Jean Hatzfeld’s Machete Season: the Killers in Rwanda Speak is a much different book than the Pol Pot history that I covered a couple of weeks ago. It’s harder to write about, because it’s just what the title describes: the killers in their own words, interspersed with short contextual explanations of the events surrounding the Rwandan genocide.
Hatzfeld – who has also written two books about the horrific Baltic wars of the 1990s – argues that many of what the mainstream media call genocides should be described as war crimes instead: brutal, unacceptable mass killings of defenseless humans that nonetheless take place in the the context of reducing a population’s ability to wage war. Genocide, he argues, is a term that should be reserved to describe an effort to completely exterminate a population and leave it incapable of ever recovering. In the Rwandan genocide, for example, the Hutu killers often preferred to murder women and children first, because it would leave the Tutsi population less capable of carrying on to the next generation.
Modern Rwanda has three main ethnic groups: the majority Hutu, the minority Tutsi, and a small population of Twa jungle-dwelling hunter-gatherers. At the time of the 1994 genocide the Hutus made up 80-90% of the population, the Tutsis 10-20%, and the Twa around 1%. The Twa were not involved in the genocide or the civil war that led up to it, although they experienced considerable hardship at the hands of the Hutu government in the prior two decades.
Before the colonial era, the area that makes up modern-day Rwanda was organized around Hutu and Tutsi tribal groups, with a relatively small Tutsi aristocracy wielding the most historical influence. The European colonial period began in the 1880s, when Germany took political control of the area as part of German East Africa. Colonial influence was relatively mild until Belgium took control from Germany during World War I. Both Europoean countries encouraged and assisted the Tutsi-dominated power structure, partially due to a racialist belief that the Tutsis were more “Aryan” than the Hutus. The Belgians also formalized the division between Hutu and Tutsi, requiring that Rwandans carry identity cards that listed their ethnic group.
With the decline of colonial power following World War II, however, a Rwandan independence movement took shape that unsurprisingly started to concentrate power in the vastly more numerous Hutu population. Slowly, Belgium switched its support from the Tutsis to the Hutus, a move backed in the country by the powerful and popular Roman Catholic church. In 1959 the “Rwandan Revolution” took place: following the murder of a popular Hutu chief by members of a Tutsi political group, Hutu activists started mass killings of Tutsis. Several hundred thousand Tutsis fled to neighboring countries, and Belgium organized elections that immediately resulted in Hutu dominance.
Frequent anti-Tutsi violence continued for the next thirteen years, when a military coup installed the Hutu Juvenal Habyarimana as president in 1973. Under military rule, anti-Tutsi violence diminished, but an undercurrent always remained. Through the 1980s, Tutsi refugees in Uganda fought as part of guerilla campaigns in the Ugandan Bush War and eventually started planning a campaign against Rwanda as part of an organization called the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF. The RPF attacked Rwanda from Uganda on several occasions, leading to military interventions by both France and Zaire. Anti-government, pro-Hutu extremist parties gained strength as a result of the attacks, and small scale reprisal killings of Tutsis began.
In 1993, the hardline Hutu Power movement gained strength on an anti-Tutsi platform and began compiling formal lists of “traitors” for extermination. A popular new radio station founded by Hutu extremists began broadcasting hardline anti-Tutsi programming and violently racist comedy. The new Hutu president of neighboring Burundi was assassinated by Tutsi army officers, which led to detailed planning for a Hutu-led massacre in Rwanda.
The final trigger event occurred in April of 1994, when President Habariyama’s plane was shot down and the president killed. It reamains unknown who was responsible for the the attack on the plane; blame has been placed on both pro-Tutsi RPF forces and on pro-Hutu extremists. Regardless of who was responsible, the Hutu response was immediate: a combined group of Rwandan soldiers and civilians murdered the regime’s successor and Prime Minister, along with a small group of Belgian soldiers assigned to protect her. Within hours, Hutu extremists began systematically murdering moderate politicians and journalists. As the genocide continued, thousands of moderate Hutus were killed along with Tutsis.
Within days, army and civilian militia leaders ordered Hutus to kill their Tutsi neighbors, and the Hutus obeyed without hesitation. Orders were broadcast by radio and verbally at public gatherings in many locations. The explicit goal was to kill every Tutsi, without exception.
The killers interviewed in the book were from the Ntarama area of central Rwanda. Their explanation of the massacre begins starkly:
During that killing season we rose earlier than usual, to eat lots of meat, and we went up to the soccer field at around nine or ten o’clock. The leaders would grumble about latecomers, and we would go off on the attack. Rule number one was to kill. There was no rule number two. It was an organization without complications.
Ntarama was the location of one of the largest massacres in the early days of the genocide: over 5000 people were killed in the Ntarama Church over the course of a day or two, hacked by machete, shot, killed by grenade, or eventually, burned alive.
Over the next three months, an estimated 5 out of 6 Tutsis in Rwanda were murdered and the country lost almost 20% of its population. The Hutus and Tutsis shared region, language and religion: for the most part, Hutus knew who to kill simply because they were killing their neighbors. The stories of the killers in the book reflect at length on the practical aspects of the genocide: they remember the camaraderie with their Hutu cohort, the relief from agricultural work, the short-term material gains of goods taken from their victims, and the physical hardship of killing so many people by hand, by machete.
In response, the RPF launched an invasion from Uganda at the start of the genocide that was ultimately successful. The Hutu military (along with the civilian population) was largely occupied with the genodicde and was too disorganized to mount much of a defense. The genocide moved too fast for the RPF invasion to help much, though: the killings stopped simply because there were few Tutsis left to kill.
The machete season left Rwanda in a shambles. Following the RPF invasion and fearing reprisals, hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled to Zaire, leading to a severe refugee crisis in the neighboring country. Many villages were left uninhabitable. At least a million Hutus, constituting over 20% of the remaining population, are thought to have participated in the genocide. The RPF-led government began mass imprisonments and mass trials, overwhelming the country’s tiny judicial infrastructure. The overcrowded prisons are where Hatzfeld interviewed the killers, over a period of several months. The judicial authorities ultimately decided to categorize participants in the genocide into four classes, according to the severity of their crimes. Penalties ranged from death to a few years’ imprisonment.
The twenty years since the genocide have been difficult and complex, with difficulties in conducting fair trials, accusations of large-scale reprisal killings by the RPF, and continued warfare on multiple fronts.