left me as stunned and as angry as this one—stunned at the incompetence of our politicians, angry at the possibility that such an event could very easily happen again, and for all the same reasons. And while I have come to be quite cynical about the prospects for substantive political change through the official arenas of politics, Gourevitch’s book has forced me to rethink this position somewhat. For if little good can come from a political system structured around what Stuart Hall has described as the consent to leadership rather than consensus around policy [1], the imperatives of international politics can nevertheless produce unbearable misery for peoples around the world. Gourevitch’s book forces us to think about what we might be able to do to effect these “hard” politics in such a way that “Never again” becomes a genuine credo rather than a mere rhetorical figure happily mouthed by our politicians at solemn observances of the Second World War.

The story of the Rwandan genocide is a complicated one; I will not try here to reconstruct it in the detail that it deserves, especially in light of Gourevitch’s superb job of making the Rwandan genocide intelligible to those of us who could not make sense of it from (shamefully) half-heard radio reports or hastily scanned newspaper articles. What I would like to focus on instead are two of the major “lessons” to be learned from Gourevitch’s book. The first concerns the nature and conditions of modern genocide. It has fast become an expected trope of reporting on the recent outbursts of “ethnic violence” around the world to locate its causes in the “age-old animosity” between the ethnic groups (as the New York Times did with respect to Rwanda as recently as October 1997). For Western readers, this is a convenient trope for a number of reasons: it explains everything in a simple and compressed way (while in truth explaining nothing), and it eliminates any responsibility for this violence by making it irrational—a pure, uncontrollable hatred that takes place elsewhere and between people who are very different from us. Arjun Appadurai has recently described this as the “primordialist” thesis concerning ethnic violence [2]. This thesis rests on two interrelated assumptions about what drives the behavior of large groups. First, it is assumed that collective identity is simply a magnification of the deep sentiments that connect families and kinship groups; second, it is assumed that like individuals, large groups have some kind of “unconscious” that acts as the repository for every slight and injury experienced over millennia. Ethnic violence breaks out when chance events enflame these repressed, “unconscious” hatreds, while the intimate bond between all those who share this group unconscious ensures that the conflagration will be both irrational and sizable.

As Appadurai points out, there are numerous problems with the primordialist thesis as an explanation of recent ethnic strife. Beyond the modernizing, developmental assumptions on which such an argument is based—a model in which “mature,” modern nations are those that are connected on a rational basis that ensures that their unconscious is held in check (thus the very real embarrassment of Bosnia and Kosovo for Western political scientists as an exception to this rule) —this thesis fails to explain why ethnic violence occurs when and where it does. Indeed, this kind of fictitious primordialism has been central to the construction of the “imagined communities” of Western nation-states—those very nations that are thought to be most immune from the irrational conflict between ethnicities. One hopes that Gourevitch’s analysis of the Rwandan genocide will finally put an end to this simplistic and racist primordialism that detracts from a proper exploration of the causes of ethnic violence. For Gourevitch, the key to understanding the Rwandan genocide is to realize that “mass violence. . . must be organized: it does not occur aimlessly. Even mobs and riots must have a design, and great and sustained destruction requires great ambition” (17). In other words, it is not an event that can be captured by “theories of collective madness, mob mania, a fever of hatred [that] erupted into a mass crime of passion” (17). Killing with machetes is difficult work; watching a man butchering a cow with a machete, Gourevitch notes that “it took many hacks—two, three, four, five hard hacks—to chop through the cow’s leg. How many to dismember a person?” (17). To kill eight hundred thousand people with machetes in one hundred days requires a clear plan of action, and a firmly established ideology to guide this action in order to keep the hard work of killing going once it is set into motion. In other words, the Rwandan genocide requires a political analysis in addition to those analyses that focus on the psychological (or psychoanalytic) or sociological factors that transform the mass into vicious killers. “Genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building” (95), Gourevitch writes, and it is only by seeing it as such that it is possible to get to an understanding of its causes.

