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Book Reviews July 2020

Life Laid Bare by Jean Hatzfeld | Book Review

14 survivors of the Rwandan genocide provide first-hand, eyewitness accounts in Life Laid Bare, a heart-rending book by French journalist, Jean Hatzfeld.

Life Laid Bare by Jean Hatzfeld

Translated from French by Linda Coverdale 
Published: 1994
Publisher (2007 ed.): Other Press (NY)
Paperback: 244 pages
Genre: History

French journalist and war correspondent, Jean Hatzfeld, brings a gut-wrenching work that is bound to leave you feeling disturbed. I spent many sleepless nights after reading this book. Unlike Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, this book is not about an examination of the genocide and will give you little context or history about what led to the events of 1994 in Rwanda. Life Laid Bare instead contains firsthand accounts of 14 survivors, told in their own voices. 

Every survivor’s story is preceded by Hatzfeld’s vivid description of the place he is in – the quiet streets, the quaint shops, the silent people. In peacetime, the villages of Rwanda feel like any other countryside. But these are the places where, in 1994, over 100 days, an average of five out of six Tutsis were killed by their Hutu neighbours with machetes and other weapons. It was only when the Tutsi army, led by Paul Kagame (who was a rebel commander at the time and is today the President of Rwanda) liberated the country that the killings stopped and the survivors could come out from their hiding places. 

“A genocide is not a particularly cruel and murderous war. It is a project of extermination. In the aftermath of a war, civilian survivors feel a strong need to bear witness; in the wake of a genocide, on the other hand, the survivors yearn strangely for silence. Their withdrawal is disturbing.”

Hatzfeld made several journeys through the area of Bugesera and talked to the people – from orphans to farmers to social workers. Their narratives are not easy to read. During those horrific weeks, there were men, women and children hiding in papyrus marshes, dealing with mosquitoes and snakes, but most of all, hoping that hidden between the fronds and covered with mud, they would remain disguised and live to see another day. Some ran to the safety of the churches, believing that the house of God would be immune from attacks and Western missionaries would intervene on their behalf. A few ran through the hills or became dependent on other’s charity hiding under beds or crossed international borders on foot. Families got separated as each member ran for his or her own life; new groups formed out of camaraderie to survive. Mothers clutched young ones to their breasts, were slowed down and cut down mercilessly. There was no safe haven – no home was spared, massacres took place in churches, and in the marshes killers came singing every morning, working till dusk, to slash anyone they could find – the infirm, the old, the newborn, it didn’t matter.

What the voices of these survivors show is the moral responsibility we as an international community bear to such atrocities. Every survivor’s story comes with their photograph – these black and white pictures will continue to haunt you long after you have finished reading their account. That’s how heart-breaking these stories are. 

In the spirit of the author’s work and to keep true to the voices of the survivors who survived weeks of slaughter, I am quoting excerpts from nine such stories, without elaborating on them. 

Jeannette Ayinkamiye 

17 Years Old, Farmer and Seamstress

“One day the interahamwe unearthed Mama beneath the papyrus. She stood up; she offered them money to kill her with a single machete blow.”

“Our memory changes with time. We forget details, we confuse dates, we mix up attacks, we make mistakes with names, we even disagree about how this or that man or woman and other acquaintances died. But we remember all the fearsome moments we personally lived through as if they had happened just last year. Time passes, but we keep our lists of specific memories and speak of them together when things are going badly; these memories become ever more truthful, yet we hardly know how to arrange them in the right order anymore.”

“Actually, I don’t feel that comfortable with life. I cannot think beyond the present anymore.”

“I am saying that Mama’s death brought me the most sorrow, but that her overlong agony did me the most damage, and that now this can never be fixed.”

“The children have swept much misery from their minds, but they still have scars and headaches and thought-aches.”

“I do not believe in the end of genocides. I do not believe those who say that we have seen the worst of atrocities for the last time. When a genocide has been committed, another one can come, no matter when, no matter where, in Rwanda or anyplace, if the root cause is still there and still unknown.”

Francine Niyitegeka

25 Years Old, Farmer and Shopkeeper

“In any case, I think that from now on a gulf in understanding will lie between those who lay down in the marshes and those who never did. Between you and me, for example.”

“What the Hutus did, it’s more than wickedness, more than punishment, more than savagery. I don’t know how to be more precise, because although you can discuss an extermination, you cannot explain it in an acceptable way, even among those who lived through it.”

