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the Complete Review
the complete review - documentary / history

Machete Season
(A Time for Machetes)

Jean Hatzfeld

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Machete Season

Title: Machete Season
Author: Jean Hatzfeld
Genre: History
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 253 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Machete Season - US
A Time for Machetes - UK
Machete Season - Canada
Une saison de machettes - Canada
Une saison de machettes - France
Zeit der Macheten - Deutschland
  • US title: Machete Season
  • UK title: A Time for Machetes
  • US subtitle: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
  • UK subtitle: The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak
  • French title: Une saison de machettes
  • Translated by Linda Coverdale
  • With a Preface by Susan Sontag
  • Includes maps and a chronology

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Our Assessment:

B+ : disturbing, unpleasant, but (sadly) a convincing glimpse of human depravity

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 25/7/2005 Rose Jacobs
Le Monde diplomatique . 8/2004 Claude Wauthier
The Nation . 1/8/2005 Fatin Abbas
Salon . 20/7/2005 Suzy Hansen
San Francisco Chronicle . 26/6/2005 Austin Merrill
The Washington Post . 21/8/2005 Alison Des Forges

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Comme le dit Jean Hatzfeld, les récits des tueurs apportent autant de questions que de réponses." - Claude Wauthier, Le Monde diplomatique

  • "Machete Season is realistic and, above all else, terrifying; Hatzfeld brilliantly organises his subjects' stories for maximum effect. His method captures the rhythm of a genocide -- the cold, workmanlike, fierce nature of its repetition. The book goes on and on, the killers are still alive, they persist, they won't stop talking. Just when you think they won't mention their machete again, it's back." - Suzy Hansen, Salon

  • "The result is crushing -- told mostly in the killers' own voices, it is the story of how a people rose up in unison against friends and neighbors and massacred them, thinking no more of the task than one would of daily sport or a routine chore. (...) Open this book to any page and you are likely to land on some of the most shocking testimonials ever recorded." - Austin Merrill, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The reader is drawn in, in effect eavesdropping on a casual chat among killers. The murderers discuss everything from the first time they killed to how they joked about raping and murdering Tutsi women to how they enjoyed feasting on pillaged cattle and other food. (...) Readers who can get beyond their (justified) initial horror will find a wealth of detail here about the genocide (.....) (I)ts grassroots view of the genocide enriches and completes other, more formal accounts." - Alison Des Forges, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Machete Season (A Time for Machetes) consists mainly of what amounts to testimony given by a group of those involved in the massacres of (mainly) Tutsis in Rwanda in the spring and summer of 1994. Jean Hatzfeld interviewed a group of killers, choosing to focus not on individuals but on "a group of prisoners who would feel protected from the dangers of truth by their friendship and joint complicity, a bunch of pals secure in their group identity established before the genocide". The interviews -- usually conducted one on one (plus the translator) -- are related in short chapters, the killers' responses (or at least a small bit of them) about specific aspects of the genocide presented one after the other, occasionally contrasted with testimony from survivors. Hatzfeld also offers some commentary and background, but for the most part allows the killers to speak for themselves (though warning repeatedly that they might not always have been completely truthful, sometimes obviously so). (The interviews took place at a prison where they were all imprisoned; all had been sentenced, so anything they said could no longer be used against them in any legal proceedings.)
       A chronology at the beginning of the book summarises what happened, but the book itself does not proceed strictly chronologically, the chapters instead focussed on specific aspects of what happened, with the reasons (insofar one can call them that), for example, only considered later on.
       Needless to say, this is grim stuff. The mass murders were by and large carried out using machetes, and the killers do describe in some (relatively clinical) detail the methods of murder. It nevertheless all remains slightly unreal: the acts are, after all so unfathomable: not just murder, but mass slaughter, day after day, that it seems almost impossible. The killers went out, every day for weeks, and hunted down their former neighbours and killed them, a bloody day-job they embraced more or less willingly -- and in some cases enthusiastically.
       There are no excuses for what happened (though the killers of course try to make some), but among the many disturbing accounts are those of the situation before the massacres happened. Tutsi and Hutu lived side by side in a sort of uneasy friendship, close and yet divided, with the idea of killing Tutsis a popular propaganda-suggestion (as well as a subject for jokes, material which, in the hands of the right comics, even Tutsis laughed at). Smaller previous slaughter-attempts had occurred, even if things never got this far out of hand (or rather: were never this well organised), and the simmering hatred, constantly fanned by politicians, is frustratingly evident. Machete Season doesn't offer a close analysis of the big picture of what transpired or how it came to this (though Hatzfeld does present a good overview), but is especially valuable in presenting how the common man (and a few local leaders) accepted and reacted to what information, propaganda, and orders they were fed.
       Fascinating, if unsurprising, is the role greed played, and how mass-killing also made for looting and personal enrichment. The role of corrugated metal -- useful material for roofs, and among the few tangible forms of wealth in this impoverished area -- is particularly interesting.
       The attempts by the killers to rationalise their barbarity are also fascinating -- as are their thoughts about the role of their god in this religious (Christian) country, where they went to church with their Tutsi neighbours shortly before the massacres began (and, of course, also slaughtered them in church when that was convenient).
       The killers seem a fairly typical sample of inhabitants of this area, with different personalities (at least one was always a rabid Tutsi-hater, while others were close to Tutsis) and jobs. They did the unfathomable, and while Western readers might like to think that the incredible poverty, the historical antagonism between the two groups, local media manipulation, and particularly evil politicians can be blamed (as well as a culture where they happen to have a lot of machetes lying around) -- i.e. it couldn't happen here -- this case differs from the brutality that has happened (in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Darfur, etc. etc. etc.) and continues to happen only by degrees.
       (The conduct and indifference of the international community (and the local (mainly white) foreign population, quickly evacuated) is a whole different shameful story -- though it is worth remembering how these killers were relieved that the local white priests immediately fled (there's religious devotion ...) and that it became immediately obvious the foreigners cared only about their own.)
       Machete Season is a disturbing read. In providing other perspectives and information about the horrific events of 1994 it is a useful document, but reading the killers' words -- which one has to remember are unreliable, and in part surely self-serving -- leaves one with a dirty feeling. Common men (and it was almost entirely men that did the massacring), they did what was completely beyond the pale. No punishment is harsh enough, and yet punishment serves little purpose any longer (well, in one or two cases one senses that they'd just as gladly and eagerly go out and do it all again). Sadly, the book also doesn't seem to provide many lessons that might help to prevent it all from happening again, there or elsewhere. The only obvious conclusion: humans are scum, and if conditions allow for it they're capable of absolutely anything.

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Machete Season: Reviews: Jean Hatzfeld: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jean Hatzfeld is a French journalist.

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© 2005-2010 the complete review

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