Thursday, 23 September 2010

Book Review: A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak by Jean Hatzfeld

A Time for Machetes - The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak by Jean Hatzfeld Following the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 which claimed the lives of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Jean Hatzfeld visited Rwanda and spoke to the survivors of the atrocities. Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide - The Survivors Speak is a harrowing read which tells in the survivors’ own words the horrors of the genocide including surviving massacres in churches, hiding under dead bodies or spending days hiding in swamps as their former friends and neighbours scoured the area with machetes seeking to kill them.  You can read my detailed account of the book here: On Rwanda: my passion and the need to know.

In A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak , Hatzfeld returns to Rwanda and this time he speaks to the perpetrators of the genocide: ten men who are serving time in a  prison for their part in the genocide.  As a prolific reader of books relating to the Rwandan genocide, my expectations on picking up this book were quite specific.  What the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide did was unthinkable, it defied words and stretched the bounds of the human imagination.  I hoped to gain some insight into what the killers had been thinking, what had motivated them and how they justified their own actions.  I expected to read that the men had been caught up in the frenzy and organisation of the time and that they were somewhat horrified by their actions today.  I expected the passage of time and life in prison to have inspired a remorseful attitude and an appreciation of the human cost and loss of life resulting from their actions.  I was disappointed.

There is no doubt that this is an excellent book and I have no hesitation giving it five stars and recommending that people read it.  Hatzfeld’s brave and tireless enquiry has given us an extremely rare insight into the mind of a genocidal killer.  The questions that he asks, the commentary and background information that he provides and the process he undergoes to gain the killers’ trust provides an invaluable resource that we simply have not had with other genocides.  In the end though, it seems that my expectation of remorse and reconciliation was beyond naive.

The chapters in the book detail the level of organisation of the killings including how gang members were initiated and how they were instructed on how to kill.  There are descriptions of how men were punished or not rewarded if they failed to kill and how there were called upon and dispatched each morning and fed and rewarded each evening.  The respondents discuss how they overcame initial hesitation with respect to the killings, how they began to dehumanise Tutsis in order to kill them and how they felt about rape and looting. 

“We no longer saw a human being when we turned up a Tutsi in the swamps.  I mean a person like us, sharing similar thoughts and feelings” - Pio

Danielle Nyirabazungu - memorial site guardian
Danielle Nyirabazungu - memorial site guardian

Throughout reading the book, there is the continual and nagging feeling that something is missing.  In a sense, it is the complete lack of sincerity, humanity or accountability.  One killer speaks of how he magnanimously spared the life of a woman only to kill her days later once her usefulness had run its course.  The killers display an incredible sense of entitlement and a refusal to even hint or acknowledge of how wrong their actions were.  They simply feel no remorse and even manage to express anger and impatience at their victims.  If only they could get on with it and forgive them, then the killers could get their own lives back!

“I believe the consequences have been most unfortunate for us all.  The others have gathered in many dead.  But we, too, have met with perilous hardships in the camps and a wretched life in prison” – Fulgence

It is possible that this sense of brazen remorselessness has to do with way in which the questions were asked of the killers or the manner in which they were reported however, Hatzfeld had specifically set out to give the killers a voice, to put the inconceivable into words, so I would be less likely to believe that it is deliberate bias.  It is likely that much has been lost in translation between the original Kinyarwandan to French to English.  The fact remains that much of the text in the book is reported in the killers’ own words and that the ten respondents were part of an original gang that managed to stay together during their time in prison.  Quite simply, it is most likely that they simply did not feel remorse or the full impact of their actions as the genocidal discourse had remained intact during their time in prison and nothing had been done to separate the men or break down these beliefs.  Mention is made in the closing chapter of the books of the men being sent to a re-education camp at Bicumbi before the majority of them were released back into the community in May 2003 but the interviews in the book took place before this occurred.  Hatzfeld's final book in this trilogy, The Strategy Of Antelopes: Rwanda After the Genocide picks up where the killers have been released into the community and details their difficulty in settling back down in the communities and how their Tutsi neighbours must tolerate them.

Jean Hatzfeld
Jean Hatzfeld

I would certainly recommend this book but I would certainly not recommend that this be the only book that you read on the Rwandan genocide.  These are the top books that I would recommend on the Rwandan genocide (click on the links to go straight to

  1. Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza
  2. An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda by Paul Rusesabagina
  3. Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane
  4. Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide - The Survivors Speak by Jean Hatzfeld
  5. The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo by Clea Koff

Despite the difficulties presented with the subject matter, I would still give this book five out of five stars.

Article written by me and first published as Book Review: A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak by Jean Hatzfeld on Blogcritics. This review contains afilliate links.



  1. Sounds like a great book!

  2. hi emm! a great post indeed! i just want to let you know that i really appreciate the learnings i get everytime i visit your blog (this and even your other blogs). i feel so "cultured" after...seriously! it is obvious that you are very passionate about what you do and what you write about. hope you won't mind my awarding you with something that maybe a tad "trivial" (though, not to me!)...the One Lovely Blog Award. you can pick it up on my blog when you have time. here’s the link:

    more power to you! Godspeed!

  3. Emm, this is almost too much of a stark reality to digest, though we must. I sadly believe that a lack of remorse is not only consigned to those who committed these atrocities, but is rapidly spreading throughout humanity like a virus with no cure. Perhaps by raising awareness as you so eloquently do, we may look to ourselves and ask, Who are we? What have we become? What part do we play when these atrocities occur?

  4. Would really like to read this book, and will order it. Its a great blog and post you have, your commitment to understanding and making others understand this matter is amazing, it really is good work.

  5. There is no remorse shown to their victims because they see them as sub humans, virtually from birth they are taught to hate and kill their enemies.

  6. I personally know a woman who has survived the genocide and has made a life for herself and her son here. However, the road to healing has been very challenging, until in my own little way, I was able to help get her story told and published. A truly moving journey.

    Looking forward to the weekend?

    Many thanks for visiting Norwich Daily Photo and leaving your comment. Come visit again tomorrow!

  7. @ Toyin: The author has made a great effort in bringing this story to the fore but it is not a great subject matter at all.

    @ Mama Mia: Thank you so much for your kind comment and the award!

    @ Cher: What part do we play when these atrocities occur? Oh Cher, that question haunts me daily. I guess this is just a contrast to say South Africa where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission meant that we did hear remorse and really attempts to repair the past.

    @ Dempsey: Thank you! Let me know if you do get it and what you think.

    @ Ryan: You are absolutely correct.

    @ Joy: Really? I would love to feature that story (or at the very least, read it).


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