(To continue the series on Jean Hatzfeld’s books on the Rwandan genocide.)
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak has a sadder, more intimate feel about it than Machete Season (see previous post). One reason may be that author Jean Hatzfeld presents each person’s story, of the 14 people he interviewed in the Nyamata district of Rwanda, as a separate whole rather than grouping their various responses topically. He introduces them, places them with lovely description in the setting he found them at the time. A full-page photograph is included with each. (Twelve-year-old school boy Cassius also appears on the cover.)
This is not to say that the book doesn’t occupy the harrowing world of the genocide as do the killers’ accounts. The four men and 10 women speak — with sorrow, bitterness, or confusion — of seeing family members or children hacked to death, of lying in the mud of the Bugesera papyrus swamps while trying to escape notice, of hearing the killers coming for the day’s “hunt”– “announcing themselves with whistles and songs.”
…we lay on our bellies to scrabble in the earth for manioc and were constantly bolting at the slightest sound, eaten alive by lice, dying hacked up by machetes like goats at the market. We seemed like animals because we no longer resembled the human beings we had once been, and the Hutus — they had grown used to seeing us as animals. They tracked us like that… They had robbed the Tutsis of their humanity in order to kill them more comfortably, but they themselves had sunk lower than wild beasts… [Innocent]
Although many of the survivors speak with one another about memories, the reader becomes aware of reluctance to speak with the journalist. They seem to feel, what difference will it make? Innocent, a 38-year-old teacher who assists Hatzfeld in his work, reminds that French advisors to the government knew of plans to eliminate Tutsis, and they knew Habyarimana’s character. Cars came to collect the white priests. Then,
…a few weeks later, the Whites sent professional photographers to show the world how we’d been massacred. So, you can understand that a feeling of abandonment has found its way into the hearts of our survivors, and that it will never go away…. I think that everyone would like the survivors to relinquish the genocide, in a way. As if people wanted them to leave the task of dealing with it to others, who have never been in direct danger of being sliced up by machete.
The survivors speak their puzzlement. Why should they be so hated?
I think that for me it will never end, being despised for my Tutsi blood… I endure a kind of shame over feeling hunted like that a whole life long, just because of what I am. The moment my eyes close upon that, I weep inside, from misery and humiliation. [Francine]
They probe the shifting, almost transcendent, yet paradoxical firmness of their memories.
We forget details, we confuse dates, we mix up attacks, we make mistakes with names… But we remember all the fearsome moments we personally lived through as if they had happened just last year… these memories become ever more truthful, yet we hardly know how to arrange them in the right order anymore. [Jeannette]
Above all, there is the “devouring fear, a truly overpowering terror” that possessed them while being hunted. While the fear has diminished, they are marked with it. As social worker Sylvie says, “if you’ve made it back from out there, then you have truly seen life laid bare.”