Janvier Munyaneza

14 Years Old, Cowherd

“To feel hate, you must be able to direct it at definite names and faces. For example, those you recognized when they were killing—they must be cursed in person. But in the marshes, the killers worked in columns, we almost never made out their faces from beneath our leaves. Me, in any case, I can no longer imagine recognizable features. Even the face of my sister’s murderer, I’ve forgotten it. I believe that hatred goes to waste against a mob of strangers. It’s the opposite for fear.”

“If I try to find a reason for this butchery, if I try to understand why we had to be cut, my mind takes a beating, and I waver in doubt over everything around me. I will never figure out the thinking of the Hutus who lived with us. Even the thoughts of those who did not strike us down directly, but said nothing. Those people wanted to hasten our deaths to take over everything. I see only greed and brute force as the roots of that evil. I cannot grasp why our ethnic group is accursed. If I were not stopped short by poverty, I would travel far from here, to a country where I would go to school all week long, and play soccer on a nice grassy field, and where no one would want to mistrust me and kill me, ever again.”

Innocent Rwililiza

38 Years Old, Teacher

“People harbor mysterious reasons for wanting to survive. The more we died, the more we were prepared to die—and the faster we ran to win a moment of life”

“Genocide is not really a matter of poverty or lack of education, and I will tell you why. I am a teacher, so I think that education is necessary to enlighten us about the world. But education does not make someone better; it makes that person more efficient. Anyone who wishes to foment evil will find an advantage in knowing about man’s obsessions, learning about his nature, studying sociology. The educated man—if his heart is flawed, if he seethes with hatred—will do more harm.”

“A survivor cannot help always thinking back to the genocide. For someone who did not experience it, there is before, during, and after the genocide, and it’s all a life being lived in different ways. For us, there is before, during, and after, but they are three different lives, and they have broken apart forever.”

“We had begun with five or six thousand; one month later, when the inkotanyi arrived, there were twenty of us. That’s the arithmetic.”

“One day, in Nyamata, white armored cars arrived to collect the White priests. Out in the main street, the interahamwe thought these vehicles had come to punish them, and they fled, yelling to one another that the Whites were going to kill them. The armored cars never even stopped for a quick Primus to have a laugh over the misunderstanding. And a few weeks later, the Whites sent professional photographers to show the world how we’d been massacred. So, you can understand that a feeling of abandonment has found its way into the hearts of our survivors, and that it will never go away.”

“The survivors tend not to believe that they are truly alive anymore—in other words, that they’re still the same people they were before, and in a way, that’s a little how they keep going.”

“The genocide will change the lives of several generations of Rwandans, yet it is still not mentioned in our schoolbooks. We ourselves are never at ease with these differences, and in a manner of speaking, ethnicity is like AIDS: the less you talk about it, the more havoc it wreaks.”

“War is a matter of intelligence and stupidity. Genocide is a matter of the breakdown of intelligence”

Christine Nyiransabimana

22 Years Old, Farmer

“Genocide goes beyond war, because the intention lasts forever, even if it is not crowned with success.”

Édith Uwanyiligira

34 Years Old, Teacher and School Bursar

“People withdraw inside themselves, dragging their personal pain off into a corner as if they were each the sole survivor, without caring that this pain is the same for everyone.”

Berthe Mwanankabandi

20 Years Old, Farmer

“The genocide pushes into isolation those it could not push into death.”

Claudine Kayitesi

21 Years Old, Farmer

“Still, we must remember a much more important truth: our African brothers did not lift one finger more than the Whites to save our lives, and yet, given our customs and linguistic heritage, who better than Blacks to understand the misfortunes of their fellows? Because of that cold-heartedness, we will remain alone on the hills, feeling vaguely oppressed. But I congratulate myself anyway on being Tutsi, because otherwise I’d be a Hutu.”

Sylvie Umubyeyi

34 Years Old, Social Worker

“So, these survivors, to whom could they speak? No one. They were caught between those coming in and those going out, and that shoved them even further aside. We found that barbaric. That callousness seemed cruel to us. We had survived the machetes for weeks, we had come through the worst without a single helping hand, and already we had ceased to matter at all.”


Life Laid Bare is the winner of the French literary award, Prix France Culture and the Prix Pierre Mill. It is part one of three books by Jean Hatzfeld on the subject of the Rwandan genocide. The other two books are Machete Season which contains the voices of the killers, and The Antelope’s Strategy which speaks of what it is like living in Rwanda after the genocide and the reconciliation between the survivors and the killers. 

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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