Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Q&A Philip Gourevitch: Hell Has Its Sense


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate)

Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is author of "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families", about the genocide in Rwanda.

Just as birds of prey and carrion will form a front in the air before the advancing wall of a forest fire to feast on the parade of animals fleeing the inferno, so in Rwanda during the months of extermination the kettles of buzzards, kites, and crows that boiled over massacre sites marked a national map against the sky . . .

HB: The central thrust of the "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families" is your attempt to make sense out of the Rwandan genocide, to see it not purely as a function of chaos.

PG: When I heard 800,000 Tutsis were killed in 100 days with crude hand-held tools -- machetes, hoes -- I had to conclude this did not happen spontaneously or out of the blue. It required organization and there must have been an idea behind it. The violence was organized around principles of meaning; it was political. I was trying to understand what was in the heads of those who organized it, and what it meant to fight them for those who fought them.

HB: There's a good deal of anger on your part that Western media made the Rwanda genocide seem almost like an act of nature.

PG: That's right. Rwanda is a country not too many people were paying much attention to before the genocide. We were made conscious of Rwanda as a place of killing -- that's all it seemed to be. We were told about these two groups of people with Dr. Seuss comic book names -- Hutus and Tutsis -- and told this was what they did. It was presented as African violence, not all that different from the way the Wild Kingdom presents what happens at the watering hole.

A lot of the problem sits at the editorial desks at newspapers, television and radio. People are burnt out and say, is there any good news from Africa? Does any of this really matter to us? You have people saying, it matters, because they're also human beings. So you end with an appeal to common humanity. It's a humanitarian story, which means it has no particular context. That's how it becomes like a natural disaster. Whether it forgot to rain for six months or somebody actually organized a genocide, the net result is a bunch of people suffering and dying. That's the humanitarian story.

HB: Something similar might be happening now in the war in the Congo. The press is saying, it's too complicated, everyone's in on it, it makes no sense.

PG: Basically the American press has not covered the Congo war after its first three weeks this summer. It has only touched on it fitfully since. It happens to be an extraordinarily complex and important war that involves seven or eight national armies, and seven or eight non-irregular armies. Still, there's logic to it. At least the eastern Congo war at present is a continuation of the Rwanda genocide.

One of the things that really attracted me to Rwanda and kept me going back after the first trip was the feeling that it's actually a story you understand better if you take the time. If you oversimplify it, it becomes meaningless. If you allow for its complexity, it actually starts to resonate with meaning at every turn. I realized that by simply being there. People carried a very clear historical understanding with them. Nobody there felt it was meaningless. Not one person.

HB: It may be that Westerners, Americans in particular just don't have the tools to make sense of Africa history, just don't have the basics.

PG: Of course, in Europe, Africa is much more closely followed in the press. There's a relationship to Africa because of old colonial ties. whereas our relationship to Africa is really slavery. We have a relationship to the Africans we brought here as slaves but we don't have any deep ties, as a country, to the internal affairs of Africa.

I have found, though, that people are very receptive to what I'm doing. I haven't felt people saying that I'm trying to impose meaning or clarity on something that really is just hell. My argument, anyway, is that hell has sense. It wouldn't have captured our imagination for so long if it was just a another word for meaninglessness.

HB: What led you to Rwanda in the first place?

PG: I got started in journalism more or less by accident by falling into a job covering New York City for the Jewish Forward, an English weekly, and also became the cultural editor there. While I was there a lot of what I was thinking and beginning to writing about was the issue of Holocaust memory fifty years after the Holocaust.

HB: You did a piece for Harper's that raised questions about the value of the Holocaust Museum.

PG: Denouncing evil fifty years after the fact is an obvious thing to do. Opposing the Holocaust in the 1990s ought to take no courage, and require no particularly complicated meditation. It's a reflex, and to congratulate ourselves for it seems a little smug. To assume, though, that because we condemn the Holocaust vigorously now, we will not tolerate genocide elsewhere now or in future, is wishful thinking.

A year after the Holocaust Museum opened I was standing in front of it reading the Washington Post. The front page had a photograph of the bloated and bleached bodies of Tutsis floating down a river near the Rwanda-Tanzanian border. It said, these are victims of the genocide in Rwanda. And people are walking by me on the way to work with buttons saying REMEMBER and NEVER AGAIN. That's when I became particularly fixated on the Rwandan story. I thought, it's really easy for us not to pay attention. But something's happening.

