In this remarkable book, Marie Béatrice Umutesi recounts what she saw and experienced in Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide, and as a refugee in Zaire after the genocide. With its intense local level perspective, her study provides fresh insights into the Rwanda genocide and its antecedents, the massacre of Rwandan refugees during the war in Zaire of the mid-1990s, and the utter failure of the international media to understand what was happening there on the ground. Eschewing extremism of all sides, Umutesi records the experiences of ordinary people buffeted by violent events and broader political dynamics they could not control. She is a perspicacious observer—astute, courageous, engaged, and compassionate. One of the remarkable features of this narrative, however, is how little Umutesi appears in this text; it is about her experiences, to be sure, but not about “her.” It is as a testimonial to the times and the human experiences of those times that this tale has such force.
The initial chapters of Surviving the Slaughter recount Umutesi's experiences as a student in the 1970s and mid-1980s and (having completed her university education) as a young adult managing rural development programs. Ethnic distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi held litde importance for Umutesi and her friends while she was growing up. Instead, as a Hutu from the north, she found that regional tensions among Hutu were important during the 1980s, under the Second Republic of Juvenal Habyarimana, when she witnessed regionalism in high school and college in Rwanda. Only later, when studying in Belgium, did ethnic distinctions and discrimination between Hutu and Tutsi come into play. The examples she describes show both the contingent nature of ethnic categorization and identities in Rwanda, and the importance of politics in shaping their salience.