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Thirsty Work
Machete Season by Jean Hatzfeld
I often read things that the people I know refuse to discuss. This is understandable as they seek sanity, not the understanding of its opposite. I was recently given a few troubling books by a fellow searcher into the human condition. I read these in rotation with my own acquisitions, simultaneous with the reading of the research material necessary for my fiction. I recalled when I saw the subtitle that I had wondered vaguely as to the lack of an international response to the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. I was about to find out how inadequate my questions of mind then were…
Machete Season
The Killers in Rwanda Speak
A report by Jean Hatzfeld
Translation 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC
2003, Picador, NY, 253 pages
I remember the news reports of UN peacekeepers and First World militaries failing to respond to the known fact that a genocide was being perpetuated in Rwanda by the majority Hutus against the minority Tutsis. How wrong those reports were. There was already a Canadian mechanized battalion on the ground with full knowledge of the blooming slaughter. There answer was to escort whites and non-combatant Hutus out of harm’s way, in one instance literally handing over a maternity hospital full of victims to the killers.
What could the Canadian force have done to stop tens of thousands of murderers?
According to the murderers they could have done everything. These simple machete-wielding farmers were slaves to a few bands of ‘intimidators’ and ‘verifiers’ and ‘hot-headed boys’ with hand guns, and held the white soldiers in awe, like actual gods of war. They could not believe their good fortune when the whites turned their backs on hospitals and churches full of women and children ripe for the ‘harvest.’
In 90 days these hardworking banana farmers with their land clearing and harvesting tools slew 800,000 unarmed people, largely women, children and the elderly. As soon as a small armed force of Tutsis crossed the border into Rwanda they fled in fear just as their victims had, not being fighting men at all, just simple workaday farmers turned killers; working what they insisted was a ‘seasonal’ ‘harvest’ of ‘killings’ or ‘cuttings.’
Never did the Third Reich, with its mechanized death machines and extermination camps, equal the killing capacity of these farmers, who approached Mongol Horde levels of depopulation in early 1994. It has long been assumed that genocides of this scope and totality are either the results of sophisticated military organizations and/or of industrialized and impersonal societies. For anyone who believes that fallacy Mister Hatzfeld offers a unique first person look at how a primitive iron age [muscle-powered metal tool using] society can casually exterminate a rival group. If you are an advocate of the school of thought that holds up the noble primitive as an example that the evils of warfare are the product of complex societies, think again.
The Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda spoke the same language, lived and worked side-by-side, worshipped in the same churches, sometimes intermarried, and played on the same soccer teams. This was and is a conservative, family-oriented, God-fearing society living at the technological level of the ancient Neolithic peoples that raised Stonehenge, with the exception of radios. The radios announced to the Rwandan's, the world, and the UN peacekeepers, the coming slaughter. Everyone in Rwanda knew what was coming as it had been preached by judges, municipal officials, talk radio comedians and intimidators for decades.
The methodology of Jean Hatzfeld was amazing. He quickly discovered that the only killers that would speak to him out of a society of people who all had bloody hands were the convicted killers serving long prison terms; in particular a group of ‘boys,’ a ‘gang’ of farmers who worked, played, drank, killed, and later remembered together behind bars. These ten men do not come off as monsters. Two of them are frightening, another a criminal, and the rest simply introspective followers who went along to get along, men who took a moral and human timeout to kill and loot.
While the organizers at the top of this movement have a deep history of politically motivated massacres, and had meticulously planned these atrocities for political gain, the men who did the killing had very few axes to grind with their friends and neighbors, and even relatives, who they dutifully slaughtered. In many cases their recollections are chillingly poetic and self-deprecating. Their motivations were simple: they were told to kill; their friends were killing too; they would be fined or considered lazy if they did not kill; and they were rewarded with household loot [mainly sheet metal roofing], meat from the slaughtered Tutsi cows, and much more beer than they could normally afford.
