The Reality of Genocide

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Review of 'A Time for Machetes' and 'Into the Quick of Life', both by Jean Hatzfeld, Serpent's Tail £12 each

The context of these books is a particular focus on one of the greatest horrors of the last century: 'In 1994, between 11 in the morning on 11 April and two in the afternoon on 14 May, about 50,000 Tutsis out of a population of 59,000 were massacred by machete on the hills of the commune of Nyamata in Rwanda.' This regional massacre was part of the larger genocide that saw some 800,000 Tutsis and anti-massacre Hutus killed.

The first duty when faced with such events is to tell the truth, to reveal the reality of mass murder. Many other books have done this, but Hatzfeld has chosen to illustrate the killings through intensive interviews with survivors (Into the Quick of Life) or those who actually carried out the massacres (A Time for Machetes). This does have startlingly powerful results.

We meet Adalbert, previously leader of the church choir, who becomes the leader of his local death squad. There is Leopord, who says, 'I want to make clear that from the first gentleman I killed to the last, I was not sorry about a single one.' Again and again the killers' language emphasises their feeling of the ordinariness of what they did, the paltry material gains they made, the sense that it was 'hard work' and done without a thought.

And in the other volume we meet survivors whose courage and resilience are simply awe-inspiring. Yet Hatzfeld's writing leaves me uneasy, in the same way that a series of recent works about Rwanda have done. Books like these, and the extraordinarily powerful film Hotel Rwanda, give a very good sense of how the killing happened. But they do not even seek to tell you why.

So how can perfectly ordinary men become such brutes? How can we understand how a soccer player chops to death, seemingly without a care, the player who has been his team-mate for years? How can a teacher slash the limbs from the person he used to work alongside? How can a woman turn away her friend who she used to talk to every day?

In the absence of explanation there are two simple answers that many people would jump to - that human beings are all like this given the chance, or that Africans in particular are like this. In the absence of explanation Rwanda in 1994 can be seen as just another outpouring of black barbarism, part of a series that includes war in Biafra, famine in Ethiopia and slaughter in the Congo - bloody episodes in the hopeless continent. The Rwandan genocide is almost unfathomable when you first understand the extent of what happened (see, for example, the work of the photographer Alfredo Jaar who spent years wrestling with how to present his pictures of the killing - and whose first exhibition had his photos sealed in labelled black linen boxes). But the massacre has to be explained, not simply described.

It is the strength of authors Mahmood Mamdani, Philip Gourevitch, Gerard Prunier, the African Rights team, the novelist Gil Courtemanche and others that they both describe the horror and also ask why it happened. They come up with different answers, but they insist there are answers. Almost despite themselves, the Hatzfeld books give glimpses of explanation - the historical roots, the way that people at the top of society manipulated public opinion, the fear that not taking part would mean punishment or death, the material poverty that made people desperate for plunder, and so on. But these are fleeting glances. Right at the end of Into the Quick of Life a survivor, Sylvie Umubyeyi, says, 'When I discuss the genocide with acquaintances to try to understand it, we put forward three ideas. The first has to do with the material conditions of life and poverty. The second idea concerns ignorance. The third has to do with influential people and the great number of people they influenced.'

You seem to learn from Hatzfeld what happened in 1994 in Rwanda, but in a sense you can only really know what happened when you understand it. And that requires building on the sort of insights that Sylvie Umubyeyi puts forward.