Ordinary Men

Rwandan refugees waiting to return after their long exodus
Rwandan refugees waiting to return after their long exodus (Carol Guzy / The Washington Post)
Reviewed by Alison Des Forges
Sunday, August 21, 2005


The Killers in Rwanda Speak

By Jean Hatzfeld

Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Farrar Straus Giroux. 253 pp. $24

In 1994, shortly after the genocide of Rwanda's Tutsi minority ended, I went to the small brick church at Ntarama, a desolate patch in the southeastern corner of the country. Leaving the glare of the noonday sun for the dim of the sanctuary, I smelled the bodies before I saw them. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I could make out the twisted and broken remains of babies, children, women and men in the aisles, at the foot of the altar, on and under the simple wooden benches that served as pews.

Some of the Ntarama murderers have now talked about their crimes to the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld, who has recorded their words in the harrowing pages of Machete Season . Fulgence Bunani, a farmer and volunteer deacon in the Catholic church, was 33 at the time of the genocide; Pancrace Hakizamungili, another farmer, was 25. Neither had ever killed before. They recall their victims screaming as they and other killers struck out blindly in the crowded Ntarama church. Fulgence began by cracking "an old mama's skull with a club," then began striking "without seeing who it was, taking pot luck with the crowd." Pancrace remembers "a mixture of blows and cries coming in a tangle from everyone." Alphonse Hitiyaremye, then 39 and a father of four, was one of those who returned to the church the next day to finish the "work," as the genocide was called; he helped locate those still breathing among the corpses. He and others yelled, sneered and insulted their victims, he says, as they worked "to finish off everyone conscientiously."

Hatzfeld has previously published accounts of Tutsi civilians who survived the genocide by hiding in swamps near Ntarama. In this book, he presents the words of 10 ordinary Hutu people from the same region (most of them farmers) detailing how they took up machetes to slaughter other ordinary people who happened to be Tutsi -- people with whom they had sung in the church choir and played on the local soccer team. As this book makes clear, Rwanda's genocide was marked both by its intimacy (the killers used machetes and guns, not gas chambers) and its speed (at least 500,000 deaths in about 100 days).

The jailed and confessed killers who tell their stories here had known each other before the genocide -- some were neighbors and drinking buddies -- and had "worked" together during the "machete season." Hatzfeld had a hard time persuading them to talk but had no problem getting access to them from the prison authorities, who were eager to increase foreign awareness of the genocide. The killers spent many days discussing their crimes with Hatzfeld under an acacia tree in a garden adjoining the prison. He has grouped their remarks into short thematic chapters, creating an illusion of a conversation between speakers, each of whom is identified by first name.

The reader is drawn in, in effect eavesdropping on a casual chat among killers. The murderers discuss everything from the first time they killed to how they joked about raping and murdering Tutsi women to how they enjoyed feasting on pillaged cattle and other food. (Some even tasted candy for the first time.) They remark that sex with their wives was hot and relations with their children undisturbed during the time of the slaughter. The language throughout is as shocking as the subject matter. "Rule number one was to kill," one says. "There was no rule number two." Another compares killing a person to killing a goat: a whack on the head, and either goes down.

Readers who can get beyond their (justified) initial horror will find a wealth of detail here about the genocide, including the part played by government authorities and the Interahamwe militia, the importance of economic motivations (particularly the hope of acquiring land, ever scarce in this densely populated country), the impetus provided by anti-Tutsi hate radio broadcasts, the role of the local bar as a gathering place after the day's "work" and the social status bestowed by owning a firearm. Hatzfeld's book does not pretend to be a scholarly account of the genocide; it is limited in scope and marred by numerous errors (there were no massacres in the region in 1973; prisoners released in 2003 had confessed but had not been convicted; youngsters caught up in the slaughter were freed because Rwandan law doesn't recognize criminal responsibility for those under 14 years of age, not because they were amnestied). But its grassroots view of the genocide enriches and completes other, more formal accounts.

Above all, Hatzfeld's presentation highlights the individuality of each killer: the bully, the hypocrite, the older ideologue, the naive youngster. By the end of the book, we feel we know Fulgence, Pancrace and the others -- a familiarity underscored by the use of their real names, by the brief biographies provided at the end and by a group photo. Such familiarity is disturbing. As the distance between them and us decreases, we begin to wonder if we, too, could become killers in circumstances like theirs.

Hatzfeld dismisses such speculation, "not so much because we cannot get inside the skin of bean farmers on a hill in Rwanda, but because we cannot imagine being born and growing up under such a despotic, ethnocentric regime." Although he refuses to imagine himself in the genocidaires' place -- perhaps because he identifies so closely with the survivors -- Hatzfeld does give the killers a chance to describe their sense of guilt and the strangeness of finding themselves involved in such heinous crimes. He accepts that most in the group had no quarrels with their victims and underlines how reluctant they were to express hatred of the Tutsi. He acknowledges that some Hutu even died to save Tutsi but insists that no one was at imminent risk of death for refusing to kill. He simply presents these contradictions and leaves them unresolved, just as he leaves unanswered the ultimate question of why these men killed.

Hatzfeld recounts that when several of the killers started describing the slaughter of Tutsi as a battle, he cut them off brusquely, insisting that he knew the real truth. Of course, the genocide was no battle; but it did take place during a war, with the Hutu-dominated Rwandan authorities insisting that all Tutsi -- members of the same ethnic group as the guerrilla force then attacking the government in Kigali -- were the enemy. By refusing to hear this part of the truth, Hatzfeld minimizes the wartime context of the genocide and maximizes the guilt of the bean farmers. He also hinders our understanding of the murderers' motivations. In the final reckoning, this imperfect but devastating book tells us more about the how of genocide than the why. It lets us listen to the bean farmers but tells us too little about their fears to make us understand why these ordinary people committed extraordinary crimes. ยท

Alison Des Forges is a senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch and the author of "Leave None To Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company