Article by Peter Maass

Rwanda, the Sorrow and the Pity

The Washington Post  |  August 25, 1996
Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey. By Fergal Keane

By Fergal Keane
Viking. 198 pp. $21.95

Reviewed by Peter Maass

HOW DO you explain what war is like? How do you explain the mad violence of drunken soldiers or the spiritual ruins that survivors have been turned into? And how do you explain it in a way that captivates outsiders and conveys the message that wars in distant lands are relevant to our own lives?

It’s not easy. As soon as a war breaks out somewhere, we can see it on television, and if the war is a big one or unusually pitiful, we get to watch it live. Live from Baghdad. Live from Sarajevo. Live from Kigali. But the faces of the victims, and an understanding of their traumas, remain as foreign to us as the strange lands these people come from. Invariably, the things we see on television fade away. What was on the news last night? The same stuff. War. Death. Somewhere else.

When Fergal Keane, a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation, first saw the televised images of death coming from Rwanda in the spring of 1994, he paid them little mind. He was the BBC’s man in Johannesburg, and he had his hands full covering South Africa’s first multi-racial election. He assumed, like many others, that the fighting in Rwanda was just another sad example of tribal rivalry. Hutus, Tutsis—who knew the difference, and who cared? But as the bloodshed grew to terrifying levels and the word “genocide” was attached to it, Keane was dispatched to Rwanda. He spent several weeks there and put together a television documentary that won him a pile of prizes. He had done his job well, and he was rewarded for it.

But something wasn’t right. As Keane explains at the start of his well-crafted memoir, Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey, Rwanda continued to nag him. This happens more often to war correspondents than you would imagine, this feeling that the story has not really been told, that there is more to say, particularly about the personal dimension of watching neighbors murder each other. What does it feel like to be there, what effect does it have on the observer? To answer these questions and others, Keane wrote Season of Blood, a brief chronicle of his frightening and enlightening travels in Africa’s freshest killing fields. The book provides a gripping look into very many things—into war, madness, compassion, evil and courage. And it provides a glimpse into the soul of a correspondent who was ambushed by the war he covered. The book is captivating.

“For me to make sense of that journey, I cannot write in terms of facts alone,” Keane notes at the beginning. “So bear with me when the road runs down into the valleys of the heart and mind and soul. For this is a diary of an encounter with evil beyond any scope of reference I might have had when the journey began.” Although every event in the book revolves around Rwanda, it is not just about Rwanda. When Keane writes of his encounter with Sylvestre Gacumbitsi, an extremist who allegedly helped organize the genocide, the evil he confronts is a universal one. Gacumbitsi is tracked down at a United Nations refugee camp, where he is in charge of distributing relief supplies to his followers (another indication that, despite its lofty rhetoric, the U.N. is more likely to employ war criminals than arrest them). Gacumbitsi smoothly denies involvement in genocide or even the fact of genocide. “No, no, no,” he says. “Why would I do that?” It goes on, evasion after evasion, until Keane realizes that the young men with machetes who have formed a circle around him have heard enough of his questions. As described in Season of Blood, Gacumbitsi’s face is a familiar one. We have seen it before, elsewhere, and we are likely to see it again, elsewhere. It is the face of evil. Of course Keane is disgusted, though not only with Gacumbitsi: “I think of the unarmed and helpless dying under the bullets and knives of the {Hutu} militia. And then I look at Gacumbitsi, strutting among the refugees like a prince, a man whose power and influence has been guaranteed and protected by the governments of the world. I feel sick to my stomach.”

This is a personal book. If your preconception of a war correspondent is a man in a safari jacket who never sheds a tear and dashes from one war to another without being hit by shrapnel or regret, then this book will set you straight. There is anguish in its pages. How could there not be? These are some of the people Keane meets: children who have been slashed and bludgeoned by machetes, who have gone mad; women who have seen their families killed, who had to hide under piles of corpses to avoid their own execution; and a pair of traumatized foreign missionaries who had no choice but to abandon a group of terrified orphans—who were then, most probably, slaughtered.

IT MAY BE unfair to criticize a small book for not being larger, but there is a lack of detail on the Rwandans themselves; they are presented either as the victims of atrocities or the authors of atrocities. It would have been nice to know what they were like before the atrocities began. The most intriguing characters in the book, about whom the reader might like to know more, are two Tutsi soldiers who escort Keane and his BBC team during most of their journey—Frank, the veteran officer who can hum the BBC’s signature tune, and Valence, his adjutant, who is just a boy soldier. What were their pasts like? Keane never finds out, so neither does the reader. It is a pity. This is a minor flaw. If you want to know what it was like to be in a country when up to a million people were slaughtered like pigs in a matter of weeks, this is the book you should read. Everyone who set foot in Rwanda was changed by the experience—the doctors, the aid workers, the missionaries and, yes, the journalists. “We had learned something about the soul of man that would leave us with nightmares long into the future,” Keane writes. The reader of his book should not have nightmares but should have plenty to think about long after the final page is turned.

Peter Maass covered the Bosnian war for The Washington Post and is the author of “Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War.”