Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld
Picador, 2006 (originally published in 2003)
Nonfiction; 253 pgs
Rating: (Very Good)
First Sentence: In April the nocturnal rains often leave in their wake black clouds that mask the first rays of the sun.
Reason for Reading: Machete Season came recommended by a friend a little over a year ago. It was described to me as a disturbing book, but one well worth reading. It is my second selection for the Nonfiction Five Challenge.
Comments: In the spring of 1994, approximately 800,000 Tutsi people were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors in Rwanda. The massacres came on the heels of the assassination of President Habyarimana. The killings lasted for about 100 days. Despite initial excuses that the uprising was the result of anger and blame, it is believed that the genocide of the Tutsi people by the Hutu had been in the planning for quite some time.
The seeds for prejudice and hate were long ago sowed against the Tutsi people. Propaganda played a large part in that as the radio and government perpetuated negative images and stereotypes of the targeted ethnic group. In the years before the genocide movement, property and land had been stolen from a select few of the Tutsi people, and small massacres had already been carried out. When no one protested or spoke out against the perpetrators of these crimes, it gave them further confidence as well as bolstered the confidence of those who would later take part in the massacre the spring of 1994.
Jean Hatzfeld, the author of Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide—The Survivors Speak, had no intention of writing a book about the Hutu killers. His only interest was in telling the story of the survivors of the genocide and letting them share their story. As time went on, however, he wondered, along with many of his earlier readers, if perhaps it would be possible to get the killers’ version of events, and so he set out to do just that.
In choosing his subjects, the author took special care. He knew that focusing on individuals would too easily be opened to lying, however, by taking a group of people who were a part of the same gang, killing together and looting side by side, he would have a better chance. In this way, the accounts could be compared and the interviewers were more likely to speak the truth knowing their colleagues could say anything at all about them. Each man was interviewed individually, the questions not given out in advance to avoid conversations and preparation by the killers in what to say.
Jean Hatzfeld interviewed various individuals, focusing on ten Hutu men, all of who were in the same gang with the exception of one, Joseph-Désiré Bitero, who was facing death for his crimes, which included genocide, crimes against humanity with premeditation. Joseph-Désiré had been a political leader and organizer during the genocide. All were from the village of Nyamata, which is where all of the interviewed men participated in the killings of Tutsi women, men and children.
After the assassination of the president, the military and political officials mobilized the civilians for the murder of their Tutsi neighbors. In no time at all, the men were organized, being told to grab their machetes or whatever other weapon was handy, and then sent out to kill any Tutsi they encountered. The Hutu were the hunters and the Tutsi the prey.
The author points out that the term “genocide” has become overused and misrepresented in recent years. Genocide is the complete annihilation of an entire ethnic group, and it is not uncommon for women and children in particular to be targeted because they are considered to be the future. In the case of Rwanda, the move by the Hutu to kill the Tutsi was clearly an effort to wipe out an entire ethnic group. While the word genocide was not spoken, it was a known fact that that was the intention by those who participated in the killings.
It is interesting to note that none of the Hutu men interviewed had had any real disagreements with their Tutsi neighbors. In fact, they often ate meals and drank together, worked side by side, played sports together, and sat beside each other in church. This was not the case of strangers killing strangers. They were not soldiers fighting in a war, shooting at an enemy who fought back. Of all the men interviewed, not one had anything bad to say about any of the Tutsi that they knew personally. The propaganda that had been so ingrained in them over the years was not confirmed in fact by the actions of their Tutsi neighbors, and yet there was still an underlying prejudice, perhaps in part borne in jealousy or greed.
The killings were not altogether voluntary. The Hutu who hid a Tutsi family or was married to a Tutsi might pay with his or her life, but more often than not the price of refusing to participate was ridicule by peers and fines that grew heftier with each refusal. There were those who bought their way out of participating by paying hefty fines; these men were usually the wealthy. Those who could not pay the price or were too infirm or old, sent a son or other male relative in their place. Sometimes the women picked up the machete, although in general the women’s role was pillaging, looting the houses and property and stealing directly from the dead.
Jean Hatzfeld at one point in the book describes the differences in reaction to the interviews by the survivors and the killers. While the survivors are more emotional, their stories raw and vivid, the killers told their story in a more controlled manner, with hardly any expression or emotion, and their words were chosen with care.
The statements made by the Hutu killers are at times difficult to read. I was most disturbed when the killing involved children and infants, although all of it was horrific. Although there is a glimpse at the motives and reasons behind the killings, I did not come away from this book with a better understanding as to why civilians like the farmers interviewed would so easily and readily slaughter their neighbors. Perhaps that is not possible at all. One of the killers said that he knew it was difficult to judge them (the killers) “because what we did goes beyond human imagination.”
The interviewed killers seemed unaware of the extent of their crimes. They had no real understanding or insight into just how terrible their crimes really were and how much of an impact their actions had on their victims and the survivors. This becomes especially clear as they talk about their own remorse and regret as well as the hope for forgiveness, which most of them believe will be the path for forgetting the past by both themselves and the survivors.
I have written a lot here, but in truth this is just the tip of the iceberg, more of a general overview. Jean Hatzfeld’s interviews with the killers, observers, and survivors paint a very real and ugly picture of a true-life event. This was not the first time in history neighbors turned against neighbors because of their ethnicity or some similar reason nor will it likely be the last. The genocide in Rwanda is eerily similar to the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews and gypsies in Europe.
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak is disturbing in content. Jean Hatzfeld anticipates readers’ questions and does a good job of answering them throughout the book. The author certainly gives the reader food for thought. Susan Sontag said it best in the preface of the book, “To make the effort to understand what happened in Rwanda is a painful task that we have no right to shirk—it is part of being a moral adult. Everyone should read Hatzfeld’s book.”
Note about the Author: A brief biography of the author can be found here.
Miscellaneous: My darling and very patient husband got an earful as I read this book. I often discuss the books I read with him, testing my theories and thoughts on him either as I read or when I complete the book. He never seems to mind, fortunately.
I made the mistake of reading this one well into the night before I settled into sleep. My dreams were haunted by images and thoughts of the events in Rwanda during that terrible spring of 1994.