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Book Review

Rwandan genocide survivors tell their tales from the killing fields

Sylvie Umubyeyi (above) is one of the survivors quoted by author Jean Hatzfeld. Sylvie Umubyeyi (above) is one of the survivors quoted by author Jean Hatzfeld.
Email|Print| Text size + By Bella English
Globe Staff / February 9, 2008

In another book, "Machete Season," award-winning French journalist Jean Hatzfeld attempted to explain, through the perpetrators' own words, the unexplainable: the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors in 100 days. Now, Hatzfeld is back with the survivors' stories. Both books were published earlier in France and in England; the interviews were done in the late 1990s, five years after the genocide.

In an effort to complete the puzzle, Hatzfeld returned to the same killing fields that he explored in "Machete Season." The villages of Nyamata and N'tarama in a hilly and marshy region were among the most devastated: five of every six Tutsis were murdered in a month. In "Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak," Hatzfeld offers an oral history of 14 survivors ranging from a 12-year-old schoolboy to a 60-year-old teacher. Each tells how the killings happened; the "why" is much more elusive.

In a short introduction to each chapter, Hatzfeld provides valuable background and commentary on the region and on each narrator. But then he wisely fades into the background, letting the witnesses speak for themselves - and for those who can no longer speak.

Their accounts vary little in the actual facts: "the hunters," many of them neighbors of the victims, would enter the marshes and eucalyptus forests every day of the week, singing and whistling, machetes slung over their shoulders. They killed from morning until late afternoon, leaving hundreds of corpses in the swamp or under the trees.

It was survival of the fittest or the luckiest, many of whom remained buried in muck up to their necks during the day, only to crawl out at night and take stock of the carnage. One teacher recalled: "In the end, only we sprinters were left. We had begun with five or six thousand; one month later, when the inkotanyi [rebels] arrived, there were twenty of us. . . . If the inkotanyi had dawdled another week along the way, there would have been exactly zero still alive."

One boy keeps returning to the church where his family was slaughtered; it is the place he can best remember them. A teenage girl recounts her mother's death in the swamp: The Hutus chopped off both of her arms, then her legs. It took her three days to die.

All speak of trying to rebuild their lives, but mostly they feel like strangers in a strange land. Nor can they fathom what happened. "With the Hutus, we shared and shared alike, attended christenings and marriages - and then suddenly they went on a rampage like wild beasts," said one woman. "I don't believe in the jealousy explanation, because envy has never driven anyone to lay children in a row in a courtyard and crush them with clubs."

Moreover, she says, survivors should not be asked to explain the genocide: "The Hutus are the ones to ask."

The book takes its title from Sylvie Umubyeyi, a survivor who returned to become a social worker for a Canadian organization. "I began going out into the hills," she says. "And then I saw life laid bare." What she saw were orphans scattered throughout the hills, living alone in shacks, without so much as a blanket.

One boy, who was 7 when his family was killed in front of him in the village church, no longer remembers how many siblings he had "because my memory is too taken up by so many deaths, it's not handy with numbers anymore." He was left with a deep machete scar running the length of his skull; the Tutsi woman who helped save him was killed by her Hutu husband when he learned of her deeds.

None of the survivors seems to feel any sense of pride in having survived. One says she cannot "feel comfortable with life." Another lives a life "that no longer interests me."

Still, amid such unspeakable horror, hope flowers here and there. "I have many dead around me, but I don't want to lose faith in life, because there are also the living," says Umubyeyi. "Life Laid Bare" forces us to look deep into the eyes and hearts of the people - not the country or the politics, but the names and the faces - whom the world ignored. Their stories are, in the author's words, "as close as we can get to the Rwandan genocide."

Bella English is a member of the Globe staff.

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