Applying the ideas of Holocaust survivor Jean Améry to present day Rwanda, our author argues that reconciliation after genocide is just another form of torture.

“Reconciliation” has become a darling of political theorists, journalists, and human-rights activists, especially as it pertains to the rebuilding of postwar and post-genocidal nations. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of Rwanda. Numerous books and articles on the topic—some, though not all, inspired by Christian teachings—pour forth. It can plausibly be argued, of course, that in Rwanda—and in other places, like Sierra Leone and the Balkans, where victims and perpetrators must live more or less together—reconciliation is a political necessity. Reconciliation has a moral resonance, too; certainly it is far better than endless, corpse-strewn cycles of revanchism and revenge. Yet there is sometimes a disturbing glibness when outsiders tout the wonders of reconciliation, as if they are leading the barbarians from darkness into light. Even worse, the phenomenological realities—the human truths—of the victims’ experiences are often ignored or, at best, treated as pathologies that should be “worked through” until the promised land of forgiveness is reached. This is not just a mistake but a dangerous one; for it is doubtful that any sustainable peace, and any sustainable politics, can be built without a better, which is to say a tragic, understanding of those truths.


No one has described the victims’ experience more astutely or intransigently than Jean Améry—writer, résistant, Jew—who was captured by the Gestapo in 1943 and survived (or, as he insisted, did not really survive) Auschwitz and other camps. Améry’s relative anonymity is a shame, for he wrote some of the most original, incisive, and discomfiting essays on torture and genocide ever penned—essays that are, sad to say, still strikingly relevant, and that challenge current ideas about what reconstruction after genocide might look like. Despite the restrained irony of Améry’s voice, his writings accumulate into an accusatory howl.

The destruction of the autonomous self—a destruction that, if he survives, will continue to haunt the victim—makes torture “the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.”

As he hung from a hook in a Gestapo prison, Améry learned some quick lessons. “The first blow brings home to the prisoner that he is helpless, and thus it already contains in the bud everything that is to come,” he would later write. This helplessness is social more than physical, and bespeaks isolation and abandonment more than pain. The prisoner knows that the world has forsaken him—rescue, aid, solace are impossible—and that he is, therefore, no longer part of the world, even if he is not yet dead. Améry learned, too, that all those aspects of his character that he had considered central and unique would quickly vanish, leaving only one irrefutable reality: the body in pain. “The tortured person never ceases to be amazed that all those things one may… call his soul, or his mind, or his consciousness, or his identity, are destroyed when there is that cracking and splintering in the shoulder joints… Only through torture did he learn that a living person can be transformed so thoroughly into flesh.” The destruction of the autonomous self—a destruction that, if he survives, will continue to haunt the victim—makes torture “the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.”

The tortured person loses what Améry called “trust in the world”: a belief in the social contract, a belief that the boundaries of the body will be respected, a belief that the world wants to share itself with you. Trust in the world means that you, too, are entitled to a minimal safety and a minimal life: though the world might not shower you with happiness, it will at least defend your right to exist. The loss of that trust, Améry argued, is a kind of mutilation. That is why “whoever was tortured, stays tortured… It was over for a while. It still is not over. Twenty-two years later I am still dangling.”

In a startling piece called “Resentments,” written in the mid-1960s and addressed to a German audience, Améry wrote of the exultation he felt after the war, when the corroding loneliness of the torture-and-concentration-camp victim was eased. Améry was returned not only to life but to the family of man: he was in sync, intellectually and morally, with the world around him. This was, for him, “a totally unprecedented social and moral status, and it elated me,” he recalled. “There was mutual understanding between me and the rest of the world. Those who had tortured me and turned me into a bug… were themselves an abomination… Not only National Socialism, Germany was the object of a general feeling that before our eyes crystallized from hate into contempt.” Yet there were already troubling countercurrents, and Améry wrote scathingly of “the Jews”—he cited Martin Buber as one—“who in this hour were already trembling with the pathos of forgiveness and reconciliation,” of the “so-called re-educators from America, England, or France, who could scarcely wait to rush to Germany, West or East;” he himself “wanted no part of any compassion.” In general, though, the immediate postwar years were ones of international solidarity, in which the possibility existed of a regained trust in the world.

