‘At the Mind’s Limits’

‘At the Mind’s Limits’

The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge by Nic Dunlop and Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld, translated by Linda Coverdale

The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge
by Nic Dunlop
Bloomsbury, 2005, 326 pp., $24.00

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
By Jean Hatzfeld, trans. Linda Coverdale
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005, 253 pp., $24.00


Genocides, once over, have a way of turning into crimes without criminals. In the aftermath, the corpses pile up, denunciations, recriminations, and chants of “never again” fill the air, and the historians, political scientists, and genocide specialists set to work. Meanwhile, few, except the survivors, notice that the murderers themselves are disappearing: into thin air (the Turks), into the maquis (the Khmer Rouge), into the refugee camps (the Rwandans), or into their postwar lives as solid citizens (the Nazis). If you go by the numbers of known killers, you would think that millions of people died at the hands of a few miscreants. Exactly one Nazi, the commander of Auschwitz, admitted to murdering Jews.

This is why so little is known about the people, usually men, sometimes women, who take on the job of killing an entire population. The murderers’ habit of going to ground makes them difficult to locate, let alone study. What insights we have come from scholarship on the Holocaust. But the foot soldiers who killed millions, all told, in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia are seen as collectivities, not individuals, so that one would think that allegorical figures of ethnic hatred or nationalism-gone-wrong, not real people, did the killing. The Cambodians and Rwandans, in particular, are safely hidden in the shadows of the “heart of darkness” the West loves to invoke to explain away slaughters in third world countries.

These two remarkable books are the first full-length studies of the “ordinary men” who were the shock troops in Cambodia and Rwanda. The Lost Executioner is photo-journalist Nic Dunlop’s account of tracking down the infamous Brother Duch, once the head of the Khmer Rouge torture/interrogation center Tuol Sleng. Veteran war reporter Jean Hatzfeld’s Machete Season is an astonishing investigation of a band of génocidaires in the Rwandan countryside, nine men who spent a month hunting and killing their Tutsi neighbors, soccer mates, fellow church members, and relatives.

Dunlop covered Cambodia in the 1990s. Like everyone there, foreign and Cambodian, he was obsessed with the past. His particular fixation was the photographs in Tuol Sleng, a gruesome trove the KR left behind of thousands of mug shots of doomed prisoners as well as portraits and candids of the prison staff. He was probably the only person in Cambodia to carry a copy of a snapshot of Duch in his pocket and thus was uniquely equipped to identify the man, if he was still alive. In 1999, traveling on assignment, he got lucky....