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Fourteen Witnesses to the Rwandan Genocide

June 19, 2010

Into the Quick of Life
The Rwandan Genocide: The Survivors speak
Jean Hatzfeld
English Translation © 2005 Gerry Freehilly
Mackays of Chatam PLC
Rating: 4 Stars Excellent

This is the best book I have read about the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. It was originally written in “Rwandan” French but even in this English translation the anguish and dignity of 14 survivors is communicated in a highly literary form. Each of the chapters sets the scene in post genocide Rwanda and then gives the testimony of a survivor. The author interviewed survivors from Bugesars one of many regions of this small highly populated country. Rwanda one of the most beautiful places in this world was known as the land of 1000 hills but is now known for one of the worst events of the 20th century.

Bugesara typical of Rwanda includes several villages on different hills as well as rivers, a eucalyptus forest and extensive papyrus swamps. This area was largely unpopulated until the genocide of 1959 when internally displaced Tutsi colonized it. Later Hutus joined them and by 1994 the year of the genocide the population was almost equally Hutus and Tutsis.
The 14 witnesses tell their stories and many admit that the accuracy of their stories and those of other survivors is altered by thought suppression and self deception as part of the means of self preservation. But by listening to these 14 witnesses the reader sees a consistency in the horror of their stories. Three of the survivors are school teachers, one a social worker, the rest are made up of farmers, small time business people and students. They all describe the incitement of the Hutus, the assassination of the Rwandan president by plane crash and the immediate commencement of the killing. Many ran to the Catholic Church but unlike those who stayed in the church and died they ran to the papyrus swamps or the forest. One school teacher Ignatius was among 20 of 5000 who ran to the forest who survived. The social worker made it to Burundi. One young girl became the ‘wife’ of one of the interhamwe killers to survive. They describe that the machetes were new, that the killers would come singing in the morning hunting for them and working diligently killing Tutsis until 4:00 or 4:30 pm, then going home for the day. It is noted by several of these witnesses that if the ‘evil doers’ had not been fighting over the loot and property of the Tutsis, they would have succeeded in killing all but because of these delays some survived until the arrival of the Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the genocide.
The experience of seeing their family and friends killed by neighbors is repeated. The involvement of the educated elite rather than the ignorant shocked them and none of the witnesses could understand the motivation of the genocide. The complicity of the French is mentioned twice but not emphasized. The 14 witnesses all complained about the failure of the west or the whites to intervene but one also complained that other Africans also did not intervene. The survivors do not believe they could forgive but they do accept the need for reconciliation.
They also note that the Hutus they know, deny complicity or knowledge of the genocide but the witnesses do not believe them. This reminds me of the denial of knowledge of the holocaust in Germany. I visited a death camp in Dachau in Bavaria. The camp and the ovens are so close to the town of Dachau that it is unbelievable that the townspeople did not know. I have been to Rwanda and taught interns who were both Hutu and Tutsi. I have visited on genocide memorial with the seemingly uncountable skulls and long bones. . The community near the memorial near Butare that I visited had almost no phenotypic Tutsi. The Hutus had to know what happened there and that their families were involved.
I know one survivor of the genocide who lives in Canada who lost 9 first degree relatives. This book genuine reflects what I know about Rwanda through my observations and experience. I found it allowed me to empathize if not understand the psychological disturbances I recognize in my Rwandese friends and students (both Tutsi and Hutu). It also helps understand a part of our own humanity which is terrifying

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