As the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide approached, journalist Philip Gourevitch returned to the central African nation to investigate the aftermath of one of the most horrific events of the 20th century.
He wanted to observe how a society recovers after members of one ethnic group, instigated by government leaders, hunted down and killed more than 800,000 members of another ethnic group.
“How do you put it back together? How do you live with one another, when there’s such total destruction, not just of life, but of trust?” asks Gourevitch, author of “We Wish to Inform You Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.”
The 1998 bestseller is widely regarded as one of the most definitive accounts of the Rwandan genocide. It is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, among several other prizes.
Now Gourevitch plans a follow-up work, “You Hide that You Hate Me and I Hide that I Know,” to be published next year. The book is based upon his series of return visits to Rwanda during the past five years.
Gourevitch will discuss Rwanda’s current situation during an address at UNL on April 17. The 7 p.m. event is to be held in the Unity Room of the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center. Gourevitch also is to speak at a Holocaust literature class at Lincoln Southwest High School earlier in the day, in an appearance open to students and faculty.
UNL’s Chantal Kalisa, whose family is from Rwanda, said she has been working four or five years to persuade Gourevitch to give a speech at UNL.
Kalisa’s immediate family escaped the genocide because they lived in exile in neighboring Burundi, said Kalisa, an associate professor of French and director of Women’s and Gender Studies. All of her mother’s extended family were killed.
“I feel a responsibility as one of the few who survived, to set forth this knowledge and not wait for other people to do it,” Kalisa said.
Gourevitch’s visit to Nebraska marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide, which began on April 7th, 1994, and continued until July 4 of that year.
In an interview Monday, Gourevitch said Rwanda has made amazing strides toward recovery, in an effort that has emphasized economic growth to give those on both sides a stake in preserving the country, and a balance between justice and reconciliation.
“Rwanda has rebuilt itself much more successfully than anyone could have imagined in the immediate aftermath,” he said. “A year afterwards, nobody expected anything more of Rwanda except continued violence, collapse and breakdown.”
Under the government of President Paul Kagame, former commander of the rebel force that ended the 1994 genocide, the country has had success in reducing poverty and fostering reconciliation, Gourevitch said.
Infant mortality has plunged, for example. And, after the public executions of a couple dozen perpetrators in 1998, Rwanda abolished the death penalty.
Gourevitch said that leaders realized to execute hundreds of thousands of people for their role in the genocide would result in a reverse massacre, thus perpetrating the bloodshed.
Perpetrators and survivors now must live next door to one another. The government has outlawed revenge killings and promised to protect perpetrators who returned to their communities.
That does not mean that Rwandans lost their desire for vengeance, Gourevitch said.
“For a lot of people, it’s a torment,” he said.
“It’s fragile – those wounds don’t just heal and go away – but it’s gotten very much further than anyone expected,” he said of Rwanda’s recovery.
In a piece published in this week’s New Yorker magazine, Gourevitch told of an early April memorial ceremony in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. As a survivor named Fidel recounted his story of the 100-day massacre, members of the audience began to wail in grief.
“All around the stadium, all around the city, all around the country hung misty-gray banners displaying the word kwibuka – ‘remember,’” Gourevitch wrote. “The lacerating voices in the stadium make the banners seem almost cruel. Is it really healing to keep reopening a wound?”
Many regard Gourevitch as the leading western journalist to cover the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, in which members of the Hutu majority ethnic group targeted and killed Tutsi people and their supporters.
Beginning in 1995, he spent months at a time in central Africa, visiting remote villages and regional towns as well as the capital. He interviewed Tutsi survivors, Hutu perpetrators and leaders of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebel army led by Kagame. He interviewed the hotelier, Paul Rusesabagina, whose story became the subject of the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
The New Yorker ran eight of Gourevitch’s lengthy articles during this period.
In 2009, after an absence of nine years, Gourevitch began revisiting Rwanda. He said he never imagined in 1995 that he would spend so much of his career covering Rwanda.
It’s a story that continues to reverberate, Gourevitch said.
“We’re starting to recognize it as one of the defining events of the last century – of all time.”
Kalisa and Ari Kohen, a UNL political scientist who focuses on human rights, said Gourevitch offers important perspectives for UNL students and faculty.
Kohen said he uses Gourevitch’s 1998 book in one of his undergraduate classes.
“It’s an incredibly powerful book and it provides students who don’t know very much about Rwanda with a striking account that blends interviews with history,” Kohen said.
“He is one of the most important and skillful writers on the Rwandan genocide,” she said. “That is why I am happy to get him here.”
Gourevitch’s appearance is presented by the Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Co-sponsors are the UNL College of Arts and Sciences; Harris Center for Judaic Studies; Prairie Schooner; Institute for Ethnic Studies; the Departments of Political Science, Modern Languages, English, Sociology, History and Anthropology; the College of Education and Human Sciences; and Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education program.