1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize
Winner of the George Polk Book Award
Winner of the Guardian First Book Award
Synopses & Reviews
An unforgettable firsthand account of a people's response to genocide and what it tells us about humanity.
This remarkable debut book chronicles what has happened in Rwanda and neighboring states since 1994, when the Rwandan government called on everyone in the Hutu majority to murder everyone in the Tutsi minority. Though the killing was low-tech largely by machete it was carried out at shocking speed: some 800,000 people were exterminated in a hundred days. A Tutsi pastor, in a letter to his church president, a Hutu, used the chilling phrase that gives Philip Gourevitch his title.
With keen dramatic intensity, Gourevitch frames the genesis and horror of Rwanda's "genocidal logic" in the anguish of its aftermath: the mass displacements, the temptations of revenge and the quest for justice, the impossibly crowded prisons and refugee camps. Through intimate portraits of Rwandans in all walks of life, he focuses on the psychological and political challenges of survival and on how the new leaders of postcolonial Africa went to war in the Congo when resurgent genocidal forces threatened to overrun central Africa.
Can a country composed largely of perpetrators and victims create a cohesive national society? This moving contribution to the literature of witness tells us much about the struggle everywhere to forge sane, habitable political orders, and about the stubbornness of the human spirit in a world of extremity.
"[Gourevitch's] compassionate and level-headed portrait captures the immense sadness and emptiness of a country that lost a tenth of its population in a single spasm of political violence, as well as the pervasive dread that Rwanda will likely experience such bloodshed again.
Gourevitch is particularly adept at systematically debunking the myths, widely circulated in the Western press, that shaped our early perceptions of what was happening in Rwanda: that the conflict was an age-old struggle between two distinct peoples bent on annihilating each other, and that this was merely another example albeit a somewhat amplified one of the usual 'African madness." In fact, Gourevitch writes, none of this was true. For starters, Hutus and Tutsis were sufficiently intermingled to the point that ethnographers no longer recognized them as distinct ethnic groups. In Rwanda in 1994, your identity was your politics, and the twists were many and strange; the man who coined "Hutu Power" and became one of its most rabid practitioners was born Tutsi and later acquired Hutu identity papers...." Scott Sutherland, Salon.com
"A staggeringly good book...Gourevitch's beautiful writing drives you deep into Rwanda, his brilliant reportage tells you everything that can be seen from an event beyond imagining or explaining....He drives you, in fact, right up against the limits of what a book can do." Tom Engelhardt, Philadelphia Inquirer
"[It is the] sobering voice of witness that Gourevitch has vividly captured in his work." Wole Soyinka, The New York Times Book Review
"I know of few books, fiction or non-fiction, as compelling as Philip Gourevitch's account of the Rwandan genocide....As a journalist [Gourevitch] has raised the bar on us all." Sebastian Junger
"The most important book I have read in many years...Gourevitch's book poses the preeminent question of our time: What if anything does it mean to be a human being at the end of the 20th century?...He examines [this question] with humility, anger, grief and a remarkable level of both political and moral intelligence." Susie Linfield, Los Angeles Times
"Thoughtful, beautifully written, and important...we want to pass it along to our friends, and to insist that they read it because the information it contains seems so profoundly essential." Francine Prose, Elle
"[Gourevitch] has the mind of a scholar along with the observative capacity of a good novelist, and he writes like an angel. This volume establishes him as the peer of Michael Herr, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Tobias Wolff. I think there is no limit to what we may expect from him." Robert Stone
"The most important book I have read in many years...[Gourevitch] examines [the genocidal war in Rwanda] with humility, anger, grief and a remarkable level of both political and moral intelligence." Susie Linfield, Los Angeles Times
"His compelling account should be required reading for those probing the inner workings of modern states. But the queasy and the hero-worshipers should abstain." The Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Randal
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
In April 1994, the Rwandan government called upon everyone in the Hutu majority to kill each member of the Tutsi minority, and over the next three months 800,000 Tutsis perished in the most unambiguous case of genocide since Hitler's war against the Jews. Philip Gourevitch's haunting work is an anatomy of the war in Rwanda, a vivid history of the tragedy's background, and an unforgettable account of its aftermath. One of the most acclaimed books of the year, this account will endure as a chilling document of our time.
About the Author
is a staff writer at The New Yorker
and a contributing editor to the Forward
. He has reported from Africa, Asia, and Europe for a number of magazines, including Granta
, and The New York Review of Books
. He lives in New York City.