In the first part of We Wish to Inform You…, Gourevitch takes up this task of political analysis by means of a careful reconstruction of the historical conditions of possibility for the eruption of the paranoid politics of Hutu Power into full-fledged genocide, following the downing of President Habyarimana’s plane in April of 1994. In the process of tracing out the conditions that made genocide in Rwanda possible, Gourevitch brings a second element of the primordialist thesis into question. As in the case of the ethnicities designated by the names “Serb” and “Croat,” there is far less of an absolute ethnic divide between “Hutu” and “Tutsi” than might be suggested by the fury with which the Rwandan genocide was carried out. These are in fact considerably porous identities. In the pre-colonial period, Hutus and Tutsis “spoke the same language, followed the same religion, intermarried, and live intermingled, without territorial distinctions, on the same hills, sharing the same social and political culture in small chiefdoms…Hutus could become hereditary Tutsis, and Tutsis could become hereditary Hutus” (47). To thus even speak of separate groups sharing a common culture is in some sense a form of secondary revision, for it is only in the colonial and post-colonial period that these divisions became fixed in their present, dangerous form. The separation of “Tutsis” from “Hutus” begins with the ascension of the Tutsi Mwami (“chief”) Kigeri Rwaburgiri to power in 1860. Rwaburgiri instituted the feudal system that first produced the cultural division between Tutsi and Hutu which Belgian colonialists would later transform into an absolute ethnic and racial division. Informed by the “racial science” of the Englishman John Hanning Speke (infamous for his development of the Hamitic hypothesis in his Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile [1863]), it was the aristocratic Tutsis grouped around the Mwami’s court that were anointed the “lost Christians” of Biblical prophecy—the clear superiors of the more “Negroid” Hutu vassals that worked the fields. With the addition of ethnic identity cards (first issued in 1933), decades of colonial schooling in the intricate taxonomy of racial hierarchies, and a form of colonial rule that inevitably identified the Tutsis (who had a monopoly on administrative and political posts during the colonial period) with the colonial masters, a situation was produced in which post- colonial politics in Rwanda could only be carried out in ethnic terms. The first case of political violence between Hutus and Tutsis was recorded only in 1959 at the beginning of Rwanda’s struggle for independence. The animosity that exists between Hutus and Tutsis stems not from “age-old animosity,” but from the ideology of anti-colonial struggles that were necessarily expressed in racial and ethnic terms: black against white, but also in Rwanda, of the oppressed Hutu majority against the Tutsi colonial administrators. Ethnicity in Rwanda must therefore be understood as a complicated symbolic system at the center of which is the African experience of historical and political circumstances of Western colonialism.

If a rejection of the terms of primordialism is one of the important aspects of Gourevitch’s book, the second arises out of the way in which he positions the events of the genocide within a broader field of international relations and policymaking decisions. For the story of Rwanda is only in part the story of the slaughter of innocents: it is also the story of the failure of the international community to prevent this slaughter. Beyond all of the disavowals of responsibility, admissions of mistakes made and opportunities lost, and outright lies about what was known about the Rwandan situation and when it was known, this much is clear: governments around the world knew that a dangerous brew of political ingredients was coming to a boil and did nothing about it. Reports predicting the coming events that were filed by UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda) commanders and by international aid agencies were downplayed or ignored; similar reports filed by intelligence agencies were summarily buried by the governments to which they were sent. With the Somalia debacle fresh in the minds of policymakers in both the United States and within the U.N. Security Council, the international community willfully made the decision not to become involved in the Rwandan crisis. The government of Bill Clinton, for instance, made it a matter of policy not to refer to the events of Rwanda as a “genocide,” lest it commit it to political and military actions that it did not under any circumstances want to take. (A timeline of the international community’s reaction to the Rwandan crisis, including details of the long equivocation by the U.S. on the term “genocide,” can be found here). While the Rwandan genocide has been described by many as a policy failure, Gourevitch is quick to point out that it is in fact a shining example of a successfully international policy initiative: the U.S. and the U.N. were determined not to do anything, and they didn’t.

In what is one of the most frustrating examples of policy decisions gone awry, it is only at the conclusion of the genocide that international governments and organizations became involved. Citing concern over the “human tragedy” represented by the enormous refugee camps clustered around Goma and Bukavu in Zaire, millions of dollars of humanitarian aid flowed into the camps. In light of the slaughter of the Rwandan Tutsis, there is no proper description of the obscenity of this decision. The refugees were made up entirely of the Hutu génocidaires who had fled Rwanda in advance of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a force that had begun to slowly assume control of the country and put an end to the massacre. By reacting quickly to unfounded reports of a “reverse” genocide in Rwanda—vengeful Tutsis now killing Hutus en masse—the international community in fact prolonged the suffering of the Rwandan Tutsis by helping their murders as they had refused to help them. As a result of a massive infusion of international aid, these refugee camps become little more than well-supplied bases from which the génocidaires were able to conduct raids across the Rwandan border on those Tutsis who had survived the genocide, as well as on the sizable population of Tutsis living in Zaire near the camps. (This has had longer term consequences on the politics of the Congo that is just now coming to a head.) It was in an effort to put a final end to the killing that the RPF lobbied for the camps to be shut down and the perpetrators of the genocide returned to Rwanda, where they would become part of one of the most difficult projects of national reconciliation ever attempted.

Gourevitch’s analysis of the way in which the international community willfully ignored the events in Rwanda prompts a series of difficult questions about the nature of contemporary politics to which answers are certainly necessary. What exactly can be done to curb what might be called “the politics of politics” (perfected by the government of Bill Clinton) that permits elected officials to turn their backs on something as horrific as genocide in order to preserve their popularity at home? What function does the U.N. serve if not to prevent genocide—the very event that gave rise to U.N. in the first place—and why are its (minimal) efforts so often wasted and ill-conceived? What are we to make of the ascension of Kofi Annan, head of U.N. peacekeeping at the time of the Rwandan genocide and a key figure in the failure of the U.N. in Rwanda, to the position of Secretary General a few years later? How many more books and documentaries on the abuse and misuse of governmental power in all sorts of spheres will we have to read and watch before we are no longer willing to happily assent to being governed? What kind of revolution will it take for us to actively shape and make decisions about the politics carried out daily in our names and (implicitly) with our permission? And are we really still so racist at our core that Africa doesn’t matter, except insofar as it provides a seemingly endless supply of images of suffering for Western television news broadcasts? Now that the course of U.S. foreign policy can be determined by the image of one dead American soldier flashed on television screens across the country, it now seems almost inconceivable to imagine the conditions that would prompt the U.S. to ever again intervene abroad in order to help avoid another Holocaust; at the same time, it is all too easy to imagine the use of force (whether economic or political) to protect the most narrowly defined economic interests of U.S. companies in the most insubstantial of foreign disputes, and to imagine funding for the construction of future memorials to the dead for the supposed purpose of putting an end to need for such memorials.

