This, Jean Hatzfeld’s third book on the Rwandan genocide, opens with a joyous description of a wedding. A decade and a half after the massacre, a survivor is getting married. Life, however improbably, has to go on being lived.
“Thanks to the wedding, time wears a kind face at present,” says the bride, Claudine Kayitsei, “but only at present. Because I see clearly that the future has already been eaten up by what I have lived through.”
As Claudine explains, everything has changed because she and her neighbours, “experienced the battle between good and evil right before their eyes, stark and simple.”
In his first book on Rwanda, ‘Into the Quick of Life’, Hatzfeld recounted the stories of the survivors. In his second, ‘A Time for Machetes’, he listened to the killers’ tales, interviewing a gang of friends who had taken up machetes to hunt their neighbours hiding in the marshes. In ‘The Strategy of Antelopes’, he returns to the rural district of Nyamata and revisits both the survivors and the perpetrators.
It is now 15 years on and the people he first interviewed in prison have returned home to their farms following a broad amnesty. Survivors like Claudine recognise the faces of their family’s killers among their neighbours.
By dint of painstaking, diligent reporting, Hatzfeld pieces together a picture of this uneasy new era. It can hardly be described as one of reconciliation; as one survivor puts it: “We are enduring this cohabitation.”
The book, which like its two predecessors won literary prizes when it originally appeared in France, is a mosaic of themes and individual stories. Hatzfeld describes, beautifully, the hills and villages of rural Rwanda: “In the evening, when the sun tips behind those foothills, it gilds the marshes with an orangey yellow before bathing them in a strange pink glow.”
He writes about the kids playing football, the farming routines of toil and harvest and market day, evenings in the down-at-heel bars.
These passages serve as backdrops for the long sections of oral history, often wonderfully poetic, in which the tangled layers of emotional scars, memory, guilt and reflection are revealed.
They are co-existing; it appears, but warily because of the reconciliation policy.
“Delivering justice would mean killing the killers,” explains one survivor, Berthe Mwanankabandi. “But that would be like another genocide and would bring chaos.”
The killers attempt to pick up their lives. Some have been impoverished and chastened by their flight to Congo and their years in prison.
They participate in the re-education classes that teach them to absorb resentment and suspicion, and in the informal village council meetings that provide a forum for confessions.
To the survivors, these confessions often seem to be no more than half-truths, full of ellipses that “tiptoe through the details.” But these efforts, as one survivor notes, “satisfy the authorities, the international donors; as for the sorrows of the survivors, that’s just too bad.”
The experiences of the massacre, which went beyond death or fear or hopelessness into a new territory of existential nihilism, have profoundly shaken those who survived them.
In addition to psychological tremors, lapses in concentration, grief, nightmares, fear, loneliness and bouts of alcoholism, Hatzfeld observes a profound shift in internal philosophy.
Many survivors have remarried, ostensibly picking up the pieces, but the knowledge that life can tip in a moment into hell has changed all of them.
“Having lived through the killings, I have revised my theories. Philosophical thoughts don’t in the least sway me as they once did,” explains Innocent Rwililiza, Hatzfeld’s friend and translator in the region.
“I distrust time-honoured ideas, no longer respect logic as I ought to. I have learned to accept the unbelievable, to be ready for anything, to think on the alert. Behind every thought, I expect betrayal.”
From time to time, Hatzfeld breaks the suspension of authorial judgment that he kept in his previous books and probes the questions of why and how.
He considers the role of God and faith and discovers that both victims and killers alike have slipped these moorings. He reads Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi, who asked the same questions of the Holocaust, and honestly acknowledges the impossibility of his task: “Writing can’t replace the testimony of the dead.”
Ultimately, there are no real answers. Some of his Rwandan friends offer broad theories of African greed and envy, a continental inferiority complex, but these seem too glib and fatalistic. Over and over, survivors and killers alike fumble towards some version of explanation.
Hatzfeld’s great achievement is his lucid, empathetic presentation of these mesmerising, heart-wrenching, extraordinary voices.
The power of this book is in its desire to try to understand - a little better at least - the incomprehensible.
About the book: Title: The Antelope’s Strategy /The strategy of Antelopes
Author: Jean Hatzfeld