Even at the time Rwanda was the most unambiguous case -- people going around measuring people's noses, looking at the length of people's legs, using race science to eliminate men, women and children for having a certain bloodline. Genocide conventions and human rights conventions arising from the world's genuine revulsion to Auschwitz were a part of the world order after World War II. And I felt we were perhaps telling ourselves something we wanted to believe while not being willing to act accordingly. That drew me. The tendency I'm writing against is the feeling that because we mean well and think well the world will get better.

HB: Commemoration is legitimate in its own right, of course, but shouldn't be confused with prevention.

PG: I think, though, that without having digested the Holocaust as deeply as we have we would be harder put to reckon with something like this when it does occur.

In the years after the Holocaust survivors generally didn't talk about it, the community didn't talk about, nobody talked about it. In Rwanda people were willing to talk. There was a coherence to Rwandan society. The genocide happened within that society, and had to do with a political and ideological thread running through it. The survivors who told me their stories were eager to tell them as a way of asserting truth against a regime of lies. They were eager to set the story straight.

HB: Your book presents many parallels to the Holocaust -- the dehumanization, Tutsis routinely being called cockroaches, the enlisting of the masses by degrees. That said, your book also points out differences with regard, especially, to technology and bureaucracy. Rwanda was a hands-on genocide, people went out and did it themselves with whatever came to hand.

PG: Believing it's chaos, it's senseless, is a way of avoiding the fact that there are similarities. And the resistance points to a deeper question: what is humanity? Do people really experience themselves as inhabiting humanity? It wasn't the world that said NEVER AGAIN about the Holocaust; it was the Western world speaking to itself about itself. Which is not unreasonable, in the sense that Africans do not respond excitedly about World War II. Asians don't spend a lot of time trying to understand what went wrong in Germany in the 30s and 40s. They don't puzzle about how Mozart could have written all that music and Hitler could come out of the same culture. It's not a problem for them. It's a problem for us because it's ours. And the real question is, do we actually think of Africa as ours?

The genocide in Rwanda is this crazy crime that's an attempt to actually retool creation by eliminating a whole piece of. It's a chutzpah of a crime to wipe out a whole people. "These people bug me. It's a problem. We'll solve the problem." It's always put that way, we will solve the problem, this people won't exist anymore. This crazy crazy crime is hard to get one's mind around.

HB: It was fascinating to find that the most virulent form of Hutu-Tutsi opposition was traceable to European race theory, which maintained a Hamitic-Nilotic opposition. If there was a high civilization in the sub-Saharan Africa it had to have come from the Nile, it could not possibly originate in sub-Saharan Africa, where dwelt the inferior sons of Ham. That doctrine was taught in Rwandan schools until Rwandans themselves took it on and were set against each other because of it.

PG: It's an amazing story. It should remind us that this is our story. The extent to which European race science sowed the seeds of the kind of identity politics that led to genocide is extraordinary. In came this zany idea and both Hutus and Tutsis absorbed it. For the Tutsi elites under colonialism, the Hamitic myth was highly convenient. It's very rare you put a group of people in power and tell them they are a superior race, and they say, no no no. Then you have an oppressed mass, and what they end up taking from the Hamitic myth is the idea that yes, the Tutsis were foreign invaders, a small minority from outside who infiltrated the society. And they understood they had to maintain racial groupings in order to make the claim that Hutus should rule as a Hutu majority.

HB: You also describe a disciplined Tutsi leadership in power today that seems to have won your respect.

PG: They've won my respect as people who are seriously contending with the virtually impossible. That doesn't mean that they will succeed. As long as there's still a substantial genocidal insurgency -- and there are tens of thousands of Hutu militia and military still afoot -- as long as that goes on, it's a government in state of war. There are 600,00 people living in camps in northwest Rwanda. Why? Because the government is fighting an insurgency up there. Who's being killed by these Hutu insurgents? Hutus as well as Tutsis; they'll kill anybody in order to divide, conquer and cause chaos.

But large parts of the country are much more peaceful. It's a country that's working a hell of a lot better than you would imagine if you only think about the worst things that are going on.

HB: There's some sanity after the genocide.

PG: There's sanity. It's a very fragile sanity. It's a very fragile system right now. it's a very fragile order. From within and from without there are threats to that order.

