Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Book review: We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch (1998)

It’s difficult to know how to start a review of a book of this nature, that deals with such horrific matters, but I’ll say that the structure Gourevitch uses is effective. He starts with some stories of survivors of the genocide of ethnic Tutsis at the hands of government-backed Hutu killers. (One thing that is hard for neophytes to comprehend is the different meanings that are associated in the minds of Rwandans with these two terms but, by the end of this book, you will have no uncertain understanding of them.)

So, the narrative is not a straight chronology – it might have just taken the reader from a time before the start of the crisis to its aftermath – and this strategy serves Gourevitch well in his task. I was deeply impressed by his dedication to uncovering the truth although I’m a bit disappointed by his notions of the place of the US in the world. Perhaps in 1996 – at the midpoint of his writing activity – saying that the US is “the most powerful nation in the world” might be possible to pull off without irony but after 2003 the fiction of US geopolitical supremacy is wearing a bit thin. I also don’t think much of Gourevitch’s taste in movies: he seems to love formulaic Hollywood films as much as the next doofus on Twitter.

Take-aways? Personally, I don’t think much of Donald Trump, and his description of third-world countries as “shitholes” is due to the same exceptionalism that allowed Gourevitch to claim superiority for his native country, but there’s no doubt that Rwanda’s problems – while exacerbated by colonialism – must be ascribed to failings in its own people. Tribalism of the most extreme kind, in short and, given the ways that people behave on social media, something that continues to pose a threat even to pluralistic democracies.

Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was as big a mistake on the part of the international community as ignoring the warnings coming out of Rwanda in the months leading up to the genocide, so it is time for a truly global consensus. I fear that as long as Americans remain wedded to their ideas of manifest destiny and as long as people in developing nations blame all their problems on colonialism, the world will not find the peace it so deeply craves. Instead of blaming others we should try to see our own faults for what they are.

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