Growing Up After Genocide

Growing Up After Genocide

Is it possible to love a torturer—even, or especially, if he is your most intimate relation?

Angel stands in front of the house she shares with her mother, Ngoma Sector, Rwanda, February 2017 (Whitney Shefte / Washington Post / Getty)

Blood Papa: Rwanda’s New Generation
by Jean Hatzfeld (translated by Joshua David Jordan)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 240 pp.

The French journalist Jean Hatzfeld is our great chronicler of sorrow. In a remarkable series of books, originally written in French and published over the past fifteen years, he has documented Rwanda’s genocide through the words of its Tutsi survivors and Hutu perpetrators—and, now, through those of their children. His books are essentially oral histories—though carefully constructed ones, interspersed with passages of his own texts—that both explore the specific, subjective experiences of Rwandans and raise broader ethical, philosophical, and political questions. Hatzfeld’s oeuvre is simultaneously furious and empathic, trenchant and gentle, revelatory and bewildered.

Writing for the leftist French daily Libération and other publications, Hatzfeld has traveled the world, covering Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, the rise of Poland’s Solidarity, and the Yugoslav wars. His Rwandan works are small-scale, and focus on one district, Nyamata; Hatzfeld revisits many of the same people from book to book. In the first volume, Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak (2000), the victims narrate their devastating experiences and attempt to understand them. This latter enterprise is, of course, a failure: genocide is a rupture of history—personal and political—not a continuation of it. As Sylvie Umubyeyi, then thirty-four, put it: “When I think about the genocide, in a moment of calm, I mull over where to put it properly away in life, but I find no place. I simply mean that it is no longer anything human.”

The second book, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (2003), is terrifying. A group of Hutu génocidaires from Nyamata, already convicted and imprisoned, calmly describe their crimes: the first time they killed someone, the murders of children (on whom they sometimes practiced), the rapes, tortures, and slaughters. What dawns on the reader—what emerges from these simple, forthright farmers—is a profoundly unwelcome reality: those three months of murder were the high point of these men’s lives, filled with excitement and camaraderie. Genocide, it seems, can be fun. A man named Élie Mizinge explains, “Basically, we didn’t give a hoot . . . as long as we knew the killing was continuing everywhere without a snag. Poor people seemed at ease, the rich seemed cheerful, the future promised us good times.” Machete Season ends with this admission by Alphonse Hitiyaremye: “At the end of the season in the marshes, we were so disappointed we had failed. We were disheartened by what we were going to lose. . . . But deep down, we were not tired of anything.”

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Hatzfeld’s third volume is called The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide (2007), and it is often grueling to read. The term “genocide”—like “crimes against humanity”—can be almost vaguely impersonal. The Antelope’s Strategy elucidates the ugly realities behind those words. Survivors—of whom there were very few—detail what they endured and how they survived in the marshes to which they fled: covered in lice and scabs, crawling through mud in tatters, stinking, starved, hunted, beaten, raped. They compare themselves to pigs and describe themselves as disgusting. “We were zeros in rags, walking target practice,” a woman named Médiatrice recalls. “In the forest, we behaved like crazy people. . . . It was a treacherous, almost animal existence.” The psychic toll is enormous: survivors describe themselves as stunned, lonely, bitter, broken; their trust in the world has shattered. (This was a major theme of the writer Jean Améry, who was tortured by the Gestapo and enslaved at Auschwitz; the Rwandans almost eerily echo his words.) Words like “reconciliation” and “forgiveness” seem like obscene jokes.

So does “the future.” Claudine Kayitesi explained, “I am an African and I am afraid of Africans. Happiness, for an African, it’s children first of all. . . . In Africa, children . . . are the last hope—but of what, we no longer know.”

Which brings us to Blood Papa.

Hatzfeld’s subjects, whom he refers to by their first names, always appear as distinct individuals. This is also true of the children—really, late teenagers and young adults—who appear in Blood Papa; each has his or her own way of grappling with their country’s poisonous legacy. Of course, there are commonalities: everyone learns about the genocide in school, and every April, the entire country participates in the “Week of Mourning.” Some of the interviewees were small children during the genocide; some were born in its aftermath; many have only hazy remembrances of it. Yet themes that unite each group—the descendants of Tutsi survivors and of Hutu perpetrators—do emerge. Details of what happened, and understandings of it, are shared within ethnic groups, not between them.

