Book Review:

Machete Season

Alison Smith

With the recent commemoration of the genocide, there is no shortage of literature and information available to anyone interested in studying the events of April 1995 in Rwanda. Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, Canadian leader of the United Nations Mission for Rwanda, won the Governor General’s literary award for his novel, Shake Hands with the Devil, which is a detailed account of his experiences in Rwanda. At the end of his account, he recommends a number of books to anyone interested in further studying the genocide in hopes that the world may learn from its mistakes.

Indeed, there is ample opportunity for anyone wishing to read more about the genocide in Rwanda: what went wrong, what could have been done, how the genocide tore apart countless lives, how it compares to other genocides in history, and detailed timelines of what happened when and where.

These books and stories, while analyzing the motive behind the genocide itself, do not account for the individuals who collectively killed 800,000 of their countrymen in one of the most successful and well-organized bloodbaths the world has seen.

Dallaire briefly recounts his meeting with génocidaires. He uses powerful language to express his encounter with three génocidaires, and admits he was unable to think of them as human beings; he writes, “I was expecting frothing at the mouth…”[1]

One book gives a different perspective on the genocide. Entitled Machete Season, author Jean Hatzfeld offers a window into the minds (dare I say hearts?) of nine Hutu génocidaires. As much as these men have been ignored, Hatzfeld demonstrates that they too have something to say about the genocide. He does not offer them a chance to clear their consciences by apologizing to the world, nor does he suggest that what they did was pardonable. But he recognizes that any study of the genocide is incomplete unless studied from all angles, including from the perspective of the génocidaires.

Hatzfeld describes Pio, one of the génocidaires, as barely older than a boy, bursting with energy, and of a gentle character. He paints a picture of those to whom the world has turned a blind eye. He gives them a voice, he lets them speak, he listens, and he shares their story with anyone willing to hear it.

One would expect these men to be either a group of hardened criminals with stone cold hearts, or a group of remorseful men, drowning in their own guilt. One would expect a story full of holes and lies, as men who committed such unforgivable crimes could not possibly be trusted to face what they did with honesty and openness. This is not the case.

Machete Season reveals the simple fact that the men who performed what many consider unfathomable, what many consider to be the worst possible crime against humanity, were simple men. Through a series of interviews, Hatzfeld brings a human face to those who have often been described as animals.

Many of the Hutu killers were not criminals before the genocide; they were students, sons, fathers, teachers. Some say they didn’t want to kill. Some say it was much easier than many think. Some don’t understand what they did and why they did it.

In the in depth interviews, Hatzfeld is able to find out, and share with his readers, how these nine men felt (and continue to feel) about what they did. The men he talked to, mostly farmers, participated in the particularly devastating massacre at Bugesera. Often when talking about the genocide in Rwanda, it is said that the country’s population was decimated, meaning one in every ten people was killed. At

Bugesera, the numbers are astonishingly higher than one in ten – the population of Bugesera (a neighbouring community where many friends of the génocidaires lived) was 59,000. After the massacre, 9,000 remained.

The nine men talk about what it felt like to kill so many of their friends and neighbours, how it felt to kill a child, how it felt to kill for the very first time, how it felt at the end of the day to see countless bodies hacked to pieces and to know that they were the ones responsible for the countless dead.

In reading his book, Hatzfeld brings the reader to believe that a murderer can be created and sculpted; while men have the freedom to make decisions, there are also many circumstances that can affect a person’s decision (in the case of many génocidaires, kill or be killed). The novel comes to an honest and frightening conclusion; ordinary men and women, like those interviewed in his novel, are capable of

genocide. As Philip Gourevitch, author of We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families says, Machete Season “reminds us how perfectly human it can be to be inhumane.”[2]


Dallaire, Romeo with Brent Beardsley. Shake hands with the

Devil Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2003.

Hatzfeld, Jean. Machete Season. Translated by Linda

Coverdale. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005.

[1] Romeo Dallaire with Brent Beardsley, Shake hands with the Devil (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2003), pp 345-346

[2] Quoted in Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005). 5


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