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‘Genocide has an order’

To chronicle human abuse, one must keep returning. Antara Das writes.

books Updated: Jan 22, 2012 19:23 IST

Philip Gourevitch, writer and journalist with The New Yorker, is often casually referred to as a ‘war journalist’. In his own words, though, he “writes about aftermaths”. The most powerful account of that ‘aftermath reportage’ was Gourevitch’s 1998 book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. Those stories, which described the emotional and political landscape after the 1994 genocide when 800,000 people (mostly Tutsis) were massacred by Hutus, that Gourevitch thinks ought to make the process of “looking away”, of “avoiding reckoning” that much difficult.

But Gourevitch isn’t done with Rwanda. He is working on another book based there. It is not an easy task, revisiting a scene of such enormous violence and anger. “But the only way is to go back,” he says. “It is not the story of horror over and over again,” he says. “It [going back] takes a lot out, but it gives a lot in as well. The changing story remains relentlessly interesting.”

That story of a search for normality is what underpins his recent story for The New Yorker about Hutus and Tutsis being part of a single cycling team “trying to outrun the past”. “The mentality of sports is the same as the mentality to rebuild a country,” he says.

The problem with reporting on genocide, or any form of abuse, is that journalists tend to use terms like “unthinkable” or “unspeakable” while trying to convey the magnitude of a particular tragedy. “But if you think of the literal meaning, these are actually release words that lets people off the hook,” he says. It makes people ignore the fact that a genocide is an “order”, it has a “structure”, and is part of a “policy”.