We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families:
Stories from Rwanda.

Philip Gourevitch. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 356 pp. $25.00. Reviewed by Samuel Totten


Written by a staff writer at The New Yorker, this book provides a moving and disturbing discussion and analysis of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda—a genocide in which the Hutu people went on a rampage and killed approximately 800,000 of their mainly Tutsi countrymen in a span of about 100 days. The book reads in part like a rich history of Rwanda and the relationship between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples. It also reads like a fascinating and hard-to-put-down novel of the genocide, and of the many issues radiating out from its brutal center. Among the many critical issues addressed herein are: (1) why the genocide was perpetrated and by whom, (2) the apathetic response of the international community to the genocide and its aftermath, (3) the problematic and harmful actions of well-meaning humanitarian organizations, and (4) the stalled trials of the perpetrators.

One key issue which the author explores at length is why the average person was so quick to turn on neighbors, friends, and long-time colleagues when this genocide began. Gourevitch quotes, for example, a Rwandan lawyer whose father was Hutu and whose mother and wife were Tutsi, as saying:

Conformity is very deep, very developed here. In Rwandan history, everyone obeys authority. People revere power, and there isn’t enough education. You take a poor, ignorant population, and give them arms, and say, “It’s our Kill.” They’ll obey. The peasants who were paid or forced to kill were looking up to people of higher socio-economic standing to see how to behave. So the people of influence, or the big financiers, are often the big men in the genocide [p. 23].

There were other “motivators” at work, of course, including but not limited to an ideology of hate that was pounded into the masses, a deep and abiding disdain for the “other,” and the realistic fear that one’s own life was in jeopardy if one did not heed the ultimatum to “kill or be killed.” Exacerbating these was the fact that:

During the genocide, the work of the killers was not regarded as a crime in Rwanda; it was effectively the law of the land, and every citizen was responsible for its administraion. That way, if a person who should be killed was let go by one party, he could expect to be caught and killed by someone else” [p. 123].

Even though this genocide was carried out largely by Hutus wielding machetes, modern technology played its part. Day after day, the perpetrators and killers were urged on in their genocidal work by pronouncements over the new government-controlled radio station, Radio Television Librees des Milles Collines. It broadcast such exhortations as ‘You cockroaches [the Tutsis] must know you are made of flesh. We won’t let you kill. We will kill you’” [p. 114]. Gourevitch further notes that “Radio announcers reminded listeners not to take pity on women and children” [p. 155], and that “with the encouragement of such messages and of leaders at every level of society, the slaughter of Tutsis and the assassination of Hutu oppositionists spread from region to region” [p. 115].

Although the Hutus carried out the actual genocide, others shared culpability for what happened. As Gourevitch writes, “France tunneled huge shipments of armaments to Rwanda—right through the killings in 1994—and throughout the early 1990s...And when the United States ambassador to Rwanda suggested [prior to the genocide] that the Habyarimana government should abolish ethnic identity cards [which, during the genocide, allowed Hutus to easily identify potential victims], the French ambassador quashed the initiative...[pp. 89, 90].

The United Nations also bore some responsibility for the disaster:

General Dallaire [head of the United Nations force in Rwanda] would learn that Kigali—designated a “weapons-free zone”—was a Hutu Power [an organization of Hutu extremists] arms bazaar. It was hardly a secret: grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles were openly displayed and affordably priced in the central city market; planes carrying French, or French-sponsored, arms shipments kept arriving; the government was importing machetes from China in numbers that far exceeded the demand for agricultural use; and many of these weapons were being handed around free to people with no known military function...[Dallaire] announced [and faxed] his intention to raid an arms cache within thirty-six hours...The response from New York was: “Let’s not.” The chief of UN peaceleeping at the time was Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian who would become Secretary-General. Annan’s deputy...replied to Dallaire the same day, rejecting the ‘”operation contemplated” as “beyond the mandate entrusted to the UNAMIR” [pp. 104, 105].

