As NATO attacks on Serbia continue, words like “genocide” and “Rwanda” are popping up with increasing frequency. At best, it’s unclear whether such comparisons are justified, but two recent volumes born out of the killing fields of Africa may help us decide. Philip Gourevitch’s starkly titled We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda was published last year and offers a first-hand glimpse of the tiny central African nation and its people while passionately arguing that the 1994 genocide there could have been prevented by the international community. Meanwhile, The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness, published this year by Nigerian Nobel-laureate Wole Soyinka, ponders with great depth and intelligence how Africa and the world can possibly respond to such tragedies.

To be honest, Gourevitch’s book doesn’t sound inviting. What book about genocide could? And its title alone suggests a kind of vicious, heart-stopping sadness that many of us would prefer to turn away from. Which may, in fact, be the point. Either way, Gourevitch’s writing won’t let you turn away. He tells the story of the Rwandan genocide in a prose so wonderfully crafted and infused with anger and insight as to be nearly hypnotic. From the opening pages, the young reporter confronts his own very mixed emotions as he tours a schoolhouse where decomposed cadavers, piled two and three high, carpet the floors of several rooms.

“I had never been among the dead before,” he writes. “What to do? “Look? Yes. I wanted to see them, I suppose; I had come to see them … Yet looking at the buildings and the bodies, and hearing the silence of the place, with the grand Italianate basilica standing there deserted, and beds of exquisite, decadent, death-fertilized flowers blooming over the corpses it was still strangely unimaginable. I mean one still had to imagine it.”

This is precisely what Gourevitch so brilliantly accomplishes in We Wish to Inform You: allowing us to imagine, with uncomfortable immediacy, such unimaginable inhumanity. It took 100 days in 1994 for ruling Hutus to slaughter 800,000 of their Tutsi countrymen. But such a statistic only cracks open the door to a world where the victims were killed not by gas or ovens but with swinging machetes; where preachers presided over the killing of their parishes, husbands over the killing of their wives; where the French army intervened in favor of the killers and the U.S. government didn’t intervene at all; and where the United Nations peacekeepers, before abandoning the country altogether, fired their weapons only to stop dogs from eating the corpses. Apparently, international concern was focused more on disease than genocide.

Through a myriad of interviews—with unflagging energy he talks to survivors, killers, politicians and generals—Gourevitch helps bring a dose of understanding and even, improbably, hope to the madness. He is at his most interesting, though, when speculating on the fate of Rwandan society. In a remarkable bit of analysis, he suggests that the very fact of Rwandan culture that helped usher in the killing—Rwandans’ tendency to do as they are told—may, in fact, help restore calm. How else can the government integrate so many killers back into society except to order that it be so?

It is an imperfect solution to be sure and one that leaves open the question of justice. “To err is human, to forgive, African,” Soyinka quotes in the introduction to The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness. He then asks the provocative but sincere question: “Is a continent’s humanity of such bottomless reserves that it can truly accommodate the latter?” In three dense chapters originally delivered as a lecture series at Harvard in April 1997, he eloquently lingers on the moral puzzle of forgiveness. For instance, did South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so heroically chaired by Desmond Tutu, adequately address the very human need for closure and retribution? On the one hand, such an openhearted response to violence (not just in South Africa and Rwanda but across the continent) may survive “as an enduring critique of Europe’s soullessness.” On the other hand, there sits the irritating reality that truth alone does not always set us free.

Soyinka argues that truth only establishes the need for some other kind of response, and forgiveness, in the way that it reveres memory while simultaneously asking us to step outside its bounds, “is a feat that is possible only for a poet and priest.” In other words, not a government. Soyinka is content (if that is the right word) for us to think twice before employing knee-jerk comparisons between one people’s suffering and another’s: Kosovars and Tutsis and Jews, for instance. He instead points to the words of the African-American W. E. B. Du Bois: “We often forget that each unit in the mass is a throbbing human soul … it loves and hates, it toils and tires, it laughs and weeps in bitter tears, and looks in vague and awful longing at the grim horizons of its life.”

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories From Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (Farrar Straus Giroux, 353 pages);The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness by Wole Soyinka (Oxford University, 208 pages)
Icon (Iowa City), April 1999