One hundred days

If everyone else jumped off a cliff, yes,
you’d get in line. That’s how it was.
The national radio said they would kill us all
if we let them live.

We are not barbarians — we are no different from you —
but this is a poor country.
We couldn’t afford 800,000 bullets,
much less the guns to fire them,
so most of the work had to be done
with ten-cent machetes
made in China.

It helped to be a little crazy: the cockroaches
looked so much like neighbors,
like friends from childhood, even
your own wife.
At first they screamed, but then
they’d grow silent, waiting for the end,
already frozen inside.

It wasn’t always pleasant, but we worked
together, in friendly competition
to see who could land the first blow
or do the most killing.
We chanted songs & slogans from the radio.

Some people did not even find someone to kill
because there were more killers than victims.
I saw people whose hands had been amputated,
those with no legs, and others with no heads.
I saw everything.

It went on for a hundred days, until the rebels came.
Afterwards, we burned our clothes
& buried the machetes in the backyard,
using the blades to dig the holes —
there was a nationwide shortage of shovels —
& firming with a foot that rich volcanic soil
where anything will grow.
__________

Written in reaction to the movie Hotel Rwanda, which I saw on Monday night as part of a History Film Series at Penn State Altoona. It’s an amazing film, in part because it portrays one man who did not jump off the cliff — a true hero. The portion in italics above is taken from the testimony of one of the killers, a man named Gitera Rwamuhuzi, courtesy of the BBC.

8 Comments


  1. The act of killing is,
    as everyone knows,
    terrible, that bloody

    removal of a body from
    its life. But even more
    terrible is the work in it,

    the exhaustion, the
    way the working limbs
    almost refuse to go on.

    The first few are always
    easy, but the more you
    do, the harder flesh

    and tendon seem. They
    spring back from the blade,
    make more of a mess.

    And worst of all is the
    sitting down afterwards,
    trying to catch your

    own shallow breath.

    Reply

  2. Thanks, Teju. I think I like your poem better than mine!

    Dick – More like docu-drama, I’d say.

    Reply

  3. Don’t talk nonsense.

    I love the quiet power of “We’re not barbarians.”

    My theory is that, if we could travel back in time, the Barbarians themselves would deny it too. Not to mention the Vandals, the Philistines, and the Americans.

    Reply

  4. Now, suddenly, everything seems to answer the question, what is it to be unimaginable?

    Reply

  5. robin andrea – Good point. I hadn’t thought of that.

    By the way, if you haven’t checked out the blog of SLB, who posed that question, it’s here.

    Teju – I recently read account of a new, very credible, revisionist history of the Roman-era Celts and Germans that makes the point that they had virtually every civilized accoutrement of the Romans, except standing armies.

    Reply

  6. It is so difficult to write a political /documentary poem that works as poetry and you’ve done that very well here. What you’ve written is chilling, thought provoking but still lyrical. Excellent!

    Reply

  7. Thanks so much, Juliet. Though I also welcome criticism, I’m glad you took the time to register your generous reactions.

    Reply

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