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Confessions, justice in Rwanda's killing fields

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
By Jean Hatzfeld
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 253 pp., $24

Justice on the Grass: Three Rwandan Journalists, Their Trial for War Crimes, and a Nation's Quest for Redemption
By Dina Temple-Raston
Free Press, 302 pp., illustrated, $25

In the last few years, there have been a number of books written about the genocide in Rwanda; it's almost as if writing everything down will somehow atone for the fact that 800,000 people were slaughtered in the space of 100 days while the world stood by and did nothing.

By now, nearly everyone knows the horrific facts: from April through July of 1994, machete-wielding Hutus raped, maimed, and massacred their neighbors -- Tutsis and moderate Hutus -- at a rate that, as one author notes, made Hitler's killing machine seem inefficient. In a little over three months one of every 10 Rwandans was murdered.

In an effort to explain the unexplainable, French journalist Jean Hatzfeld has written ''Machete Season," in which he interviews 10 seemingly ordinary men, all friends and farmers, who recount the carnage with a remorseless zeal. Hatzfeld's reportage follows his 1999 book, ''Into the Quick of Life," in which he interviewed Tutsi survivors in the same rural area south of the capital, Kigali.

The newer book is organized in straightforward fashion, almost like a script. Each man has his say on a variety of topics, from how the killing was organized to the historical hatred of the Tutsis by the Hutus. Though Hatzfeld breaks in with his own observations and analysis, it is the men's words that carry the most emotional weight. Hatzfeld lets the chilling words speak for themselves. ''Rule number one was to kill. There was no rule number two," says one man.

The hunters showed up at the soccer field in the morning, were given their daily instructions, and then took off to the nearby marshes, where many of the Tutsis had fled. ''We had to work fast, and we got no time off, especially not Sundays -- we had to finish up," says one interviewee. Their job? ''To crush all the cockroaches," as the Tutsis were called.

In the chapter titled ''Apprenticeship," the men, who ranged in age from 22 to 62 at the time of the killings, describe how ordinary farmers became seasoned killers.

''Doing it over and over: repetition smoothed out clumsiness."

''The club is more crushing, but the machete is more natural. The Rwandan is accustomed to the machete from childhood."

''I saw papas teaching their boys how to cut. . . . They displayed their skill on dead people, or on living people they had captured. . . . The boys usually tried it out on children, because of their similar size."

How to make sense of such inhumanity? The men interviewed have no real explanations, and most don't even bother to come up with excuses. ''It meant nothing to us to think we were busy cutting our neighbors down to the last one. They had become people to throw away," says one man. That the Tutsis had become dehumanized in the eyes of the Hutus is obvious; but the real dehumanization was in the Hutus who butchered with abandon. As one noted: ''Man can get used to killing, if he kills on and on. . . . In a way, I forgot I was killing live people." At least for this group of men, killing without consequence -- indeed, with encouragement -- became a habit.

When the Rwandan Patriot Front marched into Kigali and ended the mayhem, these men and others like them were captured and charged with crimes against humanity. Their sentences ranged from life in prison to community service; some have moved back into the hills where they lived, near the few Tutsis who survived their blades. As a group, they seem to naively believe that because they have been punished, they should be forgiven.

Hatzfeld's riveting account, while shining a light into one of the darkest corners in world history, raises more questions than it answers. How do the killers live with their victims? Moreover, how do they live with themselves?

In ''Justice on the Grass," Dina Temple-Raston details how a newspaper and radio station in Rwanda helped incite genocide through anti-Tutsi propaganda. Ten years after the massacres, she explores how the country grappled with the issues of accountability and justice. She chooses a difficult case to illustrate how the system has worked: that of three Rwandan journalists who, though they never raised a machete, are charged with war crimes; words were their weapons.

The ''media trio," as they came to be known, ''infected people's minds with ethnic hatred and persecution," prosecutors attempted to prove. The three would be the first journalists since Julius Streicher of the virulently anti-Semitic tabloid Der Stürmer in prewar Germany to stand trial in an international court for mass murder.

Radio station RTLM, which has been called the heart of the genocide, was founded by two of Rwanda's elite: Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, a lawyer, and Ferdinand Nahimana, a history professor at the University of Rwanda. Because so much of the populace was uneducated and few had televisions, they turned to the radio for their source of ''news" and, in effect, orders. The third defendant was Hassan Ngeze, founder of the extremist Kangura newspaper that published, among other incendiary stories, the Hutu Ten Commandments, which vilified Tutsis.

Temple-Raston deftly explains the problems inherent in the case: the free-speech-vs.-incitement-to-genocide issue; the lack of written records of the slaughters; and the fact that prosecutors had to prove that citizens would obey orders to kill that came over the airwaves or in the newspaper. The author, an American journalist, offers valuable background of the politics in setting up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

In the end, the media trio were convicted of genocide, for ordering, aiding, and abetting the killing of Tutsi citizens. How the case was pieced together makes for compelling reading.

The author strays from her main topic to detail other victims and perpetrators. There's the vexing case of an orphanage teacher wrongly imprisoned for the murders of the 40 children whose lives he tried to save, and the moving stories of gang-rape victims attempting to recover. One of the most striking quotes is buried at the end of the book, in the author's notes on her sources. She was interviewing a Tutsi who had been raped by a Hutu and had borne his child. At the end of their meeting, Temple-Raston asks the woman if she has any questions for her. ''Yes, can you tell me how I learn to love my child?" The author, of course, had no answer.

Bella English is a member of the Globe staff.

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