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The horrors of looking away from Rwanda

WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES: Stories from Rwanda By Philip Gourevitch Farrar, Straus & Giroux 384 pp., $25+

It seems a confusing age, this post-cold-war era, punctuated as it is by events too upsetting to contemplate. Consider the massacres in Rwanda in 1994 that killed approximately 1 million people, perhaps more.

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I suppose many people are like me. I read and saw a little bit about this tragedy and then tuned out. I am interested in what goes on in the world, but when confronted with suffering and violence that seem senseless and inexplicable, I move on. I can't grapple with what I can't fathom.

So I am grateful to Philip Gourevitch for his book on Rwanda. Its lengthy title is drawn from a letter written by Protestant pastors to their superior: "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families." They were.

Gourevitch writes for The New Yorker, and parts of his book initially appeared in that magazine. Last week, "We Wish to Inform You" was chosen as a finalist in general nonfiction for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. The winners will be announced in a ceremony in New York on March 8.

This work is not evanescent journalism. It is a book that reminds us that the cost of self-sanctioned ignorance - your ignorance, my ignorance - is that terrible things will keep happening.

The Rwandan massacres, in Gourevitch's telling, are not obscure tribal bloodlettings, as journalists with much shorter deadlines sometimes portrayed them. He writes: "The next time you hear a story like the one that ran on the front page of The New York Times in October of 1997, reporting on 'the age-old animosity between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups,' remember that until ... 1959 there had never been systematic political violence recorded between Hutus and Tutsis anywhere."

Instead, he demonstrates that the killings were the product of an orchestrated political campaign by extremists within the Hutu majority, a movement that built on divisions initially exploited by European colonizers.

Add to the mix economic collapse, readily available arms, political instability, and populations cowed by a rigidly hierarchical society, and you have "an excellent recipe for a culture of genocide."

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The Western world is complicit, too, through its indifference and its willingness to sell arms to killers.

After a Tutsi force based in neighboring Uganda invaded in the summer of 1994, Hutus fled Rwanda for Burundi, Tanzania, and what was then Zaire, where humanitarian and international organizations established huge refugee camps.

Here the United Nations failed - echoing a similar lapse in Cambodia a few years earlier - to disarm the people it wanted to help, thereby abetting murderers and setting the stage for more violence. The mid-1990s was a dark hour for many of the organizations and nations that claim to be in a position to help Africa.

Gourevitch relates this arduous story with eloquence. His book is not a staid chronology but a compendium of personal experiences. There are grim parts, to be sure, but also accounts of genuine heroism. Above all, there is illumination.

"We Wish to Inform You" is not, in the journalistic sense, a balanced book. Gourevitch could have done more to help us understand the Hutus and their side of this awful story, but his anger at their genocidal campaign prevents a more evenhanded approach. But I can forgive him that.

Perhaps Philip Gourevitch will go now to Sierra Leone. Or the Balkans. Or anywhere where barbaric inhumanities are ascribed to religious or ethnic difference or to "age-old animosity."

* Cameron W. Barr is a Monitor correspondent in Tokyo.

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