1998; 356 pp. $25. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 19 Union Square West, New York, NY 10003. 212/741.6900 , www.fsbassociates.com.
Rwanda was the scene of a low-tech genocide of horrendous proportions in which, during 100 days between April and July 1994, 800,000 people were slaughtered by their neighbors. Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker, writes a compelling account?based mainly on personal interviews?about how this tragedy happened and what its aftermath is like for those who survived it.
Gourevitch explodes the myth that the conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi of Rwanda was the result of "ancient tribal hatreds." He recounts how during Rwanda's colonial period the two groups' identities were constructed by Belgian administrators who applied racist eugenics theories to the indigenous population. He also describes how the genocide itself was carefully planned by a group of extremists within the Habyarimana government who conceived and led the "Hutu Power" movement.
He is highly critical of the failure of the United Nations, and especially of the United States, to respond to calls to intervene militarily to suppress the genocide once it had begun. Major General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the UNAMIR force in Kigali, sent a cable in January 1994 to UN headquarters in New York giving a detailed description of the plan for the genocide. But the cable was ignored, and once the genocide began, instead of sending reinforcements as Dallaire had requested, the orders came from New York to withdraw, giving a green light to the genocidaires.
But historical analysis apportioning blame and praise is not Gourevitch's forte; his real gift lies in making ghastliness real in personal terms. His lucid prose allows us to fix our gaze on unfathomable atrocities long enough to hope to understand them.