Inaugural Upstander Speaker Series Features New Yorker Writer Philip Gourevitch Lecture On Tragic, Complex Topic: Rwanda 20 Years Later

Philip Gourevitch
Philip Gourevitch

Rwanda is a small country of giant complexities.

Landlocked by African countries known for corruption, Rwanda is home to a deeply divided—and deeply scarred—economically poor population who, despite great tragedy, now trusts its government leaders and perseveres to build a hopeful future.

Twenty-years after the genocide that resulted in the murders of about one million people over a 100-day period between April and July of 1994, it’s almost inconceivable to realize that Rwanda’s economy is one of the healthiest in Africa, that reconciliation efforts appear to be yielding positive results, if only on the surface, and that, in some cases, forgiveness is an active part of the healing process between perpetrators and victims’ families.

For the past 20 years, Rwanda has been a topic of passion for writer Philip Gourevitch of The New Yorker magazine, who believes the country’s layers of simplicity and complexity offers lessons for all of humanity. Gourevitch was the inaugural guest of the Museum’s new Upstander Speaker Series on May 15 at SMU’s Hughes-Trigg Student Center.

“In Rwanda, there is a high ratio of people who have profound things to say about life, death and hope,” Gourevitch said. “They raise unanswerable questions that keep me coming back as a writer to explore…”

One of the world’s authorities on Rwanda, Gourevitch’s 1998 book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families: Stories from Rwanda (St. Martin’s Press, 1998) won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the George K. Polk Book Award, and many other awards and recognitions.

Young and predominantly rural, the Rwandan population lives in a densely compacted area the size of West Virginia. Rwandans are comprised of three groups: the Hutu, Tusi and Twa. The principal language is Kinyarwanda, spoken by most Rwandans, with French and English as official languages.

At the Upstander Speaker lecture, Gourevitch described how the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) launched a civil war in 1990, which was followed by the 1994 genocide, in which Hutu extremists killed an estimated 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu.

In some cases, Gourevitch said, the genocide involved neighbors who had once lived peacefully side-by-side “killing their neighbors. In this respect, the Rwandan genocide was the most intimate genocide in history.” The RPF ended the genocide with a military victory.

Civil war ensued in Rwanda until the year 2000 when all parties agreed the bloodshed should end. Since then, incredible progress has been made to rebuild the Rwandan economy, decrease poverty rates, reduce rates of child mortality and promote equality among the population through a national identity campaign, “We Are All Rwandans.”

For the past 15 years, Rwanda has actively been engaged in a period of reconciliation and justice, with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the reintroduction of Gacaca, a traditional village court system.

The post-genocide recovery process has been difficult, but limited progress has been made, Gourevitch said. Killers have confessed to victims’ families, seeking forgiveness, but trust between neighbors and groups is slow, difficult and painful, he said. Overall, reconciliation efforts remain largely at the surface level, he said.

“When I asked those who had family members murdered by perpetrators  whom the family still sees every day what they mean by forgiveness, they told me, ‘It means I won’t seek revenge.’ That’s not exactly a high bar for what we consider forgiveness to be, but it is a high bar for civil society in Rwanda.”

Gourevitch said, “People are living better together. You have to make a future that is separate from the past that looks different. You don’t forget the genocide, but you don’t have to remember it all the time.”

This negotiated accommodation between perpetrators and victims is enforced by strict government restrictions on speech, assembly and official accounts of Rwandan history, which, in essence, cumulatively strives to “keep the peace,” Gourevitch said.

Gourevitch spoke for nearly 90 minutes, his vast and intimate knowledge of one of the most difficult topics for society proving to be gripping for the 100 people in attendance.

Gourevitch was born in 1961 to philosophy professor Victor Gourevitch, who translated for Jean Jacque Rousseau, and Jacqueline Gourevitch, who was a painter. Although he was born in Philadelphia, Philip spent much of his childhood in Middletown, Connecticut with his brother Marc, a physician. A Cornell University graduate, Gourevitch earned a Masters of Fine Arts from the writing program at Columbia University in 1992.

The writer’s newest book will be published next year. The topic: Rwanda 20 years after the genocide. The title: You Hide That You Hate Me And I Hide That I Know.

 –Chris Kelley, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance

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