Philip Gourevitch Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Writing and Reporting the Story of a Genocide: Conversation with Philip Gourevitch; 2/11/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Rwanda and Extreme Situations

The really extreme situations interest you -- the holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda?

Yes. I suppose some of them are a little bit quieter. The boat people, the migration, that's pretty dramatic as well. Yes. Great upheavals where people are, that has been what interests me. But within those also the quiet spots that involve people's lives. To a large degree what's interesting to me is aftermath. I write about aftermath. I write not about the moment while the thing is happening, I go in afterwards when people are reflecting and where there's an element of memory and when there's also the element of how does one live with and assimilate and absorb and express an experience that's been had? What does that become?

Where did you develop this interest in extreme situations or situations like the ones that we're characterizing? Anything in particular led you to that?

I really can't say. They are interesting. I didn't really have to create the interest. It was there.

So you're thinking about audience then?

No, I never think about audience.

So it's what you find intriguing for whatever sets of reasons.

Yes. How do people form political societies and how do people individually sort themselves through massive political turmoil? How does one describe those dramas and what's at stake in them? Those are pretty interesting questions to me. Certainly the literature I've enjoyed reading, whether it's something like Man's Faith by André Malraux, whether it's quieter books -- I would say in many ways the memoir form that has been used by Primo Levi -- whether it's Camus in The Plague, where in some way certain kinds of large public dramas are played out. I tend to prefer literature that does not isolate the individual from social and political concerns. It just doesn't seem to me that that's where people exist. So for me Joyce is better before Ulysses when he's not all internal, where he's really dealing much more explicitly.

How did you wind up doing the book on Rwanda, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families?

Well, a year after the genocide in Rwanda I went there. The story had been bothering me, which is to say that in April of 1994 a program of massacres began in Rwanda that ended up claiming the lives of 800,000 in a hundred days. People were murdered at a rate that exceeded by three times the speed the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. It happened in our time, in front of our noses, somewhat before our cameras. And it vanished very quickly. As soon as the blood was dry the story disappeared from the newspapers. Nobody really had explained it. When one read the papers it didn't seem to me to make much sense. It was described as anarchy and chaos, which struck me as implausible simply because in order to kill at that clip requires organization, it requires method, it requires mobilization. It requires the opposite of anarchy and chaos. Mass destruction is not arbitrary, it doesn't just come about willy-nilly. Those things interested me. So in other words, I felt the story was being told wrong, and casually and cavalierly, and that in some basic way a great calamity had happened which we were quite content to be ignorant of.

I had spent some time prior to that writing about the early nineties when they built the Holocaust Museum in Washington and Schindler's List was coming out and there was all of this very hyped-up Holocaust commemoration rhetoric going around that by standing tall against intolerance we would ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again. The Holocaust Museum was dedicated in Washington on the mall in 1993 with this idea that it somehow or other has a preventive function. And I thought that was rubbish. I thought it was wishful thinking. I thought it was a fantasy. And I also thought, sadly, that denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good, and that basically it's pretty easy to take the right position on the Holocaust in 1993. You've had fifty years to be morally unambiguous about it. It's much more difficult to know how to respond, or it turns out to be much more difficult for big institutions and governments to know how to respond to what's happening before us. And I wanted to look at what was happening. I felt that in a way by telling ourselves it can't happen again, we were ignoring it as it took place before our noses.

Now let me just quote from your book, to give our audience a sense of what this event was like. The numbers which you cite in the book, that 800,000 people were killed in a hundred days, 333 1/3 murdered every hour, and 5 1/2 lives every minute as this occurred. And then you have a passage which I would like to read, "Following the militia's example, the Hutus young and old rose to the task," that is, of organizing and being organized to actually commit these atrocities after they were being called to arms by their leaders.

Following the militia's example, Hutus young and old rose to the task. Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in their houses, and colleagues hacked colleagues to death in their work places. Doctors killed their patients and school teachers killed their pupils. Within days the Tutsi populations of many villages were all but eliminated and in Kigali prisoners were released in work gangs to collect the corpses that lined the roadsides.

So just an unbelievable horror of events. And yet you go there to tell this story and in your book you look at certain lives. Let's talk about some of these individuals who told their story to you. One that comes to mind is Paul, a Hutu who winds up in a hotel and responds to events by acting in a human way to save a few people. How did you get him to tell his story? What was interviewing him like?

Paul Rusesabagina was a hotel manager by profession in Rwanda. He worked for Sabena, the Belgian national airlines which also has a hotel chain. He'd worked for them for most of his career. He was the first Rwandan to rise to the rank of director general of a hotel, so he was a worldly, sophisticated businessman. I think he was a Rotarian, and so on. The Hotel des Mille Colline is the one first-class/business-class hotel in Kigali, the capital, and it's not a place that Rwandans generally stay because it costs about twice as much as the annual average per capita income, which is about $80 in Rwanda. It costs about $150 a night. So it's a fancy hotel. And he was actually working at another hotel but during the genocide [he was called in to serve as manager when the foreign manager left the country].

I started to meet people in Kigali: a radio announcer who had decided not to participate in the genocidal radio rhetoric and thereby made himself an enemy of the regime, who had found shelter at this hotel during the genocide. A doctor named Odette Nyiramilimo and her husband Jean-Baptiste Gasasira and their children, whose story I became quite involved in and tell at length in the book, who ended up at this hotel. Francois-Xavier Nsanzuwera a Hutu politician who wound up at this hotel. He was supposed to be the attorney general. Many people who were slated for death wound up at this hotel. And for some reason this hotel was the one place where people who were slated for death gathered in large numbers, close to a thousand seeking refuge, and nobody was hurt. Down the street there was a church, the Sainte Famille Church where many Tutsis and Hutus who were persecuted by the regime also sought refuge but there they were picked off piecemeal and the priest was handing them over, Father Wenceslas was handing them over to the militias. The militias were allowed into the church, and so on. Nearby there were schools where this happened as well.

But the hotel was different. And slowly I was asking these survivors, how? Why? What was the key to this? And many of them referred me to Paul Rusesabagina who had been the acting hotel manager and said, "He used his influence very well." I said, "What influence does a hotel manager have?" Well, he had a liquor closet. He had the cave, the basement wine cellar. And he used that to sort of bring in the enemy. Rather than keep them out, he brought the generals, he brought the heads of the militia through. When they came by he said, "Would you like a little drink? Why don't we talk? Why don't you leave these people alone." He also had a phone line that they didn't know about, with which he and his considerably influential guests used to call the White House, the French foreign ministry, the King of Belgium, Sabena national headquarters in Brussels, which was very helpful. And to constantly draw attention to the plight of this particular pocket of refugees. The priest down the street also had a phone line. He never used it. He never once used it. He was busy cooperating with the genocide and embracing it.

So I went to see Paul. He was in his office. I knocked, I said, "Hi, I've been told about you and I want to ask you about it." We had tea and he told me his story. And we started back in time, I asked him about how he'd started in life and what is it that gave him the strength to do this. And of course much of his point was that he didn't feel strong. He didn't feel particularly special. He felt, as he put it, "I felt that I was already dead. Many times I felt that I was already dead." And he also made it very clear that he had assumed, he had imagined that all across Rwanda many people were behaving as he was, because it was the only sane and human thing to do. He said, "But people became fools, I don't know why. I know why I didn't, because I couldn't." So in a sense he didn't even want to be thought of as exceptionally great or as a hero in any sense because the only standard by which he was exceptional was by comparison with the abysmal measure of the murderer. And so he did not want to accept that you were an exceptional man for not having become a murderer. He wanted to think that they were exceptional for having become murderers. But he was very clear about it. He was shocked by how many people he knew had crossed the line and cooperated with the genocidal order without much resistance. And as he always said, "They could have done as I did if they had wanted to." I took the words "wanted to" as very important.

So, hearkening back to what you said about the Holocaust Museum, rather than some monument to that event fifty years ago, it was actually a man living his life and seeing right and wrong in his everyday life and being able to confront what was happening.

You asked me earlier why I'm interested in some of these extreme situations. And certainly one of the things that interests me about them is they tell you who's who. They are a certain kind of character test. It's a character test that none of us can know until we're there. You cannot know. People like to go to the Holocaust Museum and say, that's who I relate to, the guy who did right. Either they relate somehow to the victim and feel bad about themselves and sorry for themselves, or they relate to the good guy. Very few go in there and say, oh yeah I probably would have been just like an ordinary conformist Nazi murderer, right? But probably the great majority of people who go through that museum would have been, because that's what the great majority of people in Europe were. They were either bystanders, collaborators, or in some other way morally reprehensible positions which are all too understandable. But there they are. But no, this museum allows you to fantasize that you're sort of morally excellent. And reality doesn't allow that fantasy much room, sadly.

Now another story that you tell is of the minister who escaped to Laredo, Texas. And he had the opportunity to save a group who were trapped in a church. Tell us about that incident and the letter.

The killings began on the night of April 6, morning of April 7, 1994. And very quickly it was clear to Tutsis across the country that a kind of Armageddon had arrived, that an attempt was being made to murder them all. They knew they were slated for death, as did some Hutus who opposed the genocide. And all across the country they sought refuge in places that they thought would be sanctuaries, primarily churches. In some cases civic buildings, stadiums, schools, hospitals. But in many places they would congregate in the churches because it was hallowed ground, it was a sanctuary. In the past when there had been political violence in Rwanda, these places had been respected. Instead, during the genocide, churches became the largest slaughterhouses, because the killers did not respect any sanctuary.

