It is very interesting how you can happen on a revelation when you least expect it.
Jean Hatzfeld is a name I had remotely heard about as one of the many French journalists who were in Rwanda in 1994 to report on what their brief described as “ethnic conflict”.
What he saw, as he says, changed his life. And when I read about it a few days ago, I also saw a side of the 1994 that I didn’t know existed.
His change did not occur during the thick of the genocide against Batutsi. It was when he was back in France, after his tour of duty, that he thought back and realised he did not understand what he had covered.
Yes, there was the Rwanda government, the RPF rebel force, the UN peace keeping mission and a scattering of non-governmental organisations. But after what he now knew to have been genocide, did he know what went on in the minds of the people that it affected?
The result is a book on the survivors published in 2000 titled ‘Dans le nu de la vie’ (‘Quick of Life’) and one on the perpetrators two years later, ‘Une Saison de machettes’ (‘A Time for Machetes’).
In the first place, though, Hatzfeld did not set out to write the two books. His intention was to find out how the genocide victims felt. So, he set up camp in Nyamata, where almost all Batutsi were exterminated, and for two and a half years he listened to stories of the survivors.
To his surprise, all of them were unanimous: they all expressed regret for surviving. Now I understand, but I must confess that, like Hatzfeld, at first I had believed that they’d have been happy to have survived.
Imagine their plight, however hard it is to actually comprehend it. You are the head of a family whose wife and children were decimated.
You saw impending danger and, convinced you’d rather face danger than see your family assaulted, you took them into hiding, say in the swamp, and went back to the house to wait for the killers.
When the killers came, you were able to persuade them into sparing your life, by offering a bribe. For some time, then, you could prepare food and take it to your family under the cover of darkness. But your respite was short-lived, because your money was exhausted after only a few of these bargains.
So, when you heard the attackers next, you took refuge in the ceiling. The assaulters ransacked the house but somehow didn’t think of the ceiling and you survived repeated raids.
Can you forgive yourself for not having hidden your family in the ceiling instead, however impracticable it would have been?
Alternatively, you are a mother who was able to survive by just eating grass in the swamp. You ate a bit of the food you had carried for your baby, in the belief that you could get more breast milk for the baby.
Unfortunately, the breast milk dried up only a few days after the food was finished. The memory will always live with you that that little food would have enabled your baby to live long enough for you both to be discovered by RPF fighters.
Or, as happened to Jean Paul when he was nine, you were among your siblings running away from what you thought was the only scene of danger. As you were running with your brothers and sisters, you stumbled and fell in a ditch on the wayside.
As you were trying to regain your breath, an idea struck you. Instead of following your siblings, you gathered all the twigs and leaves around and covered yourself, then lay low. You could hear the Interahamwe chanting as they ran after the others, but none was aware of the ditch near the path.
Your conscience is torturing you for not having called back your siblings so that you could have shared the ditch. It will not matter that the ditch was hardly big enough to hold you, let alone an additional three siblings.
Examples are legion. As Hatzfeld explains, genocide survivors “feel guilty for having survived and their [lives are] distorted by that for ever…. Often, their maternal or paternal instincts failed them and they were unable to save a child….”
After coming face to face with what it meant to survive the 1994 genocide and exposing “its atmosphere of fear and disgust” to the reader, Hatzfeld sought to explore the other side of the coin. What is the feeling among the perpetrators?
Says Hatzfeld: “…..what really amazed me was that they feel no remorse. They don’t have nightmares; there is no sign of any traumatism whatsoever, no attempted suicides, no alcoholism. They are quite unlike war veterans, for instance.”
For doing government bidding, the perpetrators feel no guilt at all. They explain their killing sprees in terms of work. They would gather every morning at 8, then go in groups to hunt and slaughter until afternoon Aft that, they would eat and drink to celebrate a job well executed.
For a man who has only observed one side of the story of the 1994 genocide, no wonder Peter Erlinder denies its occurrence. It is telling also, that Ingabire Victoire should dare campaign shamelessly for a return to “work”.
Unknown to the two, however, with patient government coaxing, a majority of the perpetrators have since regained their humaneness.
A stint in ‘ingando’ can do the duo a lot of good!