This idyll was not to last. An essentially unrepentant Germany was soon reintegrated into the international community (even as Israel’s “right to exist” was increasingly questioned, much to Améry’s despair). Germany—or at least West Germany—reclaimed its former status as the economic powerhouse of Europe; Germans, East and West, dissociated themselves from the Third Reich, which was now regarded as “nothing other than an operational mishap of German history.” Most of all, the survivors were viewed, if they were thought of at all, as shameful reminders of a broken past who should quietly resume their lives and live in humble comity with others (or, at the very least, quit complaining if they couldn’t); even “my former fellows in battle and suffering,” Améry complained, “were now gushing over about reconciliation.”

Against such gushing, Améry posited the moral necessity not just of remembrance but of undying resentment—at least until the perpetrators had diligently revisited, owned, and atoned for their crimes. He railed against the “natural” process in which time presumably heals all wounds, arguing that when a crime such as the Holocaust—the negation of the natural—has occurred, we are no longer bound to respect nature’s laws; the Germans, he insisted, “cannot allow a piece of their national history to be neutralized by time.” In Améry’s schema—which I find slightly mad and morally thrilling—the German nation would scrupulously revisit its years of Nazi barbarism and “would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation.” Instead of disowning its ignominy, Germany would claim the Third Reich as its full responsibility, “its realized negation of the world and its self.” In this diligent, ruthless interrogation of the past, victim and victimizer would meet again, but on radically different terms than before: “On the field of history… two groups of people, the overpowered and those who overpowered them, would be joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral.” Only on this basis could reconciliation be contemplated; only on this basis could the victims’ “extreme loneliness” be eased. And though Améry was not advocating an eye-for-an-eye—that is, the murder of six million Germans, or even the planting of a few bombs in postwar Berlin cafés or on Munich buses—he was not averse to capital punishment, however inadequate such punishment was. Indeed, Améry argued, it is precisely at the moment of execution that “the antiman” regrets his past and can, therefore, “once again become a fellow man.” This comfortless view is, needless to say, highly unorthodox—or, at least, is rarely articulated, much less proclaimed.

Every genocide is unique. Yet the crushing isolation that tormented Améry is eerily reproduced by the present-day survivors of Rwanda’s genocide; so, too, is his disdain of facile ideas about forgiveness.

What becomes clear is that forgiveness and reconciliation are of far less interest to the victims than they are to perpetrators.

Rwanda—tiny and densely populated—faces a problem that no other country has or does: the Hutu murderers and Tutsi survivors of the 1994 genocide live, side-by-side, in unprecedented intimacy; however monstrous this may seem, Rwanda’s history clearly shows that all other options are worse. The government is dominated by formerly exiled Tutsis of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (imagine if Jews had ruled Germany after World War II); for reasons that are practical and perhaps moral, this government has mandated, from above, an official policy of national reconciliation, however subjectively grueling that may be. As Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker last year, Rwanda’s political requirements are “emotionally incomprehensible.”

Several years ago, in response to bulging jails and an overwhelmed, dysfunctional justice system, the government made two decisions. In 2003, it released forty thousand imprisoned génocidaires and sent them back to their villages. And it has reinstated the gacaca courts, community-based forums in which perpetrators and victims face each other and are judged by their neighbors; more than a million cases have been heard. These confrontations have been the subject of an enormous amount of international interest, and disputation, from journalists, anthropologists, NGOs, legal scholars, religious activists, and human-rights organizations; the gacaca trials have been praised as an “authentic” form of African justice and derided as kangaroo courts that elide modern legal procedures regarding rights and evidence.

What becomes clear—especially in the remarkable trilogy of books on post-genocide Rwanda by the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld—is that forgiveness and reconciliation are of far less interest to the victims than they are to perpetrators. Indeed, the perpetrators speak of forgiveness with an outrageously obtuse sense of ease and entitlement. In Hatzfeld’s 2003 book, Machete Season, a killer named Jean-Baptiste Murangira assures the author, “I am certain of being forgiven, because I confessed… Forgiveness will help us to forget together.” A convict named Adalbert Munzigura explains, “It will take time, and the effort will be hard, but this forgiveness is necessary.” And Ignace Rukiramacumu confidently asserts, “I know in the opposite situation, I would manage to forgive my offender,” then threatens, “If I am not pardoned, I will keep the attitude of an offender.”