I once read an old adventure story about a barbarian mercenary in a fantasy world who described ‘slaying’ as ‘thirsty work.’ That always seemed corny to me, until I heard the Hutu killers use it and repeat it. That put into context for me the second most oft used reference in the book. After killing, drinking beer is the second most discussed topic. A Rwandan genocide, I believe, could happen anywhere. I say that because these guys sounded little different—only better spoken—than many a redneck, suburban football player and hood rat I have known.
They spoke of one man who had killed thirty people in one day in the humid swamps, again describing it as ‘work.’ I had to get a little inkling of what they meant. As I duel with dull machetes, and support this activity with extensive stick work on a punching bag, I thought I understood a part of it, forensically anyhow, as I have cut men with these weapons, dull as they are. But what these men described as ‘the grind’ was the monotony of killing the helpless in the humid heat of Africa.
So after reading a few chapters on the way home yesterday, in 92 degree heat and 95% humidity, dressed in my three layers of frozen foods attire, I took up my sharp machete and went out back behind the house where I rent this room. The owner has let the backyard grow into a literal jungle of thorn bushes and young maple trees. I know from experience that striking a person with an extension weapon is very similar to striking a live sapling and nothing at all like striking the hanging meat that many blade test cuts are done on.
Before me stood two dozen young trees, from seven to twenty feet high. Remembering how the killer farm gangs had wanted to get their work over with so that they could get to their junkyard cabarets for a Belgian beer, I brought myself only four ounces of water, and began killing innocent young trees with my machete. A half hour later I was far more exhausted than I usually am after an hour and a half of stick-sparring with fit young fighters. When I wiped the sweat from my dripping face and the little bit of water I had brought evaporated to little effect in my mouth I knew one thing for certainty, that that banana farmer from the hills of Rwanda was in better shape than any combat athlete this side of a pro boxer.
I cannot shake the realization that he and his friends felt no more regard for those women and children than I did for those feral maple trees which had the audacity to crowd out my roommate’s grass. Only two of the ten killers interviewed by Jean Hatzfeld expressed more regard for their victims than I felt for the victims of my maple sapling massacre. And the crowning impulse was the same, just a selfish thirst and the feeling of a job well done, a job that someone else would have done, after all.
What happened in Rwanda was as simple as friends picking up their tools and doing what they were told, escaping blame in the comfort of the pack mentality. There was little personal hatred evident, precious few stories of humanity and self-sacrifice, and only a few haunting tales of guilt or remorse.
This is such a superb study I do not want to steal any of the author’s thunder by quoting at length. I have underlined dozens of passages that could each have served as the springboard for a philosophical or ethical discussion. These men admitted to a ‘final intention,’ of being overtaken by a mania to exterminate, of descending into madness willingly to avoid offending their peer group; of becoming addicted to dealing death. I only found one man to be empathetic, an intellectual who was married to a Tutsi and claimed that he was told that he must kill conspicuously to save his wife. Kill he did and he elegantly damned his actions and those of his friends as he sat with the author in the garden at Rilma Prison. It was a feature of the Rwandan genocide that religious leaders and intellectuals joined the government thugs in directing and participating in the slaughter.
But this man failed to match the eloquence of one of his friends, who believed he was to be forever cursed by his participation in the killings. It is telling that the indigenous animistic superstitions were more effective in encouraging restraint and reflection upon evil deeds than the imported Christianity. This dutiful and mater-of-fact follower of stronger men had this to say of his first face-to-face killing, “The eyes of someone you kill are immortal… The eyes of the killed, for the killer, are his calamity if he looks into them.”
If there is a hell, every Catholic priest in Rwanda booked his reservation in 1994.
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Dominick MatteroJun 4, 2013

One of the best reviews you have ever done!!!!
responds: Jun 4, 2013

Thank you for stimulating the exponential growth of my ego necessary for the heedless navigation of late middle-age—and thanks for that book man! It is one of those titles that is too important to keep to ourselves.

Note: Dominick is the most prolific of the five people currently donating reading material to the Neanderthal Bibliophile Association, for which I am the acting Grand Poobah.
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