There's a temptation, parallel to the temptation to call it meaningless violence, to say it's an impossible situation, and I would say it's about as close as you can get. It's pretty confounding at every turn. But what does truly impossible or truly hopeless mean? People cannot live in true and total hopelessness for very long. Some Rwandans are trying to make sense of it with a kind of intensity that takes your breath away if you come from the outside .

HB: Could the West have played a more significant preventive role?

PG: There's great discussion on this, how the world failed Rwanda. I think it really might be better to say, how and why did the West succeed in non-intervening? We were there, we had a peacekeeping force. We withdrew it. We knew what was happening. We ducked. We put our heads in the sand. There were conscious policy decisions in Washington and elsewhere not to act, to let it happen. So obviously we could do more to prevent it. What I think is important is we that have signaled that we do not want to, we do not need to. Can we change our minds? Certainly we could in the future.

What we needed in Rwanda was military force; it was the only way to respond. There are people whose brutality and political ambition are such that the only way to stop them is to stop them cold. You don't do it by talking. You don't do it by sending UN diplomats around. You blow them away.

HB: You point out how much it meant that Clinton simply acknowledged the fact of the genocide -- after it was over.

PG: It's pathetic that should be something to be glad of, but it is. Because one thing we can do is get the story straight. When people outside start to justify their inaction by pretending there was no genocide that only serves those who are perpetrating it.

HB: How do you find the New Yorker as a place to work?

PG: It's a great place to work and a great place to write. Tina Brown was incredibly supportive of my work. David Remnick, as a colleague, was incredibly supportive of my work about Rwanda, and now that he's the editor I'm working on other things, and he's been great to work with on them. I think that Tina made the magazine much more open and more lively than it had been for some time.

HB: Didn't that liveliness cost something?

PG: I'll tell you what I felt reading The New Yorker before: it was a place that I could never imagine myself writing for. Growing up -- in the seventies and early eighties -- it never struck me as a particularly open or exciting world. I'm generalizing, of course. There has always been great writing in the magazine. But in general in the decades before Tina the magazine did not impress as having a lot of edge. Point of view was never a strong suit in its political reporting. That changed. Tina liked argument as part of a writer's work. Arguments did not have to be removed, as unsightly, or disguised as received opinion.

I remember, shortly before Tina's era, and long before I wrote for the magazine, I was talking politics with one of the editors at the New Yorker, who prefaced an argument by saying, "I think all right-thinking people must agree that . . . . " And I thought, oh, that's the problem. As it happened I didn't agree with the argument this editor was making; I thought it soggy and wrong headed, and I thought who the hell are these "right-thinking" people? What a smug posture.

To me, one of the sloppiest things a journalist can do is to imagine that objectivity requires neutrality. I don't mean that every story has to take a vigorous standpoint, but to pretend that you don't exercise judgment in telling a story is false. If you don't have a point of view, you are not likely to be interesting to read. It's my sense that under Tina, the New Yorker grew some teeth, and I think that's to the good.

My guess is that David Remnick is likely to be more interested in gritty American storuies than Tina was, but I can say without guessing that Tina was more receptive to the story of Rwanda than the editor of any other American magazine. And I suspect that being British may have made her more alert to the Rwandan story. She ran eleven pieces from me over 2 1/2 years, and she was always ready for the next one. This is very consistent with the British tradition of explorer journalism, and let's not forget that the British once colonized much of Africa around Rwanda.

HB: Whereas today, the only thing left of the British empire is the BBC.

PG: The BBC may be the very best thing the empire did in the first place. Anyway, Tina Brown had a taste for the central African story, and The New Yorker helped a lot just by giving me these assignments. Then, after working through this huge thing over time, writing as I went, and developing my responses in that way, it was tremendous liberation to be able to do it all at once in a book.

What I could never achieve 100 percent in any magazine piece was the sense of immersion so that I could just start telling you a story about an individual halfway through the book and all the references would be meaningful to you. When you go anywhere -- Israel, Russia -- after while you have an internal language. The book was like that. I wrote it fast. I assembled rough ideas of what order I was going to do things in, something like an outline, and then just wrote the book. A lot of it had to do not only with a chronological but with an emotional logic, so I plunge you into the middle and tell you no more than you need to know.

The film-maker Errol Morris said to me that the book was one of the most consistently pessimistic books he ever read, without it ever becoming cynical. And it's not a book about atrocity; it's a book about survival. It's as much a book about how one resists a genocide when it takes place, how people stood against it, how they kept their heads. In order to understand how people lose their heads, one also has to understand how people keep their heads. 

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