July 2005

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld

Over the course of 100 days in the spring of 1994, 800,000 people in the tiny African country of Rwanda were hacked to death by their machete-wielding neighbors.

Anyone who has read Philip Gourevitch’s superlative and award-winning We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families knows that fact. What they may not know is that many of the participants in the slaughter found it to be easier work than farming, one of the many chilling truths revealed in Jean Hatzfeld’s work of oral history, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak.

Six years after the genocide took place, Hatzfeld, a French journalist, met with and interviewed ten Hutu men who had been convicted for their roles in the killing and were incarcerated in a Rwandan prison. All ten men were childhood friends and neighbors, and completed their work during the slaughter as a self-described “gang.” The interviews are arranged into thematic chapters, covering a variety of horrific topics: how the killing was organized, where it took place, how each man felt about the first time they killed someone, their family and neighborhood histories, and how their hatred toward the Tutsis developed.

Hatzfeld has done a masterful job arranging the chapters for maximum impact and narrative flow and periodically includes short chapters on the history of Rwanda and the facts of the events. Translator Linda Coverdale has also admirably preserved what Hatzfeld repeatedly refers to as his interview subjects’ ability to “speak in even voices with a familiar tone that denotes astonishing impassiveness.” For instance, any reader who has difficulty picturing how a weapon as simple as a machete could be used for such mass murder will find the simple and chilling explanation here: “If you are skilled with a tool, it is handy to use it for everything­clearing brush or killing in the swamps. Time allowed everyone to improve in his fashion.”

Like any skillful work of oral and personal history the narrative is quickly paced and compelling, but can only be read in small chunks lest the reader become overwhelmed by the simple and deeply disturbing facts about the genocide that these interviews reveal. The men repeatedly refer to the fact that they were only responding to what their Hutu political leaders were telling them to do; they describe at great length how they ceased to think of their Tutsi neighbors as human beings and began to think of them as “cockroaches”; they calmly relate how, after they killed Tutsi families, they took their cattle to eat and dismantled their homes to loot the precious sheets of corrugated sheet metal for themselves.

I personally had to stop reading for a while after finishing the chapter in which the men compare the work of killing to the work of farming: “But we can’t say we missed the fields… Killing was a demanding but more gratifying activity. The proof: no one ever asked permission to go clear brush on his field, not even for a half-day.” I grew up on a farm, so it was more than a little distressing to find myself understanding, even in a small way, why it would be a relief for these men to “shelter from the sun and chat without feeling idle… We fell asleep every evening safe from care, no longer worried about drought. We forgot our torments as farmers.”

That shock of personal understanding is what makes Machete Season so important. More than any work of linear or scholarly history could, this book brings home the utterly depressing realization that these men did not start out as evil ideologues or trained killing machines. They were simply a gang of childhood friends, told by people they viewed as authorities to kill other people, and who then tried to forget what they were doing because they were finally living a slightly easier life than they had been living, complete with free sheet metal and cattle.

Hatzfeld is also the author of Into the Quick of Life, which tells the stories of numerous Tutsi survivors of the genocide, and which will be published in English in September, 2005.

Machete Season is not an easy book to read, but, as Susan Sontag suggests in her preface, is a book that should be read by everyone, and particularly by those who seek to understand how, in the words of one of Hatzfeld’s subjects, “Man can get used to killing, if he kills on and on.”

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld (translated from the French by Linda Coverdale)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374280827
253 pages