As for the United States, its hands were not clean either:

The desertion of Rwanda by the UN force was Hutu Power’s greatest diplomatic victory...and it can be credited almost single-handedly to the United States. With the memory of the Somalia debacle still very fresh, the White House had just finished drafting a document called Presidential Decision Directive 25, which amounted to a checklist of reasons to avoid American involvement in UN peacekeeping missions. It hardly mattered that Dallaire’s call for an expanded force and mandate would not have required American troops, or that the mission was not properly peacekeeping, but genocide prevention. PDD 25 also contained what Washington policymakers call “language” urging that the United States should persuade others not to undertake the mission that it wished to avoid. In fact, the Clinton administration’s ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, opposed leaving even the skeleton crew of two hundred seventy in Rwanda [p. 150].

Several months later, Rwandan cities, towns, and countryside exploded into a frenzy of mass murder. Following the genocide, Annan’s deputy dismissed the UN’s rejection of Dallaire’s request by stating that “We get hyperbole in many reports...If we had gone to the Security Council three months after Somalia [an earlier peacekeeping mission that eventuated in disastrous results], I can assure you no government would have said, ‘Yes, here are our boys for an offensive action in Rwanda’” [p. 106].

In the aftermath of the genocide, as the Hutus streamed out of Rwanda into exile in neighboring states, international humanitarian forces moved in to provide food, shelter, and medicine to the impoverished Tutsi survivors. The problem—inadvertent and ironic—was that the humanitarian groups virtually allowed the perpetrators, who had established bases on the other side of the Rwandan border, to control the refugee camps and go on killing their “enemies.” As Gourevitch caustically writes:

Rwanda had presented the world with the most unambiguous case of genocide since Hitler’s war against the Jews, and the world sent blankets, beans, and bandages to camps controlled by the killers, apparently hoping that everybody would behave nicely in the future... The West’s post-Holocaust pledge that genocide would never again be tolerated proved to be hollow, and for all the fine sentiments inspired by the memory of Auschwitz, the problem remains that denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good [170].

Finally, the author discusses the two ongoing trials of the perpetrators: the series of trials being held in Rwanda by its new government and the international tribunal being held in Arusha, Tanzania. “By the end of 1997, at least a hundred and twenty-five thousand Hutus accused of crimes during the genocide were incarcerated in Rwanda” [p. 242]. Over and above the near impossible job of providing trials for the huge numbers of accused, most of Rwanda’s lawyers and judges had been murdered in the genocide. Violent and deadly attacks on witnesses and survivors of the genocide further exacerbated the situation. And, though the current Rwandan government admits that it does not have the means, personnel, or time to try all of the accused, it also senses that “Right now, if you were to give a general amnesty, you would be inviting chaos” [p. 252]. A possibility now under consideration is to limit the trials to “some four hundred top genocidaires—masterminds and master implementers”[p. 252]. Meanwhile, other killers have been given the opportunity to confess and receive lighter sentences, a largely unsuccessful effort as they have been cowed by threats of murder if they accept the offer of leniency.

As for the international trial in Tanzania, a leading Rwandan asserts that “The tribunal was created essentially to appease the conscience of the international community, which has failed to live up to its conventions on genocide. It wants to look as if it is doing something, which is often worse than doing nothing at al#148; [p. 252]. Gourevitch notes that “in fact, during its first two years, the UN tribunal didn’t appear to be doing much. It was understaffed and systematically mismanaged...It quickly became clear that the prosecutors had no intention of trying more than a few dozen cases. This only served to aggravate the feeling in Kigali that the UN court was not designed to serve Rwanda’s national interest, since the message to the vast majority of fugitive genocidaires was that they had nothing to fear: the international community would not help Rwanda get them, nor would it pursue them itself” [p. 253].

What has been touched on in this review is only a fragment of the many complex and highly disturbing issues that Gourevitch addresses. This book is bound to leave many, if not most, readers with a tangle of thoughts and emotions—anger, helplessness, compassion, hopelessness, frustration—along with a better understanding of the tremendous difficulties inherent in attempts to intervene in or prevent a genocide from taking place. What it will not leave the reader is unmoved.


Samuel Totten is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.