In Hatzfeld’s most recent book, The Antelope’s Strategy, these same killers, now freed from jail, have adopted the jargon of personal growth, which might be amusing if it wasn’t so grotesque. “I am even a better person” as a result of the genocide, Pio Mutungirehe promises. “I married a Tutsi. All that upheaval of the genocide was of benefit to my psychology.” Pancrace Hakizamungili, also a convicted génocidaire, testifies that “I am a man improved by the experience of those cruel things… I was a good and pious boy; I have become a better and more pious boy, that’s all. If I may put it this way, I have been purified by wickedness.”

In contrast, the victims sound positively Améryian when discussing questions of justice and reconciliation. They know what the world expects of them—“humanitarian foundations… spend millions of dollars urging us to forgive, ” as one survivor puts it—and how irrelevant such expectations are to their lives. Reconciliation “satisfies the authorities, the international donors, and as for the sorrow of the survivors, that’s just too bad, ” Marie-Louise Kagoyire, who lost her entire family, says. Of the perpetrators, another survivor asserts, “I myself would have no trouble watching them be shot, one after the other, in public.… Forgiving them means nothing human. That may be the will of God, but not ours.”

Revenge and reconciliation are often posited as opposites, with justice as the mediator between the two. But the Rwandan victims understand—far more wisely than either perpetrators or theorists—how inadequate all these purported solutions are; each fails to address, to heal, to unmake, or even to lessen the crime of genocide and the unending pain it causes. For the so-called survivors, genocide is the crime with no sentence, the problem with no solution, the crime with no end. “What’s the use of looking for mitigating circumstances… ?” asks Berthe Mwanankabandi, whose parents and eleven siblings were murdered. “What can you mitigate? The number of victims? The methods of hacking? The killers’ laughter? Delivering justice would mean killing the killers. But that would be like another genocide… Killing or punishing the guilty in some suitable way: impossible. Pardoning them: unthinkable. Being just is inhuman.” Mwanankabandi has encapsulated, quite perfectly, the conundrum of genocide: it ridicules the normal categories of crime and punishment upon which civilizations, and human sanity, depend.

A profound lack of trust in the world—the defining characteristic of Améry’s post-Auschwitz existence—has seeped into the Rwandan hills. “Life betrayed me,” says Claudine Kayitesi, a survivor who now cares for orphans of the genocide. “To be betrayed by our neighbors, by the authorities, by the whites—that is a staggering blow…. But to be betrayed by life…who can bear that?” The “natural” balm of time is not working its magic, at least for the survivors; even some of those who have built new lives, which include remarriage and children, are staggering through the world: baffled and devastated, not to mention poor and ill. Asks Innocent Rwililiza, a teacher whose first wife and young son were murdered, and who has worked as Hatzfeld’s translator, “Why do we, who ran [from the killers] so hard, find ourselves falling behind as also-rans? With our psychological problems, our meager crops, and our losses?… Those are questions that humiliate my deepest being… My character truly has been broken.” And while the perpetrators blithely talk of redemption, resumption, and their hopes for the future, the genocide is a shattering rupture for the victims: it defines their lives, yet is utterly incomprehensible. As Sylvie Umubyeyi told Hatzfeld in his first Rwandan book, Into the Quick of Life: “In calm moments, I think about the genocide…so as to know where to put it in my life, but I can find no place. I simply mean that it is beyond the human.” It is clear from Hatzfeld’s latest book—as it is from Améry’s work—that what we might call this paradox of non-understanding is, for the victims, immutable.

Many Westerners know the number of people killed in the Rwandan genocide (approximately eight hundred thousand) and the brevity of the event (approximately one hundred days). But the pitiless sadism—unleashed from reason and politics, and circumventing all theories—that was visited upon the victims remains less known. Parents saw their children smashed; children saw their mothers gang-raped; pregnant women had their babies sliced from their wombs before both were hacked to death. Victims sometimes begged—or paid—to be killed quickly, rather than have their limbs chopped off over a series of days and slowly bleed to death. (In Machete Season, the killers repeatedly and unapologetically explain to Haztfeld that the genocide was both hard work and good fun. “The blast of music never stopped,” Élie Miginge recalled. “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.”)