There is some hope in this bleak book. Gourevitch dedicates the second half of the book to an examination of the attempt by the new government of Rwanda to re-integrate the Hutu génocidaires with the Tutsis, the perpetrators of the genocide with their victims. It is an understatement to suggest that this will be an incredibly difficult feat to accomplish. The proper line between retribution and the administration of justice is a difficult one to identify in a nation in which almost every Hutu is guilty of the murder of his fellow citizens. As just one example, in order to maintain political stability, the government must be quick to punish members of the (Tutsi-dominated) military for exacting vengeance on the génocidaires, but only to the point at which it can still maintain the support of the military, some of whom see such acts as their due after all that has happened. There are numerous obstacles—psychological, political and economic—that have to be overcome before Rwanda is anywhere near to being a fully-functioning nation for perhaps the first time in its post-colonial history. Once again, the response of the international community has done more harm than good to these nascent efforts at nation-building. Enormous pressure has been placed on the new government to hold general elections as soon as possible (the American cure-all to the problems faced by all foreign nations), and in light of the few instances of human rights violations that have been recorded against the present government, foreign governments and international aid agencies have withheld some of the aid that they so willing expended on the Hutus at Bukavu and Goma. Rwanda today can be seen as a place in which a surreal version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is being staged, with the final act still very much in doubt; the Furies may yet return to obliterate the tenuous rule of law that now exists.

There is an incident that Gourevitch relates that might give us room for even greater hope. Traveling through Rwanda in 1996, Gourevitch had the misfortune of getting stuck in the thick mud of a road on a high mountain pass. While waiting for help to arrive, he hears a woman cry out in the valley below, “a wild and horrible sound, like the war whoop of a Hollywood Indian flapping his hand over his mouth” (33). Some of the RPF soldiers guarding Gourevitch’s party from possible attacks by Hutu militiamen immediately disappeared into the jungle in order to investigate. A short while later, the woman’s cries stop; some hours later, the soldiers reappear on the side of the road. What was this cry in the night? A soldier explains that

…the whooping we’d heard was a conventional distress signal and that it carried an obligation. “You hear it, you do it, too. And you come running,” he said. “No choice. You must. If you ignored this crying, you would have questions to answer. This is how Rwandans live in the hills.” He held his hands up flat, and tipped them against each other this way and that, shuffling them around to indicate a patchwork, which is the way the land is parceled up, plot by plot, each household well set off from the next within its patch. “The people are living separately together,” he said. “So there is responsibility. I cry, you cry. You cry, I cry. We all come running, and the one that stays quiet, the one that stays home, must explain. Is he in league with the criminals? Is he a coward? And what would he expect when he cries? This is simple. This is normal. This is community. (34)

Hopefully, the Rwandans can reclaim this sense of community that the genocide did much to destroy. Hopefully, the rest of us can learn to come running when our neighbors cry out, so as not to be in league with those whose intention it is to forever remove a group of people from the face of the earth.

And yet, for all of the moral force that this passage musters, it is in fact precisely here, in terms of this very hope for community, that the complexities of the Rwandan genocide (and perhaps of all genocides) becomes all too apparent. The bucolic, utopic, and apparently uncontroversial notion of community that Gourevitch invokes here, a sense of community in which the shattered pieces of the nation once again become forged into a new whole, is not the only idea of community that is relevant to an understanding of genocide. For as Gourevitch makes clear elsewhere, genocide is itself “an exercise in community building,” an activity that brings people together as killers and as victims around explicitly racialized identities. Indeed, it might be argued that community is in fact the very essence of genocide. The interahamwe may not represent the positive dimensions of community that liberal thinkers have all too often identified with the concept of community as such. It was nevertheless very much a community, and indeed, a community knit together far more powerfully than most, as the murderous events of 1994 show all too clearly.

It is at this point that cultural or critical theory needs to intervene in the examination of genocide: in an effort to understand not only of how one idea of community can lead to the destruction of another, but to comprehend more clearly the idea of community itself. As a work of popular reportage, Gourevitch’s book does not pretend to offer any such analysis of community—which is not to fault the book at all. What may in fact be most useful about We Wish to Inform You…is that in his careful reconstruction of the Rwandan genocide, Gourevitch manages to highlight social and cultural logic that we still don’t understand and must still come to comprehend.


1. Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso, 1988).

2. See Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Public Works, Volume 1 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).


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