Forced to endure a long plane ride in a cramped seat yesterday, I decided to finally read one of the books that had taken up dusty residence on by bedside table: We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by journalist Phillip Gourevitch. It was recommended to me by a good friend, but I had long been afraid to open its pages.
Turns out that I was right to be afraid. Gourevitch's exhaustively researched and beautifully written account of the Rwandan genocide of at least 800,000 people was devastating. To imagine that most of the world stood by as Tutsis were slaughtered, raped, and maimed made my conviction that people are essentially good and empathic seem dangerously naïve.
But what was even more devastating, as I flipped page after page, read justification after justification for a policy of non-intervention on the part of the U.S. government and others, was how much the words resonate with contemporary times. Gourevitch writes about the betrayal he feels when recalling the post-Holocaust slogan "Never again!" as he hears the stories of orphaned babies being discovered under the dead bodies of their own mothers and fathers.
Never again, again?
The situation in Darfur has reached genocidal proportions. Two and half million people have been chased from their homes and now fight off starvation, disease, and rape in refugee camps and at least 400,000 have been killed.
As much as I respect Gourevitch's writing, I don't want a book like his to ever be written again--a book that details exactly how the world's good people turned their backs mercilessly on a people that needed them. President Bush offered no plan for helping those in Darfur in his recent state of the union address and news of the genocide continues to dwindle in mainstream news.
We must take it upon ourselves to write and call our government officials and demand that a substantial UN peacekeeping force be dispatched, that the African Union peacekeeping force that is already there be strengthened, and that humanitarian aid--food, medicine, shelter--be delivered.
Books neglected on the bedside table are a matter of "when I get around to it." Endangered people neglected means blood on all of our hands.
Near the closing of Gourevitch's book he reports that both Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton eventually publicly admitted their grave mistake of ignoring the dying Tutsis in Rwanda. Hind sight, of course, is 20/20. Lives can not be reclaimed. And for those who survived--the hunters and the hunted--souls can rarely be reconstituted after such horror. We need to see, to act, now.
Courtney E. Martin is a writer, filmmaker, and teacher living in Brooklyn. Her book--Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body--will be published on Simon & Schuster's Free Press in April.