Testimonies From The Genocide In Rwanda, 1994

The state of Rwanda gained its independence in 1962 after being ruled as Belgian colony for several decades. Europeans had played ethnic groups in the region off of one another in order to make the colonies easier to control, and in Rwanda had favored the minority Tutsis at the expense of the Hutu majority. The newly independent state was dominated by Hutus, but substantial numbers of Tutsis fled to the surrounding states of Burundi, Uganda, and Congo. Eventually strife between the two groups erupted into a Rwandan Civil War in 1990. The shooting down of the airplane of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, on April 6, 1994 served as the pretext for a wave a murders of Rwandan Tutsis. Within only two months, at least 500,000 Tutsis were killed by Hutu Interhamwe militias wielding clubs and machetes. The genocide was finally halted by the invasion of the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) from Ugandan territory, but some 2 million Hutus were forced to flee the country to refugee camps in neighboring Congo, which was in the midst of its own bloody civil war. Despite a great deal of coverage in Western media, none of the Western powers intervened in any substantial way to stop the violence.

The following testimonies, drawn largely from Hutu murderers serving long terms in prison, were collected by the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld in 2001 and 2002. Their reflections show the critical role played by toxic anti-Tutsi political rhetoric on Rwandan radio and setting the stage for people to murder friends and neighbors alongside whom they had lived their entire lives.

IGNACE: Killing could certainly be thirsty work, draining and often disgusting. Still, it was more productive than raising crops, especially for someone with a meager plot of land or barren soil. During the killings anyone with strong arms brought home as much as a merchant of quality. We could no longer count the panels of sheet metal we were piling up. The taxmen ignored us. The women were satisfied with everything we brought in. They stopped complaining. For the simplest farmers, it was refreshing to leave the hoe in the yard. We got up rich, we went to bed with full bellies, we lived a life of plenty. Pillaging is more worthwhile than harvesting, because it profits everyone equally.

ALPHONSE:It was a grubby job but a job without worries about drought or spoiled crops, we can certainly say that. On his plot the farmer is never sure what the harvest will bring. One season he’ll see his sacks swollen, so his wife can carry them to market, and another season he’ll see them flapping thin. He’ll think about slinking away from the eyes of the taxmen. He’ll show an anxious and sometimes miserable face. But in the Tutsis’ abandoned houses, we knew we’d find quantities of new goods. We started with the sheet metal, and the rest followed. That time greatly improved our lives since we profited from everything we’d never had before. The daily Primus, the cow meat, the bikes, the radios, the sheet metal, the windows, everything. People said it was a lucky season, and that there would not be another.

PANCRACE: It was obligatory. A special group of hothead boys was assigned to search the houses of those who tried to hide. We feared the authorities’ anger more than the blood we spilled. But deep down we had no fear of anything. I’ll explain. When you receive a new order, you hesitate but you obey, or else you’re taking a risk. When you have been prepared the right way by the radios and the official advice, you obey more easily, even if the order is to kill your neighbors. The mission of a good organizer is to stifle your hesitations when he gives you instructions. For example, when he shows you that the act will be total and have no grave consequences for anyone left alive, you obey more easily, you don’t worry about anything. You forget your misgivings and fears of punishment. You obey freely.

JEAN-BAPTISTE: At first killing was obligatory; afterward we got used to it. We became naturally cruel. We no longer needed encouragement or fines to kill, or even orders or advice. Discipline was relaxed because it wasn’t necessary anymore. I don’t know anyone who was struck because he refused to kill. I know of one case of punishment by death, a special case, a woman. Some young people cut her to punish her husband, who had refused to kill. But she was in fact Tutsi. Afterward the husband took part without whining—in fact, he was one of the busiest in the marshes. If one morning you felt worn out, you would offer to contribute with drink and then you went along the next day. You could also replace killing with other useful tasks, like preparing meals for the visiting interahamwe, or rounding up cows scattered in the bush, so they could be eaten. And when your bravery returned, you would take up the tool again and return to the swamps.

PIO:Anyone who had the idea of not killing for a day could get out of it, no problem. But anyone with the idea of not killing at all could not let on, or he himself would be killed while others watched. Voicing disagreement out loud was fatal on the spot. So we don’t know if people had that idea. Of course you could pretend, dawdle, make excuses, pay—but above all you could not object in words. It would be fatal if you refused outright, even hush-hush with your neighbor. Your position and your fortune could not save you from death if you showed a kindness to a Tutsi before unfamiliar eyes. For us, kind words for Tutsis were more fatal than evil deeds.

