Deja vu: Continuing on with the 20th century's litany of infamy and shame ... Print E-mail
Read the below "Rwanda: From the mouths of killers" for some insights into Rwanda's killing fields, noting author Trevor Royle's question "How do we come to terms with the awful fact that men - and they were usually men - were capable of killing their fellow human beings on an industrial scale [when for a month in 1994 ], men, women and children were pursued, terrorised and hacked to death because they were Tutsis?".

In Royle's words the mass murder of Tutsis by their Hutu neighbours formed "part of the 20th century's litany of shame, a one-way street to infamy and despair: Katyn; Grozny; My Lai; Srebrenica; Nyamata; Sabra and Shatila".

To add but a few, WW II Europe's gas chambers and death camps, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki belong high on Royle's list, but what of the 21st century, barely 5 years old: 3000-odd torpedoed to death from the sky at the World Trade Centre, 50-odd slaughtered on London transport, but thousands upon thousands of first Afghans, and then Iraqis, bombed to death, mutilation and misery by US missiles because they were Afghan or Iraqi? A litany of shame to exceed that of the 20th century, with the infamy already overwhelmingly due to the self-ordained "axis of good"! Lynette

Glasgow -- August 21 2005


The mass murder of Tutsis by their Hutu neighbours in 1994 was an unutterably evil event - except to the perpetrators who say that their only crime was not finishing off the job. Trevor Royle reports

SAY the words carefully and soberly, because they form part of the 20th century's litany of shame, a one-way street to infamy and despair: Katyn; Grozny; My Lai; Srebrenica; Nyamata; Sabra and Shatila. These are blood-soaked unhallowed names of places where thousands of innocents were slaughtered not because they were combatants in a war zone but because they happened to be of the wrong race or religion and in the wrong place at the wrong time. We think we know the victims, we recognise their frightened faces and broken bodies, but what of the people who did the killing? How do we come to terms with the awful fact that men - and they were usually men - were capable of killing their fellow human beings on an industrial scale?

Some of them were brought to justice and got their deserts. Sixty years after the war which spawned the Holocaust - the officially sanctioned attempt to wipe out the Jewish race - the perpetrators, now old men, are still being brought to book for their actions while wearing the black uniforms of the SS or the field grey of Hitler?s armies. Looking at their lined and tired faces and listening to their faltering testimony, it is well-nigh impossible to imagine them in the years of their pomp as they gunned down the old and infirm or crammed the skeletal into the gas chambers. Scenes such as those are difficult to imagine; ignominy of that order is almost impossible to grasp; even for those of us who have witnessed the aftermath of extreme violence, the mind goes into freefall, unable to comprehend the mechanics of mass extermination.

And yet the attempt has to be made because our age has borne witness to some of the worst atrocities ever . It was that impulse that led the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld to explore his own particular heart of darkness when he investigated the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Like all such incidents, it could only be put into context by keeping the prose tight, muscular and devoid of flourish.

"In 1994, between 11 in the morning on Monday April 11 and two in the afternoon on Saturday May 14, about 50,000 Tutsis, out of a population of around 59,000, were massacred by machete, murdered every day of the week, from 9.30 in the morning until four in the afternoon, by Hutu neighbours and militiamen, on the hills of the commune of Nyamata, in Rwanda."

Mark those words well. Five out of six Tutsis were killed. The killers were their neighbours with whom they had lived in the eucalyptus forests and papyrus marshes, drinking the same Primus beer or banana brew, attending the same churches and doing pretty much the same thing as the rest of the neighbourhood, year in and year out. Then came year zero in the spring of 1994 when things fell apart.

Beneath the calm of Rwanda's rolling hills and lush vegetation there had always been tensions between Hutus and Tutsis over power and influence, but these seemed to have been consigned to history when President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, brokered a peace accord with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front. All might have been well but when Habyarimana was killed in a mysterious plane crash over the Rwandan capital, Kigali, the genie was let out of the bottle. Within days the Hutus went on the rampage as battalions of machete-wielding civilians set about slaughtering Tutsis, singing and laughing as they brought in their grim harvest. For a month, men, women and children were pursued, terrorised and hacked to death because they were Tutsis.

Describing the outbreak of violence as "the point of departure" for his groundbreaking book about the massacres, Hatzfeld interviewed the survivors, among them women like Valerie Nyirarudodo who worked as a nurse in the Sainte-Marthe Maternity Hospital in Nyamata. No sooner had the white nurses pulled out, courtesy of United Nations' military escorts, than the hospitals became a sanctuary for Tutsi women. Much good it did them when the Hutu killers arrived to begin the process of extermination. Like all massacres, it was a mixture of evil and banality.

"They killed the women with machetes and clubs," remembered Valerie. "Whenever one of the more agile girls managed to escape in the commotion and get out of a window, she was caught in the gardens. When a mama had hidden a child underneath her, they picked her up first, then cut the child, then cut its mother last. They didn?t bother to cut the nursing infants properly. They slammed them against the walls to save time, or hurled them alive on the heaps of corpses."

