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A Rush of Blood to the Head: The Rwandan Genocide ? and the Genocidaires

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide ? The Survivors Speak
Jean Hatzfeld (trans. Gerry Feehily)
Serpent's Tail

A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide ? The Killers Speak
Jean Hatzfeld (trans. Linda Coverdale)
Serpent's Tail

Reviewed by Steve Finbow

During 30 days in April and May 1994, in the towns, villages, hills, and swamps in the area of Nyamata in Rwanda, roughly 50,000 Tutsis, out of a population of 59,000, lost their lives. In a country ?slightly smaller than Maryland? (according to the CIA Factbook), with a total population of 8,400,000, approximately 800,000 Tutsis, who comprised a tenth of the population ? roughly that of Delaware ? would become victims of genocide.

George Santayana once wrote, ?Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.? Oh, is that right? And just what is the past? Yesterday is the past. My God, two hours ago was the past. A minute ago, while I was looking up the quote above, was the past.

The Western press reported the massacre as just another episode in an age-old tribal warfare. Labelling this crime against humanity as yet another example of Africa's heart of darkness made manifest, the West used clich? to sideline any significant reporting on it. Yet, this was not mere territorial handbags at six paces. It was mass murder, well thought out and well-executed, owing much of its methodology to the Nazi's Final Solution. The Hutus used propaganda, radio broadcasts, and the vilification of a race ? the Tutsis were ?cockroaches? ? to legitimize the killings. Those who took part in the slaughter of the Tutsis were not just members of the Hutu army or the local militia ? the interahamwe (unity) ? but the friends, workmates, and neighbours of the very same people they were butchering.

They included choir leaders, deacons, and priests. Machetes, hatchets, and spears were their instruments of death. Close up. Brutal. Babies torn from wombs. Five Tutsis skewered with a spear and left by the roadside ? a human kebab.

This is beyond reason. And as one of the survivors notes, ?beyond the human.?

After reading A Time for Machetes ? The Rwandan Genocide: The Killers Speak, I fully endorse Hannah Arendt's concept of ?the banality of evil?. Arendt?s theory is that evil is not radical. Nazis, in the typological figure of Adolf Eichmann, did not enact a will to evil. The propagators of the atrocities lacked an internal dialogue and self-awareness, which resulted in a failure or absence of reason and judgement and led to uncritical mass obedience. The killers interviewed in Machetes, like their Nazi forebears, are more concerned with their everyday needs and problems than they are with the atrocities they have perpetrated. The killers talk about how hard the job was, how tired they became chasing people through the swamps, the techniques of machete use, how their wives berated them if they came home tired after a long day a-slaughtering, and how rape and looting meant they could take a break from killing.

Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide ? The Survivors Speak, on the other hand, brought to mind J.M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello, in which he argues that we are insensitive to the suffering of animals and complicit in their deaths, and that these deaths are similar to those of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, and Treblinka. The Hutus dehumanized their Tutsi neighbours in order to ease the rationale of mass murder. But as a survivor notes:

?We looked like animals, since we no longer resembled the humans we used to be, and they had grown accustomed to see us as animals. They tracked us down as such. In truth, it was they who had become animals.?

There was no exercise of reason during the killing ? not from the Hutus; not from the United Nations, which denied that the killings in Rwanda were tantamount to genocide while hamstringing UNAMIR troops from intervening in the massacre (see Romeo Dallaire's Shake Hands with the Devil); and not from Rwanda's neighbours. Arendt quotes Socrates on the attributes of rational thought, ?agreement, to be consistent with oneself, its opposite, to be in contradiction with oneself, actually means becoming one's own adversary.? And this is what happened in Rwanda ? the Tutsis and Hutus had lived together in relative peace until 1959, when the Hutus first massacred Tutsis. The ?agreement to be consistent with oneself? ? reason, morals, and ethics - were suspended, and the Rwandan people became their own adversary. Arendt writes:

?We resist evil by not being swept away by the surface of things, by stopping ourselves and beginning to think, that is, by reaching another dimension than the horizon of everyday life. In other words, the more superficial someone is, the more likely will he be to yield to evil.?

And as Alphonse, one of the killers says:

?At first the activity (killing) was less repetitive than sowing; it cheered us up, so to speak Afterwards it became the same every day.?

Both of Jean Hatzfeld's books are deeply moral and, along with Feargal Keane's Season of Blood and Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, should be required reading for all.


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