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Fifteen Years After The Genocide, Rwandans Struggle To Heal National Wounds

May 4, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Author Philip Gourevitch discusses his piece in the New Yorker reflecting on the state of Rwanda 15 years after genocide ravaged the country.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Rwanda, 15 years after the killings, and to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over the course of a few months, some 100 days in 1994, the African nation of Rwanda descended into a scene of mass tribal killing and became the modern embodiment of genocide. When it was over, nearly a million members of the Tutsi community had been slaughtered, often by their neighbors, members of the Hutu majority.

Shortly after the killing ended, journalist Philip Gourevitch began traveling to Rwanda to interview survivors and perpetrators. His award-winning book on the subject, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families,” was published in 1998.

He returned recently and, in an article in the New Yorker magazine, wrote about the remarkable changes he found. Philip Gourevitch, whose latest book is “The Ballad of Abu Ghraib,” joins me now.

Well, Philip, when you first went after the slaughter and amid fear that it would resume, you wrote that Rwanda felt like, quote, “an impossible country.” Remind us, first, of the situation back then.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH, editor, The Paris Review: Well, in addition to the million dead, you had 1.5 million to 2 million people who had fled the country, mostly perpetrators of the slaughter and their followers, and were living on the borders, threatening to come home and complete the massacres and the extermination.

You had hundreds of thousands displaced internally. The economy had been trashed, the banks emptied, the infrastructure of the company looted and pillaged down to the smallest detail.

And you had a new government in place that was a former rebel movement, led by now-President Paul Kagame, that was having to improvise in a situation of utter destruction and trying to pull together a country that threatened at all times to be consumed again by violence.

Rwanda 'safe and orderly'

JEFFREY BROWN: So now you've gone back and you find what you write as "one of the safest and most orderly countries in Africa." Tell us what you saw. What are some anecdotes that you saw that showed the changes?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well, the population has grown a great deal. Almost all of the Rwandans who had been living in exile are now living inside the country. And they're living -- the city of Kigali has been largely rebuilt, but out in the countryside, too, fields that lay fallow and gone back to bush have been re-cultivated, and there's a lot of new construction everywhere.

The roads are very well paved. You also see things like plastic bags have been outlawed. Seat belt laws and helmet laws for motorcycles are strictly enforced. The traffic cops are almost as ubiquitous now as military roadblocks were when I first visited the country.

And you see -- I suppose there's something that I really was struck by, which you wouldn't notice if you hadn't been there before, which is that the place feels very normal at times.

There's a kind of ease about people as they go about, where before there was a kind of spooked and slightly jittery and very heavy air about the place. And now you feel that what's really on people's minds is the possibility of a future and the possibility of economic development, which before just seemed very farfetched.

Victims, perpetrators side by side

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, the most remarkable part of all this is that now you have a situation where you have, as you write, hundreds of thousands of people who perpetrated crimes living intermingled with the families of their victims. So how has that happened? How has that been able to occur?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: This was always the most striking aspect and challenge of post-genocide Rwanda, is that there's no economic -- I'm sorry, there's no geographic distinction between where Hutus and Tutsis live, perpetrators and survivors. They lived all next door to one another.

And hundreds of thousands were thrown in jail in the first few years after the slaughter. And then the question arose how to adjudicate these cases. And true strict case, Perry Mason-sort of justice was going to be impossible.

What became the solution that the government came up with, with the sort of understanding that it was imperfect, were village courts based on a traditional model, where in each little community where the crime took place, the accused would be brought before the community.

And the members of the community -- who knew what had happened, but had had never talked to one another about it, never accused in public, had lived with the fear of one another ever since -- would be essentially obliged to confront each other and talk it out and hash it out.

The accused were encouraged to confess and acknowledge and describe what had happened in reward for reduced sentences, although there were a lot of cases of acquittals, as well.

And after debugging the system -- and particularly making sure that there wasn't too much intimidation going on -- they adjudicated over a million cases in the last year-and-a-half, in something like 12,000 of these village courts, with the result that -- for instance, I drove back to a small village just not so far from the capital, where 12 years ago I'd met a man who had admitted to me that he had killed a number of people at the roadblock in the neighborhood. And the survivors around there told me that he'd killed many more, including their family members.

Now I went back and he said, "Oh, yes, I went through the" -- gacaca is the name of this process -- "my trial. I confessed. I spent 12 years in jail, and then I confessed, and now everything's fine. I go about my business. People understand that I've told the truth."

Well, the survivors had a more complex story. They were quite troubled by the idea that this killer is somebody that they now have to see every day and their family members they'll never see again, that this killer has his life and his family and his field and they do not.

And yet, as they spoke, you started to get a sense that something about the fact that this acknowledgment and accounting had taken place made it more possible for them even as, as they put it, it remained emotionally incomprehensible.

Full justice is not possible

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, there was a woman you quoted in that situation, a family member of a victim who, when you asked her about this need to coexist, she said, "I do it every day, and I still can't comprehend it."

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Yes, I think that's really -- and that's really the challenge. I mean, President Kagame, when I quoted that line to him, and he said, "There, you see, that's the problem we live within this whole country."

And he's very utilitarian, very pragmatic about his approach to this. And his feeling is, "We'll never make the survivors happy. We'll never have full justice, but we can't simply punish the perpetrators indefinitely. We need them as part of the society, and we need to recycle them as members of society and make them good, where the previous leadership made them bad." And that's the extraordinary challenge. And the...

JEFFREY BROWN: So let me -- oh, I'm sorry, go ahead.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: I was going to say, and the thing that they've succeeded so far, even with so much left to do, far beyond what most people would have expected.

An encouraging but fragile peace

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, let me ask you, finally, looking ahead, because the question that hovers around all of this is, could it happen again?


JEFFREY BROWN: What did you find -- what did you find from talking to people?

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: Well, when I asked the killer this and so forth, he said, of course, right away, "Oh, no, we've learned the lessons of that. I would never kill if the government told me to."

But, of course, it's a different government, and he also told me that he took great pleasure in killing when he was allowed to by the government. So that wasn't so reassuring.

The survivors all told me of course it could happen again, if we had a different leadership, and they told them to, and we didn't have the security.

The government says there's one really deep root cause behind all of this, and that's been the grinding poverty and want that this population has suffered and the ignorance and lack of education that goes with it and makes them susceptible to bad leadership and bad ideas.

And they're putting all their energy now into education and economic development, with a very free-market idea that's quite different from sort of the aid model of the past.

And they're really saying, "Unless we can get people to where they have a stake and they have something to lose, then we can't be sure that we've built a bulwark between us and the past, but that's our hope." And that's their project, and it's an extraordinary one to watch because so much is at stake.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rwanda, 15 years later. Philip Gourevitch, thank you very much.