All of the young people who appear in Blood Papa are the offspring of those whom Hatzfeld interviewed in his previous books; it is fascinating to trace the intergenerational links. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the children of survivors want to know as much as possible; for children of the perpetrators, less is decidedly better. Tutsi parents are open about their experiences, at least when their children reach a certain age, and those children then search out more. “We spoke about the genocide in our family,” recalls Ange Uwase, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a survivor. “When I was thirteen, I had the courage to ask more probing questions. . . . I always craved more details about my fate because I myself escaped the machete as an infant.” She continues, “Our parents recount their experiences without beating about the bush. . . . [Papa] speaks in direct words of their filthy nakedness, of the children abandoned during their parents’ flight, of the ladies raped in front of people’s eyes. . . . There’s no end to my questions.” For Jean-Damascène Ndayambaje, sixteen, the opposite is true. “No, not a single question about the killings,” he says in reference to his father, Fulgence Bunani, who has received a life sentence for a particularly gruesome murder (discussed in more detail later in this essay). “No questions for my mama, either.”

There is no equivalent of Holocaust-denial among the Hutu children, just a type of willed ignorance—though this, too, can evoke torment, especially in a culture where respect for parental authority is paramount. Repression exacts a price in the form of gnawing doubts. “Would I insist that he give me details?” asks twenty-two-year-old Fabrice Tuyishimire of his father, Joseph-Désiré Bitero, who was the only man in Machete Season to receive a death sentence. (It has since been converted to life in prison.) He continues, “No, it might be repugnant to listen to. You get burned by touching certain wickedness. . . . Can a son blame his father to the point of turning his back on him forever? When a child stands before his father, he feels too intimidated to sort out the good qualities from the bad.”

The children of the survivors generally express pride rather than shame in their parents. The exception is, perhaps, those “born of a brutal seed,” that is, conceived in rape during the genocide. (The term “blood papa” has a double meaning: it can connote one’s biological father and, also, the monstrous lineage of murder and rape.) Nadine Umutesi, seventeen, was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a Hutu génocidaire had abducted her mother and made her his slave. (Her mother is Claudine Kayitesi.) How to absorb this perverse knowledge, which Nadine first learned from a malicious neighbor? “I feel trapped by a sense of something like disgust,” she admits, though she was raised by a loving man whom she considers her real father. Yet such an unnatural birth—such a grotesque pairing of intimacy and savagery—cannot be easily resolved. “I have seen far into the darkness of the genocide,” Nadine avers. “I sometimes think about the papa who gave me life by causing my mama such terrible suffering. I would still like to meet him. . . . Does a daughter forgive the man who gave her life? Would I try to understand him? . . . Maybe no words would come to my lips, only trembling.”

For many (though certainly not all) Jews, the Holocaust led to a questioning, if not an outright rejection, of the idea of God; how can one reconcile the God of the Israelites—or any other divinity—with Treblinka? In Rwanda, an overwhelmingly Christian country—though one where some priests and nuns abetted the genocide, and where some of the worst massacres occurred in Catholic churches—the opposite seems to have occurred. A profound faith imbues the lives of the Tutsis and Hutus to whom Hatzfeld spoke. But though God may exist, He doesn’t answer the most perplexing questions—or even offer a sufficient balm. “My faith is deep,” says Immaculée Feza, sixteen, daughter of a survivor. “A people’s destruction is the will of God.” But wait: “Why would a benevolent God . . . accept the almost total extermination of the Tutsi population by their neighbors? That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer.”

The children of condemned prisoners pose such questions too. Idelphonse Habinshuti, nineteen, another son of Fulgence Bunani, defines himself as “a good Catholic,” but adds: “One still wonders, though, how a good and all-powerful God could shut His eyes to such killings.” Hatzfeld’s young subjects grapple in impressive ways with the centuries-old conundrum that human barbarism poses to divine faith; none use religion as a crutch. Says Fabiola Mukayishimire, nineteen, daughter of Joseph-Désiré Bitero, “God knew what was happening in the hills, but He provided human beings with the intelligence to choose between Good and Evil.” Why that intelligence failed is one of the many questions that haunts the children of the genocide; Blood Papa is, among other things, an exploration of theodicy.

