Poetry Madness

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Saturday, September 10th, 2005


Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak


A review by Doug Brown

Between April and July of 1994, somewhere around 800,000 Rwandans were killed by their countrymen. There were no gas chambers, firing squads, or other distancing mechanisms in Rwanda. The killers hacked their victims to death with machetes. The killers were not strangers from afar, but the victims' neighbors. There was little real difference between the killers (Hutus) and victims (Tutsis). Both groups are predominantly Catholic. The difference is more one of class than ethnicity. In past centuries, the Tutsis had been the ruling class. Under Belgian rule after WWI, a strict caste system was established in which the Tutsis (who mostly raise cows) were given privileges not extended to Hutus (who are mostly farmers). Ever since, official identification cards have identified holders as Hutu or Tutsi. After the Belgians left in 1959, a festering hatred smoldered among the Hutus, exploding in the slaughter of the Tutsis in 1994. It was Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment writ large; split the class in two, tell them one group is better than the other, and stand back.

Sadly, little has been written about the Rwandan genocide in English. Most research is French, and much of what there is in English print is translated from French. Machete Season is no exception, and in this case it becomes a particular impediment. It is one thing to read the words of Hitler or Eichmann translated from German into English. The words in Machete Season, however, have been translated from Kinyarwanda to French (it was originally published in France as Une Saison de Machettes), and then from French to English. These are no longer the words of the killers; they are the words of translators. The English translation was done beautifully and lyrically by Linda Coverdale, who recently won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for her translating. However, this isn't a lyrical novel. These are the words of killers, farmers with elementary school educations who spent ten weeks hacking people instead of weeds. Haztfeld, who conducted the original interviews in French through an interpreter, mentions that the men's vocabulary was raw, and that they weren't very expansive in their responses. In translation, though, they often sound like philosopher poets. One says of his fellow killers, "They had tasted comfort and overflowing plenty. They were sated with their own willfulness." One asks of God, "Why did He not stab our murderous eyes with his wrath?" Another says his wife told him, "Everything you are doing will have accursed consequences, because it is not normal and passes all humanity. So much blood provokes a fate beyond our lives." This reads movingly, but this is how writers write, not how normal people talk. In lending these men a poet's voice, the translation denies us those original voices, distancing us yet further from them. We also risk falling into the trap of thinking these really are the men's voices. We become mystified that these men took part in the genocide, because how can such intelligent sounding men who realized they were "sated with their own willfulness" hack their neighbors to death with machetes?

That said, if you look past the verbiage to the basic messages underneath, there is still a lot of powerful stuff here. The killers interviewed were ten men who all knew each other even before the genocide, and formed an informal gang that would drink together after working in the fields. All were in prison together at the time the interviews took place, though most have since been released. Hatzfeld arranges quotes into chapters such as "The First Time," "Apprenticeship," "Punishment," "Looting," "Remorse and Regrets," etc. All the men found it fairly easy to stop seeing the victims as acquaintances, or even as humans. They have some regrets for their actions, but one says, "In prison and on the hills, everyone is obviously sorry. But most of the killers are sorry they didn't finish the job. They accuse themselves of negligence rather than wickedness." They fondly recall looting at the end of each day from the farms and homes of people they had killed. One says, "It was the rule to kill going out and to loot coming back. We killed in teams, but we looted every man for himself or in small groups of friends." The chapter on corrugated sheet metal is particularly interesting, as it was the most sought item in looting (for roofing material). They all mention that no one said they couldn't go kill people; one says, "All the important people turned their backs on our killings. The blue helmets [UN Peacekeepers, who were pulled out shortly after the genocide began], the Belgians, the white directors, the black presidents, the humanitarian people and the international cameramen, the priests and the bishops, and finally even GodWe were abandoned by all words of rebuke." Like many people who have done something bad, they unrealistically want to just go back to life as it was before, as if nothing had happened. They want to ask forgiveness from their surviving Tutsi neighbors, but don't want to confess their crimes. One of the most telling quotes about genocide is this: "I can give you endless details about the killings. But when you ask me to tell you my thoughts during those awkward moments... I don't know what to reply."

This is an important book, well worth reading. As with translations of religious texts, the actual words are not as important as the underlying messages, which one hopes are largely intact. Still, when we see a subtitle like The Killers in Rwanda Speak, we expect to hear their voices. Instead, grammar and vocabulary do not change from person to person; they all sound like literature graduates. But unless you can read French, this is all we have of the Rwandan genocide from the perpetrators' perspective. Along with Ernst Klee et al.'s The Good Old Days: the Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, this is disturbing but compelling reading.

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