Machete Season The Killers in Rwanda Speak

Jean Hatzfeld; Translated by Linda Coverdale; Preface by Susan Sontag




Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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A Washington Post Best Book of the Year The genocidal massacre of almost a million people in Rwanda more than a decade ago may be fading into history, but the killers are with us still, and so is the moral problem of trying to understand how such terrible crimes could have been committed. Jean Hatzfeld's account of conversations he had with some of the killers, now convicted and in jail—men who had rampaged across the fields, singing as they went, hacking to death 50,000 out of 59,000 of their neighbors—offers extraordinary insights into the nature of this collective crime. But, as Hatzfeld understands, the killers' words raised as many questions as they answer.

The ten men Hatzfeld interviewed had been friends from childhood; they stayed together during their genocidal "job," as they called it, and then in their flight to exile in Congo, during their subsequent capture and trials, and now in prison. They freely spoke to Hatzfeld about what life had been like during those terrible weeks in the spring of 1994, and what they thought about what they had done.

"The offenders know more than the basic facts," one acknowledges. "They have secrets in their souls." Another simply says, "Killing was less wearisome than farming." "A man is like an animal: you give him a whack on the head or the neck, and down he goes," says another. Why were they willing to talk? Did they distinguish truth from self-defensive evasion about this gruesome killing spree? Did they seek reconciliation, forgiveness, understanding? Were they remorseless, or did they suffer the nightmares of the damned?

With an introduction by Susan Sontag, Hatzfeld's report on this horrific testimony is humane and wise, and he relates the unprecedented material he obtained from the genocidaires to what we know of other war crimes and genocidal episodes. It has sometimes been suggested that only depraved and monstrous men could perpetrate such crimes, but it may be, Hatzfeld suggests, that these terrible actions are within the realm of ordinary human conduct.


Praise for Machete Season

"Harrowing. The reader is drawn in, in effect eavesdropping on a casual conversation among killers . . . Readers who can get beyond their (justified) initial horror will find a wealth of detail here about the genocide."—Alison Des Forges, The Washington Post Book World
"Monstrous in scope, unfathomable in cruelty, annihilating in implication, the concept of genocide all but defies imagination. That is why reading Jean Hatzfeld's interviews with perpetrators of the 1994 Rwanda massacre is so profoundly disturbing."—The Baltimore Sun

"Stunning . . . What makes the book so astonishing are . . . the voices of the men, many of whom speak in a kind of chilling, breathtaking poetry."—O, The Oprah magazine
"Realistic and, above all else, terrifying . . . Hatzfeld gives this madness a shocking sort of order . . . brilliantly [organizing] his subjects' stories for maximum effect.  His method captures the rhythm of a genocide—the cold, workmanlike, fierce nature of its reception."—Salon
"It is usually presumed that killers will not tell the truth about their brutal actions, but Hatzfeld elicited extraordinary testimony from these men about the genocide they had perpetrated. He rightly sees that their account raises as many questions as it answers . . . [His] meditation on the banal, horrific testimony of the genocidaires and what it means is lucid, humane, and wise: he relates the Rwanda horror to war crimes and to other genocidal episodes in human history."—Africa News

"A new and vitally important approach [that is] destined to become one of the most important resources for those seeking to understand the Rwandan genocide . . . A magnificent book . . . Over the last decade, numerous books, movies, and documentaries have been produced examining the international community's staggering apathy during those horrific one hundred days. But until Machete Season, there has been very little written about the impact such global apathy had on the victims of Rwanda. As difficult as it is to admit, no one can better describe the atmosphere of despair in which these victims died than a killer himself."—The American Prospect
"Hatzfeld's harrowing documentation of the voices of Rwandan killers reminds us once again how perfectly human it can be to be perfectly inhumane."—Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
"As readers, the book leaves us feeling sort of unsettled: partly, of course, because of the nature of the material and the simple impossibility of really understanding what seems so alien to us. But the worst of it is the feeling towards the killers, the men interviewed who we feel we've just spent a couple of hours talking to. We expect to feel repugnance, disgust, distaste—and these emotions are all there. But not to the extent that we expect; as Mr. Hatzfeld says, 'This is awkward to admit, but curiosity wins out over hostility.' And this is true: it is in many cases difficult to dislike these men, even if we find their actions and their descriptions of them horrifying and incomprehensible. It takes a conscious effort to remain horrified: it's easy to slip into viewing these men as they view themselves, as essentially good people who got caught up in something bad, and were helpless to resist."—Sam Wolf, Peace and Conflict Monitor

