Blood-curdling confessions of a day at 'work'

July 24, 2005|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Book Editor



By Jean Hatzfeld, translated by Linda Coverdale. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 253 pages.

Monstrous in scope, unfathomable in cruelty, annihilating in implication, the concept of genocide all but defies imagination. That is why reading Jean Hatzfeld's interviews with perpetrators of the 1994 Rwanda massacre is so profoundly disturbing. From the mouths of his killers, genocide is not outsized, not out of human scale. It is mundane. Matter-of-fact. Tedious.

"A genocide -- that seems extraordinary to someone who arrives afterward, like you," one of the imprisoned killers tells Hatzfeld, a French journalist and war correspondent, "but for someone who got muddled up by [their superiors'] big words and the joyful shouts of his colleagues, it seemed like a normal activity."

Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt both awakened us to the banality of the perpetrators of the Holocaust; Hatzfeld's Machete Season illustrates how unremarkable were the killers in another genocidal venue. But he takes the further shocking step of showing how readily mass killers can become accustomed to what they are doing. To hear the Rwanda murderers describe it, human slaughter quickly became just another day in the fields, "work" in their word, or a "job" -- hard, perhaps, even unpleasant, but more drudgery than horror. They sang songs on their way to the marshes, where they ferreted out and "cut" new victims, killing, one remarks, "up till the last whistle."

Hatzfeld, who reported on the massacre at the time, later returned to gather the stories of 14 Tutsi survivors of the massacre. The result was his 2000 book, Into the Quick of Life (the English edition is to be published next month). Appalled by the survivor testimony in that book, readers frequently asked Hatzfeld what could possibly have gone on in the minds of the Hutu perpetrators that they could so pitilessly murder men, women and children, one by one, while looking them directly in the eye.

Hatzfeld resolved to try to find out, leading him eventually led him to 10 convicted, imprisoned killers. They were friends from the same hill region 30 miles south of the Rwandan capital of Kigali, who were willing to open up to him. In 100 days, Hutus exterminated 50,000 of the 59,000 Tutsis who had lived among them in that region. The men Hatzfeld interviewed had participated in that killing operation.

The chapters of Machete Season alternate between short interviews with the men on various aspects of the genocide (how they got started, rape, their feelings about the Tutsis), and Hatzfeld's pained consideration of what he learned. And what he learned were the limits of understanding. Although he can tell us what his earlier readers wanted to know -- what was in the minds of the killers -- that hardly makes the events in Rwanda comprehensible.

Although the Rwanda killings were planned from on high and unfolded after a long propaganda campaign that demonized Tutsis ("cockroaches," radio broadcasts called them), none of that is enough to explain why ordinary Hutus were transformed overnight into exterminators of people they had always lived with peaceably.

Many of Hatzfeld's killers had never before borne enmity toward their Tutsi neighbors, let alone felt anything to fear from them. They had drunk beer at bars together, performed kindnesses for one another, sung in the same choirs, played soccer on the same teams. Yet, with little prodding (and the promise of spoils), farmers, teachers and church deacons took up machetes against neighbors. To Hatzfeld, they make themselves sound like people who had been in the grip of a fever that soon passed, rendering them, in their own minds, fit to return to their unremarkable lives.

No one blames himself for catching a fever, and the killers in Machete Season do not blame themselves either, not really. (Some even suggest that their victims' silence during the slaughter was a kind of acquiescence.) To a man, they are sorry for what they've done, but they also betray an aloofness from their crimes, as though those killers were not their true selves. Certainly, they feel themselves due forgiveness from the survivors. Confession, to them, is a means that diminishes their offense and should, by rights, mitigate their punishments. (In that, they seem to have been correct. All those interviewed by Hatzfeld have either been released or can expect to be.) Their remorse is contingent, therefore nonexistent. Machete Season offers no answers, no comfort, no assurance.

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