The Machete

Brief Background:

It can be difficult to grasp that in nearly 100 days the Rwandan genocide managed to take the lives of over 800,000 people; most of which were Tutsi’s. (Jones, 360)  The conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi people was not a recent development in the early 1990’s. These two groups of people had been at odds due to old colonial tensions, class division and the development of the Hutu Manifesto. (Gourevitch, 58) In the summer of 1994, with the death of Habyarimana, Rwanda’s leader, the mounting tensions broke and the genocide began.

During the genocide the Hutu majority, who had been suppressed for many years, attempted to gain power in the country. The Hutu group Interhamwe, which functioned as a militia was key to the rise of Hutu power in Rwanda during this time. There were United Nation troops on the ground in Rwanda during this time but due to the deaths of ten Belgian soldiers and conflicting opinions, the UN troops were not given the authority to take any action other than insuring that communication lines stay open. Although there were safe areas that the UN troops protected, they were not able to contain all of the Tutsis who were sought out and massacred.

The Photographer and the Photo:

“On the most basic level, I hope that people when they look at this work will engage themselves with it and not shut down, not turn away from it, but realize that their opinion counts for something…” James Nachtwey

Nachtwey is a war photographer who travels the world and photographs conflict areas in order to spread awareness about “critical social issues.” The particular photograph depicting the pile of machetes (introduced below) was taken during the final days of the conflict in Rwanda. The machetes were confiscated in Goma, near the border of Rwanda, presumably as Hutu individuals attempted to flee the country because they feared reprisals from the Tutsi. The machete itself was the weapon that defined the genocide in Rwanda. In a time that followed the Holocaust and the usage of gas chambers, the Rwandan genocide proved that old weapons could be just as effective in murdering a great number of people. (Jones, 355)

This pile contains some of the weapons used against the Tutsi people during the summer of 1994, yet the image contains only the weapons, not the perpetrators or the victims. A photograph of this nature seems to guide the viewer to question how the Hutu and Interhamwe forces gained access to such an incredible amount of machetes.

Iconic Weapon of Choice:

The machete was a commonly owned tool in Rwanda because of its practical agricultural applications. In an effort to prepare for the genocide, agricultural tools such as the machete were imported into Rwanda in numbers that “greatly exceeded Rwanda’s agricultural needs.” (McNulty, 107) During the conflict the Hutu and the Interhamwe, wanted to mobilize as many members as possible and increase their strength through numbers. By distributing a common weapon, one that many people already had access to, the Hutu forces were able to organize a specific method of killing in which the majority of Hutu people could participate.

This particular weapon was not only significant in the genocide but also the way in which the Western world often times stereotypes this particular genocide and the people of Rwanda. (McNulty, 106) Indeed the machete was the weapon that killed the highest percentage of Tutsi’s but other weapons, more “modern” weapons, such as guns and grenades were used as well. By focusing on just the usage of the machete, the Rwandan people were stereotyped with incorrect labels such as “tribes” and “savages”. It is important to note that the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa people are not tribal groups. (Verwimp, 5)

Upon First Glance:

The viewer can clearly see in this photograph that the machetes vary in type, which supports the idea that they were not all from the same source. As mentioned previously, the machete was a common tool that most Rwandan people owned, especially those who made their living in agriculture. The idea of individual weapons leads to the idea of individual killers. Where as some Hutu people were forced into the killings others volunteered. This picture suggests the greater social issue of what would drive such a vast majority of people to unite together and murder over 800,000 individuals in 100 days.

This photo does not include every machete used during the genocide in Rwanda but it suggests to the viewer that the amount of weapons and killers is not a number that can be easily imagined. Considering that the majority of the population was armed with machetes through “civilian self-defense programmes” the perpetrators vastly outnumbered the victims. Due to the circumstances of the genocide the Tutsi people were not well equipped to defend themselves. In situations such as this it is a popular idea that the United Nations or other foreign governments should become involved and intervene to stop the genocide.