"Open this book to any page and you are likely to land on some of the most shocking testimonials ever recorded. Hatzfeld prods the killers—mostly farmers, active churchgoers, one former teacher—about the first person they struck with a machete, about suffering, about hatred. And the men respond with an ease and matter-of-factness that belies the gruesome nature of nearly everything they say . . . What can we take away from this book? Maybe that is best addressed in the preface by Susan Sontag, in what must be some of the last words she wrote before her death last year. 'Hatzfeld has harvested a unique set of avowals that forces us to confront the unthinkable, the unimaginable,' she wrote. 'Our obligation, and it is an obligation, is to take in what human beings are capable of doing to one another . . . For the issue, finally, is not judgment. It is understanding.'"—Austin Merrill, San Francisco Chronicle
"That Hazfeld was able to obtain such candid, firsthand testimony from the perpetrators of the genocide is no small achievement."—David Colterjohn, The Vancouver Sun
"As Machete Season’s subtitle indicates, Hatzfeld has made an admirable attempt to leave the killer's interpretations of the events unadorned, reported just as they are stated for the record . . . The killers' stark descriptions of their 'hunting expeditions,' ably rendered in English by [Linda] Coverdale, are chillingly lucid and the forthrightness of their retrospective rationale especially arresting . . . Machete Season offers . . . with astonishing elegance of expression, a jarring and worthwhile first-hand account of 'the abnormal actions of perfectly normal people.'"—Mireille A. L. Djenno, Ruminator
"An extraordinary book. Jean Hatzfeld's interviews in Machete Season shed a glaring light on the multiple yet similar faces of ordinary executioners in the genocides of our time."—Saul Friedländer, author of Nazi Germany and the Jews
"Frontline reportage from one of the world's more recent genocides, as narrated by the foot soldiers who perpetrated it. In the space of three months in 1994, some 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were killed by compatriots from the Hutu tribe. The Nazis, observes Liberation reporter Hatzfeld, were never so efficient, 'never attained so murderous a performance level anywhere in Germany or its fifteen occupied countries.' The agents of that efficient death-dealing were ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, and they threw themselves into their work, driven by several motives. Not least of the reasons, several of the now-imprisoned killers relate through the interviews collected here, is the simple fact that killing is easier than farming, more rewarding, with no discipline required; as one killer says, 'Rule number one was to kill. There was no rule number two. It was an organization without complications.' Others of the perpetrators were driven by longstanding ethnic jealousy of the Tutsi, praised by early European ethnologists for their aristocratic features; one Rwandan remarks, for example, that considering parallels with the Shoah, 'The Tutsis are not a people punished for the death of Jesus Christ. The Tutsis are simply a people come to misfortune on the hills because of their noble bearing.' Yet others were motivated by talk radio, which assured them that the Tutsis were cockroaches and snakes; remarks a killer, 'The evil-mindedness of the radios was too well calculated for us to oppose it.' Most of the men relate that, whatever drove them, they felt very little guilt, very little of any emotion, as they were butchering Tutsis of whatever age or gender; only one or two admit to guilty memories or dreams after the fact, which prompts Hatzfeld to wonder whether it could be that 'of all categories of war criminal, the perpetrator of genocide winds up the least traumatized.' A trove for future historians and ethnographers seeking to explain the mechanics of genocide, and eye-opening, sobering reading for the rest of us."—Kirkus Reviews
"A close-up look at the thoughts, motivations, and regrets of 10 of the Hutu killers who participated in the slaughter of their Tutsi neighbors. An estimated 50,000 Tutsis were murdered in May and April of 1994 when ethnic tensions were whipped into a frenzy following the death of Rwandan president Juvenal Habayarima, a Hutu. Now imprisoned for their participation in the slaughter, the 10 men Hatzfeld interviewed offer incredible accounts of how they moved from ordinary lives, albeit ones filled with simmering tensions with their Tutsi neighbors, to the ragtag army employed to kill with machetes . . . Chilling and thoroughly absorbing."—Vanessa Bush, Booklist
"This book features the testimony of 10 friends from the same village who spent day after day together, fulfilling orders to kill any Tutsi within their territory during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. While their anecdotes are shocking at first, they detail how an ordinary person with an everyday life in a farming village can be transformed into a killer. As one man explains, 'if you must obey the orders of authorities, if you have been properly prepared, if you see yourself pushed and pulled, if you see the killing will be total and without disastrous consequences for yourself, you feel soothed and reassured.' A reporter for Paris's Libération, Hatzfeld has a remarkable ability to pry into the killer's memory and conscience. One Hutu tells how 'a pain pinched his hear' when confronted with an old Tutsi soccer teammate he was obligated to kill. Others describe the regrets or nightmares they have now that the genocide is over (and they are in prison). But for the most part, the interviews reveal the killers' naïve expectations for forgiveness and reconciliation once they are released. Hatzfeld offers an analysis of the psychology of the perpetrators and how the Rwandan genocide differs from other genocides in history. Steering clear of politics, this important book succeeds in offering the reader some grasp of how such unspeakable acts unfolded."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



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Machete Season
Copyright © 2003 by Éditions du Seuil Translation copyright © 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC Preface copyright © 2005 by Susan Sontag
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  • Jean Hatzfeld; Translated by Linda Coverdale; Preface by Susan Sontag

  • Jean Hatzfeld, an international reporter for Libération since 1973, is the author of many books, including another on Rwanda, Into the Quick Life, and two on the war in Croatia and Bosnia. He lives in Paris.
    Linda Coverdale, the translator of Machete Season, has translated more than forty books, including Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light, which won the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She lives in Brooklyn.
    Susan Sontag wrote several novels, stories, plays, and essays. Her books are translated into thirty-two languages. In 2001 she was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for the body of her work; in 2003, she received the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Sontag died in December of 2004.