Can a non-ethnic Rwanda be created? That, along with reconciliation, is the official policy of the current Rwandan government (the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” are banned). All the young people in Hatzfeld’s book seem to recognize the policy’s necessity, and its value; all seem on board—at least on the surface. But ethnic identification runs deep, even if officially repressed. (One group of Tutsi girls, the daughters of survivors, meets secretly at school.) For Tutsis this is, in part, a way to respect the suffering of one’s forebears and to maintain the vigilance that such suffering has mandated. Nadine Umutesi explains, “My heart beats with the Tutsis. I stand with the people who have been ravaged by their memories.” It is a sentiment that Jews, Kurds, Armenians, and other persecuted peoples would recognize. But like all oral histories, Blood Papa is radically subjective, which means there is no criticism or analysis—indeed, no mention—of the Rwandan government’s own crimes against Hutus in, for instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or of President Paul Kagame’s repressive policies.

Innocent Rwililiza is a high school history teacher, a Tutsi survivor (first introduced to us in Life Laid Bare), and the father of the aforementioned Immaculée and Ange. He observes, “The first question that any new student asks reveals their ethnicity. . . . Their concerns are completely unalike. Students aren’t anxious in the same way; they don’t use the same words.” The children of survivors, he says, have conquered the guilt and shame of their parents; instead, “they hide a terrible desire for vengeance,” along with hate and rage. Immaculée seems to bear him out: “I despise the people who caused so much pain,” she says. “When I was a child, I hoped to see them lined up and shot. . . . But time has inspired more sensible thoughts in me; scolding had its effect. Children cannot avenge their parents if their parents aren’t considering it themselves.”

Hutu youths too, bury their fears and resentments, though Innocent says they “admit that their fathers’ crimes have made a mess of their lives.” Occasionally, ethnic identification is rejected; Fabiola Mukayishimire, nineteen, insists, “I call myself Rwandan, which is enough for me.” Yet unlike others interviewed in this book, who express pride in their country and continent, she yearns to leave Rwanda and its troubles—and, one suspects, her family’s shame—behind: “I would like to be living in Italy. I have heard that they live in peace and quiet, with no ethnicities or machetes. . . . Good cheer infuses everything Italian—that would be a delight.”

Intermarriage is very rare, and all the subjects agree that young Hutus and Tutsis never discuss the genocide with each other; despite the history learned in school, there is no common narrative. Ange Uwase says that resentment and distrust, not a search for the truth, unites the two groups. Yet, significantly, she insists that she does not fear the future: a major achievement in a country where, for generations, Tutsis lived in fear of recurring bouts of collective violence. “The farmers’ machetes no longer frighten anyone because people have gladly benefited from the policy of national reconciliation,” Ange says. But Sandra Isimbi, also the daughter of a survivor, expresses more ambivalence. “Those who steeped their hands in blood can no longer flaunt their strength in the same way. . . . The ex-prisoners cast nasty looks at us, as if they were still blaming the survivors for not being dead instead of blaming themselves for what they did. I don’t panic at the sight of machetes; nothing dangerous is in store. And yet I am afraid of those nasty looks in a way that I can’t explain. . . . Can they imagine what we lived through? I don’t think so.” It remains to be seen how official reconciliation and subjective feelings will be synthesized—not just among this generation, but among their children too. Rwanda’s future hangs on this.

In 2006, Jonathan Torgovnik, an Israeli photographer who moved to South Africa, traveled to Rwanda to interview women who had been raped during the genocide; he photographed them, along with their children conceived in violence, for a series called “Intended Consequences.” I saw these pictures in a New York gallery, and thought they were stunningly, if disturbingly, beautiful: the women stately and dignified, the children with sober, straightforward gazes, the backgrounds colorful and lush. Yet a deep and weary sorrow permeated these portraits.

The photographs were accompanied by testimonies from the women, many of whom were speaking of their ordeals for the first time. After reading a few of these narratives, I fled from the gallery (though I made myself return for a second visit). They are among the most appalling, and agonizing, testimonies I have ever read. Like Hatzfeld’s books, they make one confront the kind of unhinged sadism that Primo Levi, in the last book he wrote before committing suicide, called “useless violence.”

Many of the Rwandan women, who were often young teenagers at the time, were raped for weeks, passed, bleeding and beaten, from man to man; some had nails driven into their bodies, or sharp objects shoved into their vaginas. Some were forced to witness the murders of others or to drink the blood of their families. I will spare you other details of these women’s sufferings, but not the questions they, and Levi, raise.