Digging Deeper:

As mentioned earlier, in preparation for the genocide the Hutu majority began accumulating weapons from military grade firearms and grenades to machetes and hoes. (McNulty, 107) Through the accumulation of weapons they were able to train other Hutu groups on how to use the weapons in the most effective manner. The stock piling of weapons also provided the Hutu forces with an advantage over the Tutsi’s in not only number but in arms as well.

The Interhamwe and Hutu forces were aware that even though they were accumulating guns, there would not be enough guns to arm every one of the members. This realization drove the Interhame to gather more accessible weapons such as spears, swords and even bows. (Verwimp, 7) After gathering the weapons the Hutu forces also taught their members how to use the weapons effectively. (Verwimp, 7) This photograph suggests that despite the technological advancements in weaponry- sheer numbers and forces will still prove to be extremely effective. By mobilizing the majority of their people, the Hutu forces were able to create an environment where individuals killed other individuals in a systematic manner.

The availability of machetes to the Hutu people was so great that they were essentially being passed out to not only the Interhamwe forces but even to Hutu members who were not involved in the military action. (Gourevitch, 104) This distribution of weapons to the mass public aligns well with the image from Nachtwey because they both suggest that many Hutu individuals were armed with some form of a weapon during the time of the genocide. (I would like to note that although many Hutu individuals were armed, not all Hutu people participated in the genocide and some individuals even sided with the Tutsi’s. Those Hutu members that sided and sympathized with the Tutsi’s were often times killed by the Interhamwe forces.) The increase in imports of machetes could not have went unnoticed by the supplying countries. Although the most well-known supplier of machetes to Rwanda was China, as seen in the film Hotel Rwanda (Clip Below) and as confirmed by Philip Gourevitch in his book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families it was not the only supplier. Boxes of machetes were even imported from countries such as Belgium. (Verwimp, 6) Regardless of country, businessmen participated in the arms trade prior to and during the summer of 1994. (Verwimp, 6)

In the Absence:

Considering that these machetes were used in the killings of many Tutsi and Tutsi sympathizers, it is interesting to note that due to the nature of a black and white photograph, it is difficult for the viewer to determine whether or not there is blood on the machetes. Not only does Nachtwey’s photograph remove the color from the photograph but he also removes the presence of victims as well as the perpetrators. Removing the history of the machetes and context in which they were found suggests to the viewer that the an overarching issue in cases of genocides, such as the one in Rwanda, is not just of the issue killings but also the issue of supplying and distributing weapons.

By displaying an image that contains just some of the confiscated weapons from the genocide the viewer is able to better understand the incomprehensible number of perpetrators during this genocide. Since the majority of the killings were carried out by machetes, the viewer would know that the victims were extremely close when the killings were happening.  Many times the Interhamwe and Hutu forces were killing people they knew. (Source)

Even though the Rwandan genocide is linked closely with the machete, it was most certainly not the only weapon used during the summer months of 1994. There was a distribution of firearms among the Hutu forces, which were used in places that housed high numbers of Tutsi refugees. (Verwimp, 7-8) This photograph contains only a pile of machetes but there aren’t any visible military weapons with which the police forces were equipped.

Digging Deeper:

Machetes accounted for approximately 52.8% of the killings during the genocide. (Verwimp, 13) Despite the weapon of choice for the majority of the murders, this photograph neglects to address the usage of firearms and other military weapons that were used during the genocide. The fact that a machete was a commonly owned tool in Rwanda complicates the issue of whether or not the other countries who supplied the agricultural tools to Rwanda, in increased proportions, during the time preceding the genocide are responsible for arming the Hutu forces.

Where as the importation of machetes proves ambiguous on the side of the suppliers, the imports of firearms, grenades and other similar weapons does not have the same ambiguity. In the two years prior to the killings in Rwanda the country imported one hundred million dollars worth of military weapons. (McNulty, 107) The most notable source of these imports was from the French government. (McNulty, 104) (Jones, 352) Considering the long standing relationship between the French President Mitterrand and the leader of Rwanda, Habyarimana, in the time leading up to the genocide it is not surprising that the French provided, whether directly or indirectly, a notable amount of arms to the Hutu and Interhamwe groups. (Gourevitch, 89)

It is worthwhile to note that in the time leading up to the genocide Rwanda was enduring a conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi people. This conflict had been going on for many years, most likely due to old colonial tensions, and many of the weapons that were imported prior to the genocide were used to arm either side of the conflict.