Some Tutsis fled to the marshes, where they survived for weeks (if they survived) in an unfathomable hell: hunted, naked, wounded, starving, surrounded by piles of the dying as they vomited, bled, weeped, and moaned. “We were zeroes in rags,” a survivor named Médiatrice tells Hatzfeld. “In the forest, we behaved like crazy people.” Eugénie Kayierere says, “We felt already among the dead. We were no longer completely human anymore.” Normal thoughts, normal feelings, could not be summoned: “I no longer had enough intelligence for sadness,” Francine Niyitegeka explains: a pithier description than Améry’s of how human consciousness is destroyed. Upon discovering these survivors, the RPF army, known as the inkotanyi (“the invincibles”), reacted much the way the Allied troops did when they came upon the Nazi camps. “When the inkotanyi saw us finally creep out like mud beggars, they were stunned…as though they were wondering whether we were actually still human,” Niyitegeka remembers. “Our gauntness and stench disturbed them. It was a disgusting situation, but they tried to show us the utmost respect… They were clearly having trouble believing all this.”

The inability to believe—or understand—this kind of wild violence, inflicted on utterly helpless people, is not confined to the Rwandan victims or their rescuers. For Améry, torture was the paradigm of such cruelty—and the necessary model for the concentration camps. Torture creates a kind of anti-world in which the torturer comes “to realize his own total sovereignty” precisely by “negating his fellow man… In the world of torture man exists only by ruining the other person who stands before him.” Still, even Améry was stumped by this viciousness: “Above all,” he wrote, the Nazis “tortured because they were torturers.”

The worlds of the Rwandan peasant and of the Viennese intellectual are not, it turns out, far apart: whoever was tortured, stays tortured.

Primo Levi—who knew Améry briefly in Auschwitz—called this savagery “useless violence”: “a deliberate creation of pain that was an end in itself.” This kind of brutality does not aim to subdue or conquer—that has already been accomplished—nor to wrest political power from the victims, since they have none. It exists as a kind of “pure” sadism, divorced from political ends; it is “a trauma for which civilization does not prepare us, a deep wound inflicted on human dignity, an aggression which is obscene and ominous.” It aims to transform the victims, prior to their deaths, into something that both they and their tormentors no longer recognize as human—perhaps, Levi proposed, so that the perpetrators can feel less guilt. (Adalbert Munzigura seems to confirm Levi’s premise: “The insults were invigorating, made the job easier,” he explained to Hatzfeld. “The perpetrators felt more comfortable insulting and hitting crawlers in rags than properly upright people.”) The distinguishing mark of useless violence—which Levi considered a kind of insanity—is the relentless, gratuitous infliction of humiliation and torment, and the transformation of human beings into degraded objects.

No group of Rwandans—perhaps no contemporary group of people in the world—epitomize this kind of suffering more than the Tutsi women who were raped and gang-raped during the genocide. Numbers are hard to come by, since many of these women have remained silent, but Human Rights Watch estimates that up to half a million women were raped. Seventy percent of those who survived are HIV-positive, according to UNICEF, and it is thought that ten thousand to twenty-five thousand children were born of these rapes. Their mothers are often ostracized by their communities and live, therefore, in marginalization and immiseration (some have been forced to turn to prostitution); the children are reviled by other Tutsis as “children of bad memories,” “children of hate,” or “little killers.”

In 2006, the Israeli photographer Jonathan Torgovnik traveled to Rwanda and interviewed thirty of these women in their homes; for many, it was the first time they had spoken of their travails. (Talking was difficult but, as a woman named Beata explained, “I think keeping quiet breaks me more.”) His photographs of these mothers and children are hard to look at and hard to look away from. The bright colors of the women’s clothes and the lush greenery of the surrounding flora explode; there is beauty here, and life. And yet the beauty and life seem to mock the photographs’ human subjects, who look, somehow, frozen in their sorrow. Torgovnik’s photographs resonate with silence, as if the pain they document is beyond lamentation.

