There had been ethnic massacres in Rwanda before, but nothing on the scale of the genocide that began in April 1994. The killing had been over for nearly a year when a young American reporter, Philip Gourevitch, set foot in Rwanda for the first time the following May. The bodies of the dead were reverting to bone but memories were still raw. Gourevitch wrote of accidentally crushing a skull beneath his foot, so thick were the dead at a massacre site, and of the eerie emptiness of a country where so many had died so violently and so recently. In his first dispatch from Rwanda for The New Yorker, seven months after arriving, he wrote, “It almost seemed as if, with the machete, the nail-studded club, a few well-placed grenades, and a few bursts of automatic rifle fire, the quiet orders of Hutu Power had made the neutron bomb obsolete.”
Over three years, Gourevitch spent months at a time in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, committing himself more wholly to the story of the genocide’s aftermath than perhaps any other foreign journalist. The New Yorker ran eight of his lengthy articles during this period as he travelled tirelessly across Rwanda, to remote villages and regional towns as well as the capital. He met ordinary Tutsi survivors, imprisoned Hutu perpetrators, and the leaders of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, the rebel army that had ended the genocide and taken control of the country. Gourevitch developed enduring contacts within the upper echelons of the RPF. He often interviewed Major General Paul Kagame, the head of the army, who would, years later, become president.
From his first New Yorker article about Rwanda, Gourevitch portrayed Kagame as calm, intelligent, thoughtful, and questioning—a man who, having stopped a great evil, was working against immense odds and in difficult circumstances to fix his broken country. That portrayal has remained fixed over the years. In his most recent Rwanda article, in May 2009, Gourevitch wrote, “Kagame led the rebel force that stopped the genocide. He has presided over Rwanda’s destiny ever since, and he has come to be recognized, by his adversaries and his admirers alike, as one of the most formidable political figures of our age.” Gourevitch went on to list Kagame’s achievements in creating “one of the safest and the most orderly countries in Africa”: per capita GDP has multiplied, national health insurance and free primary education are available to all, tourism is growing, the capital is clean (plastic bags are banned), Internet and cell phones reach across the country, drivers wear seatbelts, civil servants arrive at work on time, there is construction, rule of law, and justice.
Gourevitch’s early articles formed the basis of a book that won a clutch of awards and became a best seller. The compassion and clarity of writing, the attention to detail and in-depth interviews, and the freshness of his outsider’s eye meant that after it was published in 1998, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda became required reading for anyone interested in Rwanda, Africa, genocide, or journalism. He defined an image of Rwanda and Kagame that has held firm for more than a decade.
The rebirth of a nation from the ashes of genocide, of course, was a beguiling tale and Gourevitch is far from the only journalist to have been won over by it. “There has been a tendency in the media in North America and in the U. K. to treat Kagame with kid gloves,” says David Anderson, professor of African politics at the University of Oxford. “A trope has emerged that sees Kagame and Rwanda as ‘the good guys,’ so that is how it is covered.” That has continued. In 2007, for example, Fortune published an article titled “Why CEOs Love Rwanda.” In 2009, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria described Rwanda as “the biggest success story out of the continent” and “a poster child for success.” That year Kagame made the “Time 100” list of the world’s most influential people, and in the accompanying hagiography Kagame was described as “the face of emerging African leadership” by the influential evangelist Rick Warren, a member of an international fan club that includes Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and the heads of Starbucks and Google.
Gourevitch’s writing “was extremely influential in helping Kagame establish a degree of international traction,” says Anderson. “It gave Kagame a credibility and a profile, portraying him as a force for good.”