The increase in weapons allowed for the specialization of killings in Rwanda. The Interhamwe and other Hutu forces were able to choose a specific weapon and type of killing to increase the death count in each situation. The guns and grenades were reserved for the police like Hutu forces and they were used in order to kill a great number of Tutsi’s. (Verwimp, 7) Usually the Interhamwe targeted churches and other refugee centers with grenades and gunfire. (Verwimp, 8) The machetes initially were part of the mass killings but because the availability of guns allowed for the Interhamwe forces to specialize their killings, the machetes were then used for killings in open spaces where the victims were not in large numbers.


An image has the power to evoke an array of feelings and tell a story without words but in that story complications and questions can arise. Jim Nachtwey’s photograph of the abandoned machetes can lead the viewer to many different conclusions but they all meet back at Nachtwey’s original purpose: bringing awareness to “critical social issues.” By using a photograph that displays so much yet in the same light lacks definite information, Nachtwey has provided the viewer, at least in my case, with the desire to answer the question and find out more about the context of the photo. Spreading knowledge about the genocides that happen around the world is a way to engage the public in essential issues, so that hopefully, by raising awareness, there will be effective action taken against any genocide that may happen in the future.

“On the most basic level, I hope that people when they look at this work will engage themselves with it and not shut down, not turn away from it, but realize that their opinion counts for something, that they become part of a constituency, and people who have the power to make decisions that affect the lives of thousands of people know that there’s a constituency form out there, and they have to do something about it.” James Nachtwey
Similar Images:

After researching this particular image from James Nachtwey, it was brought to my attention that there are other photographs with similar content style. I thought it would be best to acknowledge and include some of these images. The images come from various different genocides and they include items that are from the perpetrators as well as the victims. There are images that contain piles of bodies but I chose to leave out such images and focus on photographs that contain objects from various genocides.

Finally I would like to comment on the last image that depicts a sculpture. This sculpture follows the same “pile” form that the other images contain and although the image does not represent objects from a particular genocide, it is composed in memory of a genocide. All of the images that I have provided have been collected and preserved for one reason or another and despite the fact that we may never know why, the images themselves still maintain an importance in the stories that they reveal.

Additional Information

I have included the clip of the movie Hotel Rwanda where China is implicated as being a supplier of machetes to Rwanda. This film, released in February 2005, gained mass attention for the genocide in Rwanda. Specific reference occurs between 4:10-4:35 in this particular clip:

Nachtwey’s image of a pile of abandoned machetes is not the only one of it’s kind. There is another similar image by Gilles Peress in which the viewer can see an alcohol bottle in the pile of machetes. Although I did not address the consumption of alcohol in this piece it is cited not only in this picture but also in the documentaries Ghosts of Rwanda and Shake Hands With the Devil as a major part of the genocide.


Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda. New York: Picador, 1998. Print.

Verwimp, Philip. “Machetes and Firearms: The Organization of Massacres in Rwanda.” Journal of Peace Research 43.1 (2006): pag. 5-22. Web. 4 April 2012.

McNulty, Mel. “French arms, war and genocide in Rwanda.” Crime, Law and Social Change 33 (March 2000): pag. 105-129. Web. 4 April 2012.

Nachtwey, James. Interviewed by Elizabeth Farnsworth. A Coversation With, 16 May. 2000. Web. 4 April. 2012.

Image Sources:

1st Image: Machetes. Source:

2nd Image: Shoes. Source:

3rd Image: Prosthetic Legs. Source:

4th Image: Eyeglasses. Source:

5th Image: Cambodia. Source:

6th Image: Shalechet. Source: