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Photo by Nicole Parson, from Buzzfeed and The Hill.

I report here testimony gathered by the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld. Hatzfeld managed to interview in prison numerous perpetrators of the massacres in Rwanda, nearly entirely done with machetes. During the 90s, the Tutsi population was hunted down by Hutus and the killing was everywhere.

One of these exterminators said that, “During the time of the killings I never heard the word “genocide”. We occasionally came across it in the discourse of foreign journalists and the staff of humanitarian organizations. [. . .] But the truth is that among us this word was never spoken. Many of us didn’t even know what genocide meant. It made no difference. We knew what we were doing and didn’t need a name for it”.

No doubt that’s how it is: some acts hope to stay safe from the words that define them. And the words that do serve have to be false, in support of the crimes.

The Nazis called the ghettos they herded the Jewish population into Wohnungsbezirk, habitation districts.

Another Rwanda assassin said that they began calling the Tutsi cancrelats—the name of a parasitic insect; by doing so, they managed to dress up the extermination as a form of disinfestation.

These days the language of those in power is again deforming their adversaries, degrading them with the goal of crushing them. In Italy today, you hear the word zecche (“ticks,” “parasites”) used glibly to define the opposition, with no objections, no one shuddering at the term.

The introduction to every loss of public awareness begins with verbal distortion and continues in the silence necessary for the executors of end results.

Once defeated, and sentenced, the Hutu assassins were confronted with the words that define their crimes.

Once the delirium was over, more than tribunals, dictionaries reestablished the truth.

It is the duty today of any person competent in their own language—writers, for example—to denounce the prostitution of dictionaries and the trafficking of counterfeit speech. Without the watchman’s warrant, without sanction to call out, “Who goes there?”, the average citizen must still defend the reputation of that book of names, listed in alphabetical order, from aardvark to zyzzyva.

Erri De Luca is a novelist, essayist, translator, poet, and one of Europe's best-known writers. His most recent novel is Il Giro dell'oca (Feltrinelli, 2018).

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