In this town, a rather typical story, Mugonero in Western Rwanda in the province of Kibuye, the church -- although Rwanda is predominantly Catholic, it's about 65-70% Catholic, this area had been evangelized by Seventh Day Adventists -- and there was an Adventist campus headquarters there. And people started coming to Mugonero from all around, a couple of thousand Tutsis converged on the place in the first two weeks of the genocide, the first ten days. And amongst those who took refuge in the church were seven or eight Tutsis who were themselves pastors in the church. So as time went by and conditions became increasingly bleak inside there, they assumed the role of leaders of the flock as they would. They had the moral authority, the community authority. And when word came on April 15 that there would be a massacre the next day, they wrote a letter to the church president.

Now the church president was a Hutu, his name is Elizaphan Ntakirutimana. He was a man in his late sixties at the time. He was the authority figure in the town and he had been directing people to go to the church. So they wrote to him and they said, "Dear Our Leader. We wish you to be strong in these difficult times we are facing. We hope that you are okay. We wish to inform you that we have heard that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, and we ask you in the name of the Lord to intercede on our behalf, just as Esther saved the Jews," meaning the book of Esther in the Bible. "And we ask you to intercede with the authorities," again, "in the name of the Lord. Thank you very much." And all seven of them signed it, a kind of extraordinarily restrained, polite, deferential letter from people about to die. But instead the pastor said, "I can do nothing, you must die." And extraordinarily elaborate testimony has been collected showing that in fact, he ended up presiding over the massacre. And these people were right, they were killed the next day.

So what conclusions do you draw about someone like this minister?

He was a bad man. He's now under indictment from the UN Tribunal for Rwanda. He did find refuge in Laredo, Texas, and then he managed to get the Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who likes to defend political criminals, to defend him and to claim that the UN Tribunal was not legitimate. Finally the Supreme Court cleared the way for him to be taken away to trial and extradited just a few weeks ago now as we speak. He was very characteristic of Rwandan authority figures. They basically believed in the political order. There was a tremendous closeness of the church with power. And there was a widespread belief in some way that a purification of the people could be accomplished by eliminating once and for all the minority Tutsi.

That's one of the things one has to understand: people do not engage in genocide as if it were a crime. Killing becomes the law in a genocidal society. It's not disorder, it's order. It's an attempt in some strange and perverse way at utopia. People don't go forward to kill saying "This is the end of the world and I'm a pig and I will kill you." They go forward and they say "This is the beginning of a better world and I am a purifier and I will kill you. This is going to bring harmony." It's an exercise in community building, it's this us-and-them and we will purify ourselves by eliminating you. And also, we will all be implicated and so implication will be meaningless. And in some very deep way this had permeated the mentality of Rwandan life in thirty-five years of Hutu dictatorship. It wasn't as if it came out of the blue. And the pastor was characteristic of that.

At one point in the book you're looking at explanations, possible explanations of why this happened. And you go through a long list and in the end you conclude that you really cannot say why it happened here and not somewhere like Bangladesh, that is, poverty wasn't the cause, or this or that. So in the end what are we left with in understanding what happened there?

Well, if one looks very particularly at the mechanisms of Rwandan life, one sees what Rwandans call the genocidal logic, the mechanisms; they understand how a small elite class that seized control of the state were the "authors," as they call them, of this genocide. That they, through fear, impoverishment, ignorance of a peasant population managed to manipulate this thing. And yet, even as one maps all of those details, even as one maps them, I think that some mystery remains. There is something that all of these sociological, anthropological, historical and political mechanisms don't explain, which is a certain moral resistance to slaughtering your neighbor. Most of the killing was done between people who were actually acquainted with each other. It was not anonymous.

There was an argument after the Holocaust that the Holocaust was the perverse result of the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment because science and technology had made possible the sanitary extermination of large numbers of people, because you could herd people into a gas chamber, flip a switch, and nobody actually had to kill anybody. Everybody could be almost on an assembly line between the ghettos and the camps, funneling these people to death and then they become smoke.

Rwanda showed that technological underdevelopment was no obstacle to genocide. It was mostly done hand to hand, and it was mostly done between people who knew one another. That's difficult to grasp. What was that about? I think one has to understand that clearly there's this human capacity. It's a terrifying realization. But I also resist the idea that it's entirely normal. In other words, one has to somehow start to recognize that there is on the one hand a capacity, and on the other hand it's aberrant. It's perverse. It isn't just "Oh well, you can flip a switch and off we go and kill."

The general who has essentially run Rwanda since the genocide, General Paul Kingala, who is the vice president and minister of defense in the post-genocidal government, said something that made a strong impression on me in that context. He said, "People can be made bad and they can be taught to be good. And if you look," (he was saying this as an optimist in post-genocidal Rwanda), "the same mechanisms that could be used to pervert a society to that degree can be used to influence people towards harmony." And it struck me as both the most optimistic and the most cynical or sinister remark that one could make, because it makes one conscious of how utterly malleable and adaptable people are to context.

Next page: Rwanda and the International Response

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