When you deal with books on genocide, you’re usually looking at one of three different formats. The most commonly seen is probably the third person objective variety; the second is the first person narrative (the survivors tale); and the third is the fictionalized novel.
The last one is useful to those who study Holocaust/genocide literature, but of lesser value to those who want to study the dynamics and outcomes of a particular genocide. In We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch manages to use his skills as a reporter to meld the third person narrative with eye-witness accounts to create a personal history of the Rwandan genocide that’s far more accessible than a traditional academic study.
What initially drew me into Gourevitch’s book is the fact that he and I share the same questions. Like myself, he wants to know, more than anything else, how such an atrocity can happen.
No doubt, the promise of material gain and living space did move some killers. But why hasn’t Bangladesh, or any other terribly poor and terribly crowded place of the many one might name, had a genocide? Over population doesn’t explain why hundreds of thousands of people agreed to murder nearly a million of their neighbors in the course of a few weeks. Nothing really explains that. [p.180]
He goes on to outline a laundry list of reasons that are at least marginally responsible for the sudden swell toward genocide – including precolonial inequalities, the hierarchical government, the Hamitic myth, the economic collapse of the 1980’s, the extremist Hutu Power, propaganda, superstition, ignorance, alcoholism, and any number of other factors that figure into the complex cultural soup that still exists in Rwanda today.
By using a series of visits to the country and interviewing those who took part in the genocide as well as the survivors, he manages to weave together a depiction that is both vivid and frightening. Unlike the Holocaust, where the victims are looking back at an atrocity that happened fifty or sixty years ago, Gourevitch is able to talk with people who are still struggling with what happened, and living in the state of uncertainty that follows any genocidal outbreak.
While the Rwandan genocide differed greatly from the Holocaust, the sense of separation, extremism, and fear are clearly palpable through Gourevitch’s interviews in a way that eerily echoes the past. It’s through this accessibility that we see how little has changed since those nationalistically turbulent days, and through this narrative, we can clearly see the cautionary signs of what we might expect as Darfur continues to deteriorate.
It’s this tangible quality that makes We Wish to Inform You a valuable book on modern genocide.