Award winning journalist discusses post genocide Rwanda at University of Nebraska
Story by Carl Mejstrik, NewsNetNebraska
Video by Evan Reeder and Julia Peterson, NewsNetNebraska
For five years, Chantal Kalisa worked to bring award-winning journalist Philip Gourevitch to Lincoln to speak about his experiences in genocide-torn Rwanda. On Thursday, she finally succeeded.
Gourevitch is a longtime staff writer for the New Yorker. He’s known for his ongoing coverage of the ethnic war between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda. Gourevitch wrote the 1998 non-fiction book “We Wish To Inform You Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families,” an account of the victims and survivors of genocide in Rwanda.
Kalisa, an associate professor of French at UNL, was born in Rwanda. She had family members die during the mass killings. Kalisa was studying in the U.S. at the time.
She began contacting Gourevitch five years ago to have him come speak at UNL. This week, she was able to get him to speak on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide at UNL’s Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center.
“He spends lots of time researching and fact checking,” Kalisa said. “Because of his book in 1998, there is real testimony from people who were there and dealt with genocide.”
Before introducing Gourevitch to an audience of more than 90, Kalisa requested a moment of silence in respect to all of the victims that have suffered in Rwanda.
A Brief History
Gourevitch began by explaining the massive slaughter of Tutsis tribal members by Hutus tribal members in 1994. From April 7th to mid-July of that year, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Rwandans were killed.
The national government at the time was composed primarily of Hutus who began the onslaught along with the Rwandan Army. Using identification cards, the army and local Hutu militias picked out and killed Tutsis. The Hutu-led Rwandan army was eventually defeated by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front and a new government was established
“It was the most systematic form of genocide. The speed, intimacy and intensity takes ones breath away,” Gourevitch said. “These killings were primarily by neighbors and largely by hand.
“We Wish To Inform You Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families” primarily examines life after the genocide from victims returning to villages from refugee camps to those involved with the killings returning, being imprisoned and eventually pardoned.
The aftermath of the genocide plunged Rwanda, already one of the world’s poorest countries, into deeper poverty and chaos. Jails built for 3,000 prisoners were housing more than 13,000 Hutus awaiting trial for their crimes according to Gourevitch.
“There was a bureaucracy established within the prisons. If you were a mayor outside the prison, you were a mayor inside the prison,” Gourevitch said.
Trials developed slowly and often went nowhere because the perpetrators denied having anything to do with ethnic cleansing.
“Everyone denied they were involved with genocide, everyone denied everything,” Gourevitch said. “I’ve heard people stand in court and make ‘dog ate my homework’ type excuses about genocide.”
Those Hutus convicted of crimes were sent to jail, but were eventually released to live among the same Tutsis they once had a hand in killing.
A Slow Build
Since 1997, Rwanda has slowly developed a more balanced government and seen progress in a number of areas, notably a reduced extreme poverty rate, according to Gourevitch. In interviews, Gourevitch has spoken with Tutsis and Hutus who share a bed together in a college dorm room.
“It’s a more peaceful existence than I ever thought was possible,” Gourevitch said.
While he hopes that the peace continues, Gourevitch is uncertain Rwanda’s future.
“They’re still poor and they’re uncertain in every single way,” he said.
After about an hour, Gourevitch allowed time for a question and answer session with the audience. Some members of the audience were from Rwanda and a few had visited Rwanda before, although many were students or staff.
Daniel Heupel, a sophomore at UNL, attended for a class project on race relations and had already heard presentations about the Rwandan genocide. He said he was impressed with Gourevitch.
“I hear the same type of story in most presentations like this, but he had more in depth and personal stories,” Heupel said. “It makes you feel like you can kind of relate.”
Kalisa walked away from the presentation pleased. Earlier in the day she brought Gourevitch to a high school to talk to students. Kalisa was impressed with the knowledge and curiosity expressed by the students.
“It was nice to hear such good questions from people who were not even born at the time this happened,” Kalisa said.