ADALBERT: There were two kinds of rapists. Some took the girls and used them as wives until the end, even on the flight to Congo; they took advantage of the situation to sleep with prettified Tutsis and in exchange showed them a little bit of consideration. Others caught them just to fool around with, for having sex and drinking; they raped for a little while and then handed them over to be killed right afterward. There were no orders from the authorities. The two kinds were free to do as they pleased.

VALÉRIE: They surrounded the maternity hospital. They ripped down the gates, they simply shot up the locks. They wore very handsome cartridge belts of highly polished leather, but they wanted to avoid wasting bullets. They killed the women with machetes and clubs. Whenever one of the more agile girls managed to escape in the commotion and get out 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.” Her faltering voice has almost faded away. “That morning, we were more than three hundred women and children. That evening in the garden, there were only five women left, spared because they were lucky to be born Hutu. And one child: his name is Honnête, and he was taken to Kenya to live with his aunt.

MARIE-CHANTAL: When my husband came home in the evenings, I knew the disturbing gossip, I knew he was a boss, but I asked him nothing. He left the blades outside. He no longer showed the slightest temper anymore in the house, he spoke of the Good Lord. He was cheerful with the children, he brought back little presents and words of encouragement, and that pleased me. I don’t know of any wife who whispered against her husband during the massacres. Jealous wives, mocking wives, dangerous wives—even if they did not kill directly, they fanned the burning zeal of their husbands. They weighed the loot, they compared the spoils. Desire fired them up in those circumstances. There were also men who proved more charitable toward the Tutsis than their wives, even with their machetes in hand. A person’s wickedness depends on the heart, not the sex.

PIO: Advancing as a team, we would run into a scramble of fugitives hiding in the papyrus and the muck, so it was not easy to recognize neighbors. If by misfortune I caught sight of an acquaintance, like a soccer comrade, for example, a pang pinched my heart, and I left him to a nearby colleague. But I had to do this quietly, I could not reveal my good heart. Anyone who hesitated to kill because of feelings of sadness absolutely had to watch his mouth, to say nothing about the reason for his reticence, for fear of being accused of complicity. In any case, those feelings did not last long—they managed to be forgotten.

LÉOPORD: Our Tutsi neighbors, we knew they were guilty of no misdoing, but we thought all Tutsis at fault for our constant troubles. We no longer looked at them one by one; we no longer stopped to recognize them as they had been, not even as colleagues. They had become a threat greater than all we had experienced together, more important than our way of seeing things in the community. That’s how we reasoned and how we killed at the time.

INNOCENT: I had quite a dear friend to whom I had given a cow. He was a very well-off merchant, obliging, most cordial in every circumstance. Formerly he had asked me to give extensive supplementary instruction to his son to help him pass the national examination. I would come, I would teach, I felt quite at ease at his house, as if in my own home. He and his wife would invite my wife and me to share meals, drinks, and little gifts. The day of the killings, I naturally thought of him. I sent to ask him to hide my child. He did not come to his door. He sent word through his houseboy that no one should step inside his courtyard, that there was no longer room in his home for the slightest memory of a friendship. Recently, I saw him again several times in prison here, while I was with you. We exchanged traditional embraces of greeting. He behaved kindly, as before. He told me, ‘Innocent, you are a little brother to me. You saved your life, and I rejoice in that. But if the situation returned, I would do the same. With such a fate, there is no choice.'

IGNACE: The white priests took off at the first skirmishes. The black priests joined the killers or the killed. God kept silent, and the churches stank from abandoned bodies. Religion could not find its place in our activities. For a little while, we were no longer ordinary Christians, we had to forget our duties learned in catechism class. We had first of all to obey our leaders—and God only afterward, very long afterward, to make confession and penance. When the job was done.  

PANCRACE: In the marshes, pious Christians became ferocious killers. In prison, very ferocious killers became very pious Christians. But there are also pious Christians who became timid killers and timid killers who became quite pious Christians. It happened for no clear reason. Each person satisfied his faith in his own way without any particular instructions, since the priests were gone or were up to their necks in it. In any case, religion adapted to these changes in belief.

LÉOPORD: We no longer considered the Tutsis as humans or even as creatures of God. We had stopped seeing the world as it is, I mean as an expression of God’s will. That is why it was easy for us to wipe them out. And why those of us who prayed in secret did so for themselves, never for their victims. They prayed to ask for their crimes to be a bit forgotten, or to get just a little forgiveness—and they returned to the marshes in the morning. Anyway, it was more than forbidden to speak kindly of the Tutsis to God or anyone else. Even after their deaths, even of a newborn. Even a priest was not to profit from his favor with God to pray for the soul of a Tutsi. He risked too much if someone overheard.

ADALBERT: Basically, Hutus and Tutsis had been playing dirty tricks on one another since 1959. That was the word from our elders. In the evenings, Primus in hand, they called the Tutsis weaklings, too high and mighty. So Hutu children grew up asking no questions, listening hard to all this nastiness about Tutsis. After 1959 the oldsters jabbered in the cabarets about eliminating all the Tutsis and their herds of trampling cows. That came up often around the bottle: it was a familiar concern to them, like the crops or other business matters. We young people made fun of their old-folks grumbling, but we didn’t mind it. All through his youth, a Hutu could certainly choose a Tutsi friend, hang out and drink with him, but he could never trust him. For a Hutu, a Tutsi might always be a deceiver. He would act nice and seem obliging, but underneath he was constantly scheming. He had to be a natural target of suspicion.

LÉOPORD: It is awkward to talk about hatred between Hutus and Tutsis, because words changed meaning after the killings. Before, we could fool around among ourselves and say we were going to kill them all, and the next moment we would join them to share some work or a bottle. Jokes and threats were mixed together. We no longer paid heed to what we said. We could toss around awful words without awful thoughts. The Tutsis did not even get very upset. I mean, they didn’t draw apart because of those unfortunate discussions. Since then we have seen: those words brought on grave consequences.

PANCRACE: The radios were yammering at us since 1992 to kill all the Tutsis; there was anger after the president’s death and a fear of falling under the rule of the inkotanyi. But I do not see any hatred in all that. The Hutu always suspects that some plans are cooking deep in the Tutsi character, nourished in secret since the passing of the ancien régime. He sees a threat lurking in even the feeblest or kindest Tutsi. But it is suspicion, not hatred. The hatred came over us suddenly after our president’s plane crashed. The intimidators shouted, “Just look at these cockroaches—we told you so!” And we yelled, “Right, let’s go hunting!” We weren’t that angry; more than anything else, we were relieved.

ADALBERT: There are people like me who bad-mouthed the Tutsis easily. We repeated what we had been hearing for a long time. We called them arrogant, fussy, even spiteful. But we saw no such arrogance or haughty manners when we were together in the choir or at the market. Not even in the cabarets or on the banana plantations if a help-out came up. The oldsters all had a hand in muddling things between us, but they did it in good faith, so to speak. Afterward the radios exaggerated to get us all fired up. “Cockroaches,” “snakes”—it was the radios that taught us those words. The evil-mindedness of the radios was too well calculated for us to oppose it.

IGNACE: We called them “cockroaches,” an insect that chews up clothing and nests in it, so you have to squash them hard to get rid of them. We didn’t want any more Tutsis on the land. We imagined an existence without them. At first, we favored getting rid of them without actually killing them. If they had agreed to leave—for Burundi or other likely destinations—they could have gone and saved their lives. And we wouldn’t have piled up the fatalities of the massacres. But they couldn’t imagine living there without their ancient traditions and their herds of cows. That pushed us toward the machetes. The Tutsis had accepted so many killings without ever protesting, they had waited for death or bad blows so often without raising their voices, that in a certain way we thought deep down they were fated to die, here and now, all together. We thought that since this job was meeting no opposition, it was because it really had to be done. That idea helped us not to think about the job. Afterward we learned what it was called. But among us here in prison, we don’t use that word.

PIO: Killing Tutsis … I never even thought about it when we lived in neighborly harmony. Even pushing and shoving or trading harsh words didn’t seem right to me. But when everyone began getting out their machetes at the same time, I did so too, without delay. I had only to do as my colleagues did and think of the advantages. Especially since we knew they were going to leave the world of the living for all time. When you receive firm orders, promises of long-term benefits, and you feel well backed up by colleagues, the wickedness of killing until your arm falls off is all one to you. I mean, you naturally feel pulled along by all those opinions and their fine words. A genocide—that seems extraordinary to someone who arrives afterward, like you, but for someone who got himself muddled up by the intimidators’ big words and the joyful shouts of his colleagues, it seemed like a normal activity.

Source: Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season:The Killers in Rwanda Speak, translated by Linda Loverdale, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.