Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
Reading Jean Hatzfeld’s Machete Season, a series of interviews with killers from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, moves you through several reactions. Unease melts into fascination and a distant identification with the 10 Rwandan farmers featured, before you find yourself slowly backing away in judgment. It is a testament to Hatzfeld’s canniness that he pushes beyond denial and deception—“Faced with the reality of genocide, a killer’s first choice is to be silent, and his second is to lie,” Hatzfeld notes—to obtain intimate accounts from the génocidaires as to how they thought of themselves and their “work” while also maintaining critical distance. Unflinching in his condemnation, Hatzfeld allows you to begin to understand how these average men came to murder the neighbors with whom they had previously lived in peace—in Philip Gourevitch’s words, “how perfectly human it can be to be perfectly inhumane.”
Hatzfeld’s authorial credentials are impeccable. He was raised by Jews who fled the advancing Holocaust. As a war reporter, he followed conflagrations throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe. He wrote a 2000 account of Rwandan genocide survivors, Into the Quick of Life, before approaching the band of 10 in Rilima prison. Prisoners, Hatzfeld found, were the only people in Rwanda who would admit to taking part in the 100 days of slaughter that took 800,000 lives.
The killers saw themselves as “quite ordinary,” and the “cutting” they were ordered to do with their machetes as a more materially rewarding type of field work. Alphonse Hitiyaremye explains, “We chatted about our good fortune, we soaped off our bloodstains in the basin, and our noses enjoyed the aromas of full cooking pots.” Poverty, dense population, a lack of farmland, Belgium’s decision in 1931 to start issuing ethnic identity cards—Hatzfeld teases out the historical forces that came together to create a cauldron of killing in Rwanda while acknowledging genocide’s fundamental moral inscrutability.
One cause remains clear: World apathy gave the killers a kind of imprimatur. Two days after the killing spree began in the capital, Innocent Rwililiza, a Tutsi survivor, remembers the United Nation’s armored cars rescuing the last remaining whites from the hospital in Nyamata, south of Kigali. “[The cars] caused a big panic among the [Hutu soldiers] who were already roving the streets, heating themselves up with sudden bursts of gunfire. . . . When they saw the convoy disappear in the dust without even a little stop for curiosity or a drink on the main street, they celebrated with some [beer] and shot off cartridges in their guns as a sign of relief. You could see they felt saved.” >