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March 7, 2001

Interview With Philip Gourevitch: International Responses to Genocide in Rwanda

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JAMA. 2001;285(9):1216. doi:10.1001/jama.285.9.1216-JMS0307-6-1

The assassination of Rwandan president Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, marked the beginning of a systematic decimation of Rwanda's Tutsi population. After more than 800 000 Tutsis were killed in a 3-month period, more than 200 humanitarian organizations responded to the displacement of an overwhelmingly Hutu refugee community, including fugitive leaders of the genocidal regime.

Philip Gourevitch spent several months in Rwanda between 1995 and 1998 where, as a staff writer for The New Yorker, he had the opportunity to examine the special problems faced by medical relief workers. His subsequent book on the Rwandan genocide won numerous prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

GJ: What were your initial impressions of the killings that were taking place in 1994?

PG: I first went to Rwanda in 1995, a year after the genocide. The story had faded almost immediately from the American newspapers or press. We had been told that there had been a collapsed state, anarchy, chaos—that something unspeakable, something unthinkable, something unimaginable had taken place. The one thing I felt sure of was that the killing of 800 000 people in 100 days was not "a collapsed state." This was not anarchy or chaos, but must have required great organization and tremendous effort. Also, I didn't like these words "unthinkable, unspeakable, unimaginable." I thought, "The very least we can do is think, speak, and imagine what had taken place there."

GJ: What was it like to elicit the stories of genocide survivors?

PG: The important thing was to take one's time: talking to people and going back, never just leaving it at 1 conversation. That created a sense of familiarity and trust. Some people even sought me out because it was easier for them to talk to an outsider who would listen than to fellow Rwandans who were implicated. Other Rwandans had their own burden, their own stories, their own family dead.

GJ: How soon after entering into Rwanda did you start to get a sense of what had actually come to pass?

PG: It is a slow process getting to know things in Rwanda. Originally, I gave myself 3 months to write a single long article for The New Yorker. In 3 months, you have the advantage of not having to immediately respond in writing, not having to speak before you have listened.

The difference between what I am able to do as a journalist and the work of a diplomat or an aid worker is that I do not have to arrive with a framework of understanding. Many of the humanitarian relief organizations I encountered had made insufficient effort to inform their workers about the history of Rwanda. When I asked aid workers what their organization did to prepare them, the most common answer was "Nothing." I became concerned that the organizations did not want their people to know, but only wanted for them to serve as technicians.

GJ: How would you characterize the role of humanitarians and humanitarian aid in the refugee camps established outside Rwanda's borders?

PJ: The humanitarian aid and relief industry consists of multi-hundred million dollar organizations run by the United Nations and private nongovernmental organizations, whose business is to rush into crisis situations and dispense aid and medical relief automatically. I was quickly struck by how often the genocide was called a "humanitarian crisis." The phrase itself began to operate as a way of divorcing the political reality from the human suffering. It is like calling a sucking chest wound a respiratory problem after somebody has just been shot in the chest.

During the genocide, the United Nations and the major western powers did nothing to stop the killing of Tutsis. Afterwards, the Hutu extremist government organized the mass flight of Rwandan Hutus across the border, taking the population that had supported them during the genocide with them into exile. This network of refugee camps, containing somewhere in the vicinity of 1 to 1.5 million people, was full of military and political leaders of the genocidal regime, who were exploiting humanitarian aid with the aim of returning to Rwanda to continue the genocide. Thus, the humanitarian relief effort became a catering service for the largest genocidal movement on the planet at the time.

At that time, it was controversial to say this, because the aid agencies had a vested interest in their own moral and economic well-being and were not drawing attention to this. In attempting to divorce the political reality from the humanitarian response, a great deal of harm was done in the name of doing good.

GJ: What is the relationship between the media and some of these drives for humanitarian relief in crisis situations?

PG: Public perception stimulates both governmental policy and humanitarian response. What troubles me most is what happens when the story reaches the professional public. When the pervading response is to "just do something" there is a presumption that we will do the right thing. But in fact, as we saw in Rwanda, the world, having done nothing during the genocide, rushed into its aftermath in a manner that was often harmful, protracting the situation and exacerbating and sustaining the worst elements within it. There is no such thing as too much information in these situations. Recognizing that humanitarian action during a political crisis has political consequences is a crucial step toward preventing this sort of situation from happening again.