Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak - Jean Hatzfield

Book Summary In April-May 1994, 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were massacred by their Hutu fellow citizens--about 10,000 a day, mostly being hacked to death by machete. In Machete Season, the veteran foreign correspondent Jean Hatzfeld reports on the results of his interviews with nine of the Hutu killers. They were all friends who came from a single region where they helped to kill 50,000 out of their 59,000 Tutsi neighbors, and all of them are now in prison, some awaiting execution. It is usually presumed that killers will not tell the truth about their brutal actions, but Hatzfeld elicited extraordinary testimony from these men about the genocide they had perpetrated. He rightly sees that their account raises as many questions as it answers.

Adabert, Alphonse, Ignace, and the others (most of them farmers) told Hatzfeld how the work was given to them, what they thought about it, how they did it, and what their responses were to the bloodbath. "Killing is easier than farming," one says. "I got into it, no problem," says another. Each describes what it was like the first time he killed someone, what he felt like when he killed a mother and child, how he reacted when he killed a cordial acquaintance, how 'cutting' a person with a machete differed from 'cutting' a calf or a sugarcane. And they had plenty of time to tell Hatzfeld, too, about whether and why they had reconsidered their motives, their moral responsibility, their guilt, remorse, or indifference to the crimes.

Hatzfeld's meditation on the banal, horrific testimony of the genocidaires and what it means is lucid, humane, and wise: he relates the Rwanda horror to war crimes and to other genocidal episodes in human history. Especially since the Holocaust, it has been conventional to presume that only depraved and monstrous evil incarnate could perpetrate such crimes, but it may be, he suggests, that such actions are within the realm of ordinary human conduct. To read this disturbing, enlightening and very brave book is to consider in a new light the foundation of human morality and ethics.  (From

My Review:  I’ve been fascinated with the Jewish Holocaust for as long as I can remember: with the timelines, with trying to comprehend the hows and the whys, with the absence of humanity in the history.  I had the opportunity to visit a small concentration camp in Austria, and it is one of the most singularly haunting experiences of my life.  My husband has never fully understood my need to read everything (and watch every documentary) on the subject, but he has a similar desire to understand the Rwandan Holocaust of 1994.  Although the outside world (read: Western civilization and most of Europe) didn’t know what was going on, the magnitude of that genocide is shocking – in a short few months, what the perpetuators have deemed the Machete Season, five of every six Tutsis were massacred by their neighbors.

When I saw this book on my library’s “Check it Out” shelf, I knew my husband (a true Afriphile) would be interested, and grabbed it, along with the other piles of books waiting for me.  Once I got out to the car, my poor husband was shocked when I handed him his own book to read.  He handed it back, told me to read it to see if it was worthwhile, and he’d get to it.  I was so intrigued with the concept – let’s ask the perpetrators themselves what they were thinking – that I beat him to the punch.

Hatzfield has interviewed nine men, neighbors, all Hutu, who had formed a gang during the Machete Season.  The book switches between the statements of the men, of Hatzfield’s observations and research, and of some supplemental interviews he conducted with the survivors of the marshes.  Hatzfield is very clear about the admission of “zigzags”, slight to total untruths the men told him, whether to save their own face or assuage their own guilt he was unable to determine.  He also writes of the collective mindset … when he asks “What did you (singular) do that first day?” the answer he received was one of coercion and reluctance, but if he asks “What did you (plural) do that first day?” a more realistic and vivid picture was painted.

Hatzfield asked nearly everything, from whether they saw this coming, to how their wives responded to their actions, to what on earth compelled them do to what they did.  He writes candidly of his initial disgust of the men—of anticipating to sit across from nothing but a monster—to his getting to know the men, never fully losing his distrust of them, but of being so curious that he pressed forward with the interviews.  One man, Pio, answered the question how, how they were capable of doing such things in such a poignant way, I immediately typed it out.

Not only had we become criminals, we had become a ferocious species in a barbarous world.  This truth is not believable to someone who has not lived it in his muscles.  Our daily life was unnatural and bloody, and that suited us.

For my part, I offer you an explanation:  it is as if I had let another individual take on my own living appearance, and the habits of my heart, without a single pang in my soul.  This killer was indeed me, as to the offense he committed and the blood he shed, but he is a stranger to me in his ferocity.  I admit and recognize my obedience at that time, my victims, my fault, but I fail to recognize the wickedness of the one who raced through the marshes on my legs, carrying my machete.  That wickedness seems to belong to another self with a heavy heart.  The most serious changes in my body were my invisible parts, such as the soul or the feelings that go with it.  Therefore I alone do not recognize myself in that man.  But perhaps someone outside this situation, like you, cannot have an inkling of that strangeness of mind.
                                                                                                            -Pio, page 48

This book put me through the emotional ringer.   It was horrifying in the extreme, to hear some of these men that talked so nonchalantly, so impudently of what they had done, and to hear how flippantly they expected forgiveness.  A few of the men seemed to understand that forgiveness may never be granted by the survivors in this life to them, others really didn’t care one way or another.  It ripped me apart every time I picked it up, but I was so compelled to keep reading I couldn’t put it down.   The men talked about how their hatred of the Tutsis stemmed from long held slurs, like that the Tutsi women are too delicate and weak to work, that their husbands have to be so wealthy to show off their wives’ height.  The men also fully admitted that such slurs were a joke … that working in the marshes, the Tutsi women worked just as hard and just as steadfastly as any Hutu.  Thanks to Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, nearly everyone is familiar with the references to “Tutsi cockroaches and snakes”, the dehumanizing of the race to make the genocide easier to swallow (something very backed up by these interviews), and it shocked me to see much of our own culture in the Rwanda leading up to the assassination of their president.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that Americans will ever achieve a level of hatred that fierce, that dividing, and so inflammatory, but how many times do we take the names of the “corporate suits” in vain?  They’re no longer human, they’re just “suits”.  Or the cross-party banter, from both sides: “Liberals never work, they just want everything given to them” to “Republicans just want to get rich off our sweat, they’re so greedy.”  Let’s be honest, people, neither statement is really true, but if we sink to such derogatory statements (and much, much worse), we’re dooming ourselves as assuredly as the Hutus and the Tutsis, and that realization, as a proclaimed political nut, scared me.    

Someone once said, “Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it”, and this is a chapter in the world’s recent history that many would prefer to forget.  Hatzfield has done a phenomenal job focusing an intense beam of light onto a dark, dank period of the 90s, and it makes me determined to learn from it.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This makes Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy look like Dick and Jane.  Nothing is off limits, from the massacres, the hunting, brief mentions are made of brutalizing women and husband/wife relations (although both are just mentioned).  Given the nature of the book, it is definitely violent.

Sum it Up:  A unique, sometimes disturbing, in-depth look into the minds of the perpetrators of one of the worst genocides in history.

1 comment:

Beth Hoffman said...

Wow, your review is fabulous! While this book is clearly intense and not my usual fare, you wrote something that really hit me ... "Hatzfield has done a phenomenal job focusing an intense beam of light onto a dark, dank period of the 90s, and it makes me determined to learn from it."

I'm adding this book to my list right now!


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