The film Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle, caught something of the mindless brutality which fuelled the massacres but, for the sake of the big screen, it had to throttle back on what happens when sharpened steel slices through skulls as easily as a knife through boiled eggs, or the effect of bludgeons on suddenly fragile and defenceless bones. The sad reality is that, try as we may to convert the facts into an understandable narrative, both prose and fiction let us down. The only way to get near the truth is to use the forensic techniques of the sleuth by interrogating the perpetrators, sifting evidence and constructing a case which allows us to get closer to the heart of the matter.

Which brings us back to Hatzfeld's point of departure. As the late novelist Susan Sontag put it, what happened in Rwanda "goes beyond human imagination". But it is not so terrible that we should excuse ourselves the obligation of trying to understand what happened on those terrible April and May days when the world was turned upside down in a central African community hedged in by soft, rolling hills and rich, red earth. To find his own exegesis, Hatzfeld went back to the killing fields and did what every good writer does when they try to make sense of anarchy and inchoate behaviour. He spoke to those most deeply and intimately involved in what actually happened -  the people who perfected the swing of the machete to kill cleanly, those who went to the business of slaughtering with the same disinterest of the office-bound commuter, those who spilled blood without compassion and then slept easily in their beds at night.

Astonishingly, 10 men agreed to speak to Hatzfeld from their prison at Rilimi, where they had been placed after the army of the Rwandan Patriotic Front had intervened to halt the violence. All were friends, all came from the same neighbourhood and all had some kind of connection with their victims. The passing of the years should have brought some sense of absolution or at least a hint of shame but, as Hatzfeld found, these men were largely indifferent to what they had done, regarding their part in the slaughter as a necessary "job", something which had to be carried out without troubling their consciences. Léopord Twagirayezu was admired for his skill with the machete, leaving the rest of the gang "dumbfounded", and as he told Hatzfeld, it was all in a day's work. "During the killings I no longer considered anything in particular in the Tutsi except that the person had to be done away with. I want to make clear that from the first gentleman I killed to the last, I was not sorry about a single one."

Similar sentiments could have been uttered by any of the concentration camp guards who herded their victims into gas chambers or rounded up the young and the old to meet certain death, but canisters of Zyklon-B gas pellets and packed cattle trucks distance the executioners from the victims. In Rwanda, the business of slaughter meant that the slashers actually looked their quarry in the eye before hacking them to death. Not since the close-quarter combat of earlier years had killing grounds been turned into such a blood-drenched abattoir but at least in pre-gunpowder battles the participants were soldiers trained to kill or be killed. In Rwanda, the slaughter was carried out by civilians against civilians, senselessly and savagely, and as Pancrace Hakizamungili pointed out, it was not for the squeamish."Some killed slowly because they were afraid, others because they were weaklings, others because it was all the same to them, others from ferocity. Me, I struck quickly without worrying about it. I did not think about such fiendishness, I was hurrying to get through the day's schedule."

Being farmers, they were used to working with machetes and quickly found that the natural rhythm of working in the fields served them well when they came to the business of cutting down humans. Some of Hatzfeld's witnesses talked about the cutting and slashing being a "natural" activity, one which came easily to them and one which gave them pleasure. Just as workers refuse to blame their tools when something goes wrong, so did the men of Nyamata take a savage pride in their ability to finish off their victims quickly and cleanly. Compared to farming, said one, "killing was a demanding but more gratifying activity".

It was also more profitable. Because Tutsis were at the heart of Rwanda's commercial affairs, looting became a major incentive and any man returning from the killing fields without a sizeable amount of swag could expect a hard time from his wife and family. A few became rich overnight and most benefited from the sudden supplies of sheet metal which were freed up as Tutsi houses were destroyed and valuable roofing material became available. Attempts to stop the thieving fell on deaf ears because consciences had gone into cold storage. "The massacres had become extraordinary, beyond all reason," admitted Joseph-Désiré Bitero, a trained teacher.

One other factor intruded in Rwanda. When the massacres started, the rest of the world went to sleep almost as if what was happening in Africa was of no concern. Left to their own devices and secure in the knowledge that the UN forces would not intervene, the Hutus realised that they could act with impunity. "All the important people turned their backs on our killings," said Élie Mizinge, a soldier turned farmer. "The blue helmets, the Belgians, the white directors, the black presidents, the humanitarian people and the international cameramen, the priests and the bishops and finally God."

Ten years on, the killing fields are now silent, lonely places. Most of the Hutu killers were brought to justice and of Hatzfeld's group only Bitero remains in detention after being implicated in the planning of the genocide - he served as municipal president of the ferocious Interahamwe, the most feared of the Hutu militias. The odd thing about them, as Hatzfeld soon discovered, is that they still glory in their actions: "Unlike war criminals who tend (aside from certain psychopaths) to lie low and slip out the back door after their downfall, these fellows usually place themselves in the centre of the stage." Not that they go on living without regrets. Chillingly, their one grievance was that when peace returned to Rwanda they had failed to finish off the task in hand.