War and violence are not inherently irrational, Levi rightly noted. “Is there such a thing as useful violence? Unfortunately, yes.” Wars, he argued, “are detestable, . . . but they cannot be called useless: they aim at a goal, although it may be wicked or perverse.” Useless violence, on the other hand, has no military or political use-value: it is a brutal tautology. Useless violence is an enclosed world, “an end in itself, with the sole purpose of inflicting pain.” Though it goes by another name, it is undeniably a form of torture.

Why, Levi wondered, were the residents of the Jewish Rest Home of Venice forced to endure the excruciating cattle car rides to a Polish death camp, instead of simply being killed in their beds? Why, in the camps, were inmates subjected to the forced nudity, the branding, the pointless so-called work before their inevitable deaths? Why the attempt to make the already-condemned suffer as much humiliation, and die in as much agony, as possible? In the Third Reich, Levi observed, “The best choice . . . was the one that entailed the greatest affliction . . . the greatest physical and moral suffering. The ‘enemy’ must not only die, he must die in torment.”

The same was true in Rwanda. And it is, I think, the baffling quality of this violence—standing, as Sylvie Umubyeyi said, outside of anything human—that haunts the children of survivors and perpetrators alike. (As Claudine Kayitesi told Hatzfeld in The Antelope’s Strategy, “To be betrayed by life . . . who can bear that?”) In Blood Papa, useless violence is epitomized by the actions of the aforementioned Fulgence Bunani, who, in Machete Season, made the perverse argument that the very enormity of his crimes was a kind of innoculation: “What we did goes beyond human imagination, so it is too difficult to judge us. . . . Therefore I think we must be farmers like before, this time with good thoughts.” Like many génocidaires, Fulgence benefited from a general amnesty in 2003. But seven years later, his luck suddenly changed: testimony at a gaçaça—a local village trial—sent him back to prison for life. His crime? As the victim’s young brother described it, Fulgence disemboweled Ernestine Kaneza, slicing her open “from her genitals to her chin.” Ernestine was pregnant at the time; her baby was then “scattered in pieces next to her.” (Ernestine’s sister was “taken away by the mob of killers . . . stripped naked, and macheted to the howls and jeers of a huge crowd.”) Of note: Fulgence and Ernestine were close neighbors.

Like the relatives of many Nazi killers, Fulgence’s wife and children struggle to deny the enormity—and uselessness—of this crime. “Do I believe Fulgence capable of the horrible crimes committed against Ernestine?” asks Jacqueline Mukamana, “The wife in me answers no. . . . If he had become a butcher like the others . . . I would have noticed that night in our bedroom.” His sons have questions too. Asks Jean-Damascène, “Do I know if my papa’s punishment is fair? I don’t enough of the details, except for what people say.” But, he admits, “My dreams fill me with panic at night. Terrible visions pass before my eyes.”

Is it possible to love a torturer—even, or especially, if he is your most intimate relation? Can the blood be disentangled from the papa? This is one of the terrible, probably unanswerable questions that older Hutus have bequeathed to their unfortunate sons and daughters. The comment of Jean-Pierre Habimana, the nineteen-year-old son of a former Hutu prisoner, seems irrefutable: “The genocide teaches us lessons that a young person would gladly do without.”

The past remains an open question for these young Rwandans. That is one of the most impressive things about them. They have avoided what Theodor Adorno called “mastering” the past: the arrogant assumption that catastrophic histories can be thoroughly understood, explained, rationalized, worked through, contextualized—in today’s parlance, theorized!—then neatly wrapped up and put away. The Rwandan youths to whom Hatzfeld spoke have recognized the falseness of this approach much more adeptly than did Adorno’s older and better-educated contemporaries. As Jean-Pierre Habimana, a Hutu, explains, “Today, we aren’t looking to forget, but I don’t know what we are looking for. The influence of the past isn’t going to fade away. Cutting down neighbors like animals is a big thing. . . . It is an unnatural history.” For the inheritors of the genocide, the past is not a foreign country; on the contrary, it is very much theirs.

Genocide—and the cruelties it entails—can stump even the most astutely analytical and historically informed writers. This does not mean that they—or we—should throw up our hands in helplessness or escape into mystical ideas about fate, national destinies, or innate evil. On the contrary: to understand is essential. But it’s also a perpetually incomplete, if not Sisyphean, task, which means we would do well to approach the histories we make with the deep sense of humility that characterizes Jean Hatzfeld’s work. Cutting down neighbors like animals is a big thing.

Susie Linfield is on the editorial board of Dissent. Her new book, The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, will be published by Yale University Press in 2019.

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