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Book Review: A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide – The Killers Speak by Jean Hatzfeld

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Following the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which claimed the lives of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Jean Hatzfeld visited Rwanda and spoke to the survivors of the atrocities. Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide – The Survivors Speak is a harrowing read which tells in the survivors’ own words the horrors of the genocide including surviving massacres in churches, hiding under dead bodies, or spending days hiding in swamps as their former friends and neighbours scoured the area with machetes seeking to kill them. 

In A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide – The Killers Speak, Hatzfeld returns to Rwanda and this time he speaks to the perpetrators of the genocide: ten men who are serving time in a  prison for their part in the genocide.  As a prolific reader of books relating to the Rwandan genocide, my expectations on picking up this book were quite specific.  What the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide did was unthinkable; it defied words and stretched the bounds of the human imagination.

I hoped to gain some insight into what the killers had been thinking, what had motivated them, and how they justified their own actions.  I expected to read that the men had been caught up in the frenzy and organisation of the time and that they were somewhat horrified by their actions today.  I expected the passage of time and life in prison to have inspired a remorseful attitude and an appreciation of the human cost and loss of life resulting from their actions.  I was disappointed.

There is no doubt that this is an excellent book, and I have no hesitation giving it five stars and recommending that people read it.  Hatzfeld’s brave and tireless enquiry has given us an extremely rare insight into the mind of a genocidal killer.  The questions that he asks, the commentary, and background information that he provides – and the process he undergoes to gain the killers’ trust – provides an invaluable resource that we simply have not had with other genocides.  In the end though, it seems that my expectation of remorse and reconciliation was beyond naive.

The chapters in the book detail the level of organisation of the killings, including how gang members were initiated and how they were instructed on how to kill.  There are descriptions of how men were punished or not rewarded if they failed to kill and how there were called upon and dispatched each morning and fed and rewarded each evening.  The respondents discuss how they overcame initial hesitation with respect to the killings, how they began to dehumanise Tutsis in order to kill them, and how they felt about rape and looting. 

“We no longer saw a human being when we turned up a Tutsi in the swamps.  I mean a person like us, sharing similar thoughts and feelings” – Pio

Throughout reading the book, there is the continual and nagging feeling that something is missing.  In a sense, it is the complete lack of sincerity, humanity, or accountability.  One killer speaks of how he magnanimously spared the life of a woman only to kill her days later once her usefulness had run its course.  The killers display an incredible sense of entitlement and a refusal to even hint or acknowledge of how wrong their actions were.  They simply feel no remorse and even manage to express anger and impatience at their victims.  If only they could get on with it and forgive them, then the killers could get their own lives back!

“I believe the consequences have been most unfortunate for us all.  The others have gathered in many dead.  But we, too, have met with perilous hardships in the camps and a wretched life in prison” – Fulgence

It is possible that this sense of brazen remorselessness has to do with way in which the questions were asked of the killers or the manner in which they were reported; however, Hatzfeld had specifically set out to give the killers a voice, to put the inconceivable into words, so I would be less likely to believe that it is deliberate bias.  It is likely that much has been lost in translation between the original Kinyarwandan to French to English.  The fact remains that much of the text in the book is reported in the killers’ own words and that the ten respondents were part of an original gang that managed to stay together during their time in prison.

Quite simply, it is most likely that they simply did not feel remorse or the full impact of their actions as the genocidal discourse had remained intact during their time in prison and nothing had been done to separate the men or break down these beliefs.  Mention is made in the closing chapter of the book of the men being sent to a re-education camp at Bicumbi before the majority of them were released back into the community in May 2003, but the interviews in the book took place before this occurred.  Hatzfeld’s final book in this trilogy, The Strategy Of Antelopes: Rwanda After the Genocide picks up where the killers have been released into the community and details their difficulty in settling back down in the communities and how their Tutsi neighbours must tolerate them.

I would certainly recommend this book, but I would certainly not recommend that this be the only book that you read on the Rwandan genocide.  These are the top books that I would recommend on the Rwandan genocide:

  1. Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza
  2. An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda by Paul Rusesabagina
  3. Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane
  4. Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide – The Survivors Speak by Jean Hatzfeld
  5. The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist’s Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo by Clea Koff

Despite the difficulties presented with the subject matter, I would still give this book five out of five stars.


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About Mandy Southgate

Mandy Southgate is a blogger, serial expat and eternal tourist living and working in London. Aside from writing at Blogcritics, she blogs about travel and London at Emm in London, entertainment and media at Addicted to Media and war crimes, genocide and social justice over at A Passion to Understand. Mandy has continued to write for Blogcritics under the new profile Mandy Southgate.
  • Emm

    I have in fact got hold of a copy of the full 508 page report and posted about it on my own blog yesterday. The report details how RPF soldiers went into Zaire after the genocide and hunted down Hutu refugees and how civilians were indeed killed along with former Interahamwe militants.

    Have you read the ful report or have you depended on watered down summaries in the main stream press? I only ask because the copy that I downloaded from GenocideWatch.org is not just about crimes committed against Hutu refugees. Indeed, the main purpose of the report is to systematically map the many crimes and atrocities that have taken place against Congo civilians during the period 1993-2003. The only problem with the report, so to speak, is that it only runs up to the period up to 2003 and does not include the violence that is taking place right now, today. You are aware, of course, of the Hutu power rebel group DFLR and the rape campaign that they are currently committing across the DRC? Of how they have teamed up with the Mayi Mayi to attack anything and everything relating to Tutsi power in Rwanda?

    And why only go back to 1990? There were claims of massacres and genocides committed in the Great Lakes region against the Tutsis from the 1960s and even earlier. The evens leading up to 1994 were surely in place before 1990.

    Nothing can change the fact that a genocide was committed in Rwanda against the Tutsis and Hutu moderates in 1994. That is the purpose of this review and in fact, in the book, none of the men tries to deny that they committed genocide. “The Tutsis made us do it” is one of the less popular theories as to why the genocide occurred but that is an opinion and you are entitled to it.

    Your organisation seeks to obtain a fair and free Rwanda for all people, including Hutus. But what about the citizens and civilians of the DRC? When do they get a fair deal?

  • Since the author is interested in reading about Rwanda, the author can then read the recently leaked UN draft report about how extremist Tutsi soldiers committed genocide against Hutu civilians (women, children and the elderly). The only problem that I find with the UN report is that it only covers the crimes committed by extremist Tutsis after 1994. If only an independent investigation about Rwanda was to start in 1990, the investigation would unravel the horrible crimes that were committed by extremist Tutsi soldiers against Hutu civilians, crimes that went a long way towards provoking the extremist Hutus.