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Dispatches: Machete Season by Jean Hatzfeld

By Geoff Wisner


In the New Yorker recently, Philip Gourevitch published a follow-up article to his book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (my review).

In it, he explored what is sometimes seen as a nearly miraculous exercise in Christian forgiveness: the fact that in villages across Rwanda, survivors of the 1994 genocidal attacks on the Tutsis are living side by side with the génocidaires who took part in the attacks. (Rwanda, by the way, is more than 50% Catholic and more than 90% Christian.)

On closer examination, it seems that forgiveness is not so easy for many of the survivors, and that they live among the former killers partly because their president, Paul Kagame, has called on them to do so, and partly because they don't have much choice.

At the recent PEN festival, as part of a panel on the topic Is Nonfiction Literature?, Gourevitch remarked on what good informants the Rwandans made. Before it was colonized by the Belgians, the country had no written language. Yet despite (or because of) this, Rwandans have a structured way of telling a story.


Gourevitch mines exceptional material from his Rwandan informants, but his comment at PEN made me think of Jean Hatzfeld's book Machete Season (translated from the French by Linda Coverdale), which is no less than an oral history of the genocide from the point of view of the killers.

Hatzfeld quotes at length from ten men who took part in the massacre of Tutsis in and around the district of Nyamata, south of Kigali. Many of the victims fled into the nearby papyrus swamps and were killed there. Jean-Baptiste Murangira, one of the killers, was thirty-eight at the time, a civil servant married to a Tutsi woman who was spared during the genocide.

I often dream I am walking in freedom on the road to Ntarama. I go along, among the familiar trees. I feel refreshed and at ease, and I am content. I wake up full of nostalgia on my pallet.

Other nights dreaming tips into calamity. I see again the people I killed with my own hand. When that happens, every awful detail of blood and terror comes back: the mud, the heat of the chase, the colleagues… Only the cries are missing. These are silent killings, which seem slow but are as dreadful as before. My dreams in prison are of various kinds, sometimes somber, sometimes calm; perhaps they flow from the various situations of my life here, whether I am sick or in good health. Who can tell if they will change when I get out? My hope is they'll forget about me.

All the prisoners live unhappily since the genocide. Many complain about their fate, but not to the point of turning to a deadly remedy. I know of no one driven by remorse or nightmares to extreme measures. I know of no case of suicide in prison during my seven years here. There are a dozen cases of people eating filth, tearing their clothes, writhing on the ground, or screaming in waking dreams — but raving enough to take their own lives, never.

Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at

Published May 14, 2009   Copyright 2009 Geoff Wisner

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