“Whoever was tortured, stays tortured”

I’d like to draw attention to – and recommend — “Living with the Enemy,” an essay by Susie Linfield, which applies the ideas of Holocaust survivor Jean Améry to the current challenge of reconciliation in Rwanda. (It appeared in today’s Arts and Letters Daily, my Safari homepage.)

She begins,

“Reconciliation” has become a darling of political theorists, journalists, and human-rights activists, especially as it pertains to the rebuilding of postwar and post-genocidal nations. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of Rwanda. Numerous books and articles on the topic—some, though not all, inspired by Christian teachings—pour forth. It can plausibly be argued, of course, that in Rwanda—and in other places, like Sierra Leone and the Balkans, where victims and perpetrators must live more or less together—reconciliation is a political necessity. Reconciliation has a moral resonance, too; certainly it is far better than endless, corpse-strewn cycles of revanchism and revenge. Yet there is sometimes a disturbing glibness when outsiders tout the wonders of reconciliation, as if they are leading the barbarians from darkness into light…

Linfield discusses Améry’s writings, then draws on the trilogy of Jean Hatzfeld (which I reviewed here and in three subsequent posts last March), as well as the work of Primo Levi and photographer Jonathan Torgovnik to remind that “whoever was tortured, stays tortured.”

There’s much that could be said about forgiveness and reconciliation that’s not the least bit glib, but of course Linfield is right. The way we inevitably go at it, in our hopes for — and advice to — others whose torments we have not shared, never mind understood, is too quick. We like happy endings, and the sooner the happier. Linfield’s essay slows our expectations. It challenges our minds about what’s really at stake in a lasting reconciliation.

Living, speaking, side by side (Rwanda 4)

(To conclude the series on Jean Hatzfeld’s books on the Rwandan genocide.)

In the Nyamata district of Rwanda, many Tutsis trying to escape Hutu killers during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 hid in the mud and foliage of papyrus swamps. Those who fled to the much less dense Kayumba forest had to rely on running for their lives. Said one,

When the killers seemed to be upon us, we’d scatter in all directions to give everyone a chance: basically, we adopted the antelope’s strategy.

In this his third book on the genocide, French journalist Jean Hatzfeld adopts some of that same “scattering” strategy to give us a sense of what life is like now, some 15 years later, for both survivors and perpetrators, once again occupying the same hills and towns. What I mean is, Hatzfeld tells one story with this perspective, and then another from that, describing one scene after another, until you feel that you’ve not stood in one spot with only one notion of things, but run about to many places and heard many. “Traces and encounters,” Hatzfeld calls them, as he picks up with many of the same people we heard from in his earlier two books, except that killers and survivors will now appear in the same book, side by side. Continue reading

The survivors speak (Rwanda 3)

(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.” Continue reading