Words of Blood

08.24.2005 | BOOKS

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
by Jean Hatzfeld
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005
253 pages, $24.00

If Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire's Rwandan record was titled Shake Hands with the Devil, French journalist Jean Hatzfeld's new book, Machete Season, could have been called Shake Hands with the Devil's Minions.

That's what French journalist Hatzfeld does in this oral history of the Rwandan genocide from the point of view of the killers, most from the hill country of Nyamata, where they were assigned to trawl papyrus swamps for Tutsis and slaughter them on the spot.

What is it about Rwanda that lends itself to gripping accounts, like Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (Picador, 1998), Dallaire's book, and now Machete Season? Perhaps it was the neat package in which the Hutus were kind enough to present their atrocity. They got in and out fast--one hundred days--and, unlike Bosnia, you could tell the players without a scorecard.

In his quest to isolate the evil pathogen, Hatzfeld stands squarely in the estimable tradition of Austrian journalist Gitta Sereny, who became a confidant of both Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl and Albert Speer to write Into That Darkness.

Hatzfeld journeyed to Riliima penitentiary in Rwanda to interview the ten killers with their French and quasi-French names--Alphonse, Adalbert, Leopord, Fulgence, Pancrace. To his surprise, they were willing to speak. (At first, they denied that they killed. But when Hatzfeld switched from the familiar tu to vous, insulated by the group, they opened up.)

The Hutus, especially the women, envied the Tutsis their height and grace, and their differences were emphasized when Belgians forced citizens to carry cards identifying them by tribe. In recent years, as Fulgence says, "Hutus did not detest Tutsis as much as that [but we] could clearly see we would soon run out of fertile fields"--which, as well, Tutsi cattle trampled. The nail in the coffin was Rwanda's exuberant version of hate radio.

As for the means, use of a machete to kill humans was an extension of cutting down foliage and felling livestock. Hatzfeld, however, misses an opportunity when he fails to ask why the machete looms large as an instrument of fear.

As a work tool available to the underclass, it's handier for acts of aggression than the smaller knife or an unwieldy axe. Also, with the dashing sweep of its blade, the machete cries out to be used like a saber. The film Hotel Rwanda, if easy on the US, honored its subject with accuracy and outstanding acting. The scene where young toughs scrape the road with machetes as a prelude to the violence must be counted one of the most menacing in cinema history.

Neither inter-tribal friends nor neighbors were spared. In fact, as Hatzfeld explains, the Rwanda genocide set new standards for mercilessness. Even though, as Fulgence admits that, in common with Nazi Germany, "Aside from [fines], I know of no case of punishment... for refusing to obey [the order to kill]," the breakdown in individual responsibility was total.

If the interahamwe pressured them to kill, what made them continue was the militia's permission to loot the Tutsis. To farmers weary of a subsistence lifestyle, it was divine providence. "We overflowed with life for this job," claims one.

As Hatzfeld explains, each of the ten has become terminally self-involved. Is a narcissist by any other name anything but a sociopath? "I forgot I was killing live people," one says. The regret former President Clinton expressed during his July 23 AIDS visit for his "personal failure" to prevent the slaughter may have been sincere. But its parallel to the self-serving apologies of the ten killers profiled here is eerie.

In fact, any remorse--"my days are steeped in misery"--is superceded by a regret. "In prison and on the hills, everyone is obviously sorry," explains Elie. "But most of the killers are sorry they didn't finish the job."

Just when you're wondering, the ravages of colonialism aside, if any of these guys were raised with religious faith, Hatzfeld hits you with a chapter titled "And God in all this?" "In the marshes," Pancrace says, "pious Christians became ferocious killers." "In the marshes," another chimes in, "you heard no children's cries, not even murmurs... It was miraculous, so to speak."

What was the miracle? That the Tutsis, relegated to the depths of despair, graciously minimized the stress of killing them? As always. religion takes a back seat when the state calls.

Neither would it have been a miracle--because the conflict was clear-cut and unsullied by moral relativism--if the UN or the US saw fit to intervene. But Bill Clinton and Madeline Albright caved into the fear it would become another Somalia.

In fact, the Hutu government may have interpreted withdrawal from Somalia as an invitation to pursue its agenda without fear of retaliation. The killing can then be viewed as a brazen act of defiance against the West: Rwanda's former colonizer Belgium, the UN, and the US.

What can only be characterized as an intellectual delight, unalloyed by ethical concerns, the killers take in reliving their unique experiences becomes wearisome. In fact, because they're more reflective than 90 percent of Americans, Machete Season plays havoc on the it-can't-happen-here defense.

Between Rwanda, the lack of concern Americans demonstrate for the lives of Iraqis, and Islamists' lack of qualms about blowing up their own kind, one feels compelled to rethink. Are those of us who ally ourselves with the forces of humanitarianism making too big a deal out of killing?

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