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

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 Reconstruction

Let's go back to Rwanda now. How does a community heal itself after such an event as this genocide? There is a new leadership. Paul Kingala is a man that, in the way you describe him, appears to be very politically sophisticated and at the same time has a moral sense of the human problems that he's confronting.

He's also a military leader and at times ruthless, so he's complex.

How does a society reconstitute itself or constitute itself in the aftermath? Slowly, painfully, and uncertainly. That's probably the hardest part for those of us outside. We have a tremendous impatience. We want solutions. Most of the people who look at these things are either journalists on a one or two year assignment or a six month or six week assignment; aid workers or diplomats working on similar short terms; or administrations in foreign governments. They want to be able to report success at the end of the year. Things are better, things are worse. If things are the same, it's kind of like endless stagnation, it's a hopeless prospect.

Rwandans themselves can't afford utter hopelessness. What does that mean? They have to in some way be struggling toward some notion that things can improve, even if the evidence is that it hasn't happened yet. It takes a long, long time. Generations? Perhaps. I don't know. We are at a stage where the gap between the sophisticated democracies, the advanced democracies, and the so-called transitional governments, which means governments which aren't democracies as a rule, is so vast that we forget. We think, "Well, we've figured this out. We'll go in there, we'll give you a blueprint, you do it. You do it by tomorrow please, if not, the next day. Otherwise we start to despair of you and call you a criminal regime as well." How did we come about it? Through a very long process.

A civil war.

In America we had a civil war. We happened to have a convenient institution of slavery to build up our economy which we would disapprove of if it were being practiced in a state today. We had endless aspects of our society in the first fifty to a hundred years we would consider evidence of a collapsed or rogue state elsewhere. It was not until 1950 that we allowed for a multiethnic society under the law, people to go to school together. And now that we've done that we expect societies to do it in a blink.

One has to have a better understanding of the actual historical particularities of a place and to recognize that it takes us time to overcome the loss of a family member who dies of cancer. Imagine what it's like for a society where virtually every family either contains killers or victims of those killers from a period of a hundred days. Fear, which is the biggest root problem of certain kinds of political manipulations, becomes not just an irrational but a rational response. It's rational for me, if most of my family has been killed, to be suspicious of you if most of your family were killers, and not to wish to be in any way cozy with you.

People speak impatiently of reconciliation, people speak of justice; the mechanisms aren't there. Is that the current government's fault? Partly. It is the real destruction that was visited on that country. The genocidal government and its minions sought to level that society, and succeeded in many ways -- destroyed all the courthouses, made it so that when the new government came in they didn't have pencils, paper, chairs to sit in, much less lawyers or judges, because they had all killed or been killed. It's a very bleak prospect, and part of what's fascinating about it is watching the effort to build from virtually zero. All the fundamental questions, what is a society and how does it work, are in play.

Next page: Conclusion

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