Reading their testimonies, it is hard to know how these women survived. Many were passed, for weeks, from man to man, and were raped continuously. They were raped until they bled, until they passed out, until they could not move or walk or talk; often they were forced to witness murders of others in between the rapes. Some were beaten and clubbed; or had nails driven into their bodies or their teeth knocked out; or were forced to drink stones, or urine, or the blood of their families; or had corn stems, wood, or sharp metal shoved into their vaginas. Some begged to be killed; many more contemplated killing themselves (“I…didn’t have money to buy a rope,” Esperance explains) or, later, their infants. Many of the rape victims were young teenagers at the time of the genocide, which means that they were in their late twenties or early thirties when Torgovnik photographed them; it is a shock to realize this, for some now look like old women. Equally shocking is the preternaturally aged, worried solemnity of their children, which refutes everything we like to associate with childhood.

For these women (who are identified only by their first names), the fathers of their children were not only their rapists but also, often, the killers of their families. Needless to say, the women’s emotions are a complicated maelstrom, at which Torgovnik’s interviews can only hint. “There is no reason whatsoever for me to love this girl,” a woman named Marie says of her daughter, Mary. (Marie is the only woman Torgovnik photographs whose eyes fill with tears.) “She reminds me of…the first rape and the second rape and all the rapes that followed… I can’t say that I love her, but I can’t say that I hate her either.” Yvette recalls: “After around six months, I thought I was probably pregnant. This is when I started wishing to die… But I feared suicide and thought instead that I should give birth to that kid and kill it. But…he was so beautiful that I developed love immediately.” Her son, Isaac, who is barefoot and wears a torn shirt, stares at us: he has beautiful almond-shaped eyes, the slightest furrow on his brow, and not a hint of a smile. A woman named Winnie explains of her daughter, Athanse: “I love her so much, even more so because she is the result of suffering.” But Isabelle, mother of Jean-Paul, says, “I feel trauma every time I look at this boy… I regret that I didn’t die in the genocide.” Some of these women grapple not with their hatred per se, but with where to place it. “They say we are leftovers of the militia’s sexual appetite,” Delphine says. “And whenever I think about it, I hate myself.” Philomena says, more simply, “For a long time, I really hated God.”

The wonderful thing—if there is any wonderful thing—that emerges from these photographs and interviews is the stubborn singularity of each woman. Despite their shared history of horror—and despite the génocidaires’ attempt to kill their human-ness—each has defiantly remained an individual. And each struggles, in her own way, with how she and her children might face the future. (“Be friendly. Love one another,” advises Josephine, somewhat miraculously.) Yet in another, decidedly un-wonderful sense, all these women are the sisters of Améry. In their incomprehension, their shame, their scars, their losses, their dislocation, their impotent fury, their bleak loneliness, their irretrievable lack of trust… The worlds of the Rwandan peasant and of the Viennese intellectual are not, it turns out, far apart: whoever was tortured, stays tortured.

“Useless violence” is, I fear, the distinguishing characteristic of many of today’s worst conflicts: think of the widespread use of amputation in the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, of the child slaves of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, of the rape epidemics in Darfur and Congo. (In the latter, vaginal mutilation after rape has become widespread, if not uniform; Hatzfeld has reported that each militia has its own “trademark style” of rape.) In the post-Cold War era, as many wars have become less ideological, these hideous attacks on women and children—the world’s most helpless people—have surged. Such cruelty inspires revulsion, as it should; but often our reactions stop at that, whether out of indifference, shock, bewilderment, or shame. “It is astonishing that the world is not taking more action in this region,” Torgovnik writes. It is a sentiment, I am sure, that Jean Améry would have embraced, had he still been capable of astonishment.

Linfield80x100.jpgSusie Linfield directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. The Cruel Radiance, her book on photography and political violence, will be published this fall.

**Works discussed in this essay:**

At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities by Jean Améry, translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (New York: Schocken Books, 1986).

The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide by Jean Hatzfeld, translated by Linda Coverdale (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld, translated by Linda Coverdale (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide—The Survivors Speak by Jean Hatzfeld, translated by Gerry Feehily (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2005).

The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage International, 1989).

Intended Consequences: Rwandan children Born of rape by Jonathan Torgovnik (New York: Aperture, 2009).

Jonathan Torgovnik has established Foundation Rwanda to help the rape survivors of the genocide and their children; information can be found at

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