Gourevitch recounts Rwandan horror

REPORTING/A witness to genocide wrestles with the moral questions it raises

“We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998) has to be one of the strangest, most repellent and at the same time revelatory book titles ever to appear on the nonfiction best-seller list. The subtitle, “Tales from Rwanda,” sets the place, but the question its author, New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, asks has universal application: How do people make choices in the midst of horror?

Gourevitch was at Kelly Writers House on Feb. 18 for an evening of (mostly) reading and (a little) conversation. Paul Hendrickson, who teaches nonfiction writing at Penn, introduced him to the overflow crowd of young writers as a “moral documentarian whose spare, lyric and savagely ironic prose made his book a classic of the journalism of moral witness.”

“Genocide,” Gourevitch has said, “was the compass point from which every substantive conversation in Rwanda needled.” In his readings from the book, interspersed with extended asides and frequent paraphrasing, Gourevitch returned again and again to the question, “How do we think about who is right and who is wrong?”

In one extended passage Gourevitch recounted a dinner in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, with two international aid workers who had been present at a refugee camp where thousands died in a stampede: “Was it OK to walk on the dead bodies in order to pull the living out of the pile?” they asked over and over. “I don’t know” was the repeated answer.

Gourevitch explained that what drew him to Rwanda one year after the killings was the way a bizarre balance had crept into reporting on the massacre and its aftermath. “Because victims on both sides suffer equally,” he said, “it is believed that their positions are equal. Is it really that simple?”

The stories of ethnic cleansing have become generic massacre stories. “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic,” Gourevitch said, quoting Stalin. To Gourevitch, “Genocide—wanting a whole people dead—the idea itself is the crime.”

Since his remarkable debut, Gourevitch has published “A Cold Case,” a character study of a murderer and the cop who pursues him. In 2004, he has been following the Democrats on the campaign trail. In his introduction Hendrickson called the campaign “another form of madness.” Gourevitch, fresh off the plane from Wisconsin, said, “I might call it another kind of massacre.” Readers of The New Yorker will have to wait for the March 1 issue to find out what he meant.

Originally published on February 26, 2004