Living, speaking, side by side (Rwanda 4)

(To conclude the series on Jean Hatzfeld’s books on the Rwandan genocide.)

In the Nyamata district of Rwanda, many Tutsis trying to escape Hutu killers during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 hid in the mud and foliage of papyrus swamps. Those who fled to the much less dense Kayumba forest had to rely on running for their lives. Said one,

When the killers seemed to be upon us, we’d scatter in all directions to give everyone a chance: basically, we adopted the antelope’s strategy.

In this his third book on the genocide, French journalist Jean Hatzfeld adopts some of that same “scattering” strategy to give us a sense of what life is like now, some 15 years later, for both survivors and perpetrators, once again occupying the same hills and towns. What I mean is, Hatzfeld tells one story with this perspective, and then another from that, describing one scene after another, until you feel that you’ve not stood in one spot with only one notion of things, but run about to many places and heard many. “Traces and encounters,” Hatzfeld calls them, as he picks up with many of the same people we heard from in his earlier two books, except that killers and survivors will now appear in the same book, side by side.

He opens with Claudine, whose survivor story was told in Life Laid Bare (previous post). She’s was raped, called a cockroach, and feels betrayed by life, “no longer truly happy in my own skin.” But, she says,“courage tugs me by the hand every morning.”

The next scene is at the Rilima penitentiary, where we meet some of the killers from Hatzfeld’s previous book, The Machete Season (my post here), unexpectedly freed after a 2003 presidential bulletin, announcing the release of an initial group of 40,000 who had confessed to genocide. They were “overcome with joy” to return to the Nyamata district, though people there were “stupefied” at their release and found their “memories came crashing back pell-mell.”

And so it goes, through the book. We are taken back into the genocide, by hearing about the hunts in the Kayumba forest.

Those of us who hadn’t been cut down by four o’clock could hope to make it through the day. At five o’clock we’d be sure of it. That meant life, all night long. (Innocent)

(We also learn that, antelope’s strategy notwithstanding, the number who fled started at 6000 and ended with only 20 survivors.) We hear of the happiness of Eugenie, who survived because she didn’t have children at the time and was thus unencumbered in running away, who now has numerous children. We are taken into bustling market scenes, watching people interact, or avoid interacting. We learn that the killers were trained in reorientation sessions how to behave on their return. We get a sense of the gaçaça courts, and what one survivor calls “the harsh politics of reconciliation.” (Says another, “injustice gobbles up injustice.”) We hear eloquent ruminations by killers and survivors about how their relationship to death has changed, and admissions that for many, their relationship to God has also been irretrievably broken. (If the killers seemed to feel it best to leave God out of their “cutting,” those who survived often seemed scarcely able to think of believing either. At the same time, sects and new churches are springing up.) We hear the story of a risky, and generally unappreciated, local marriage between a Hutu and Tutsi.

We learn that foreigners visiting Nyamata today may well view Tutsi and Hutu children together at school, hear positive stories of court sessions and thrilling singing, and be convinced of “ongoing reconciliation.” But, Hatzfeld writes, “[t]hat illusion will last for two or three days before the first unmistakable cracks appear in its façade.”

Last year, when I worked at the MB Herald, we carried a spread in 15-year remembrance of the Rwandan genocide which included a heartwarming story of reconciliation between two women from both sides of the conflict. And, in a comment to the previous posts, Shirley Showalter drew attention to Left to Tell, the very “real” and inspiring story of one Tutsi woman. (See the review here.)

I suspect that for many readers The Antelope’s Strategy may not feel quite as hopeful as the stories above. The confidence of many of Hatzfeld’s interviewees has grown, and the pain of memories has subsided somewhat. There are certainly those who express hope or resolution, as does Sylvie, who says,

I don’t want to keep bitterness in my heart and die from that.

Others have rejected that or simply push the truth beneath silence or other kinds of avoidance. It appears that Rwandans are abiding by the rules and goals of the national reconciliation project, however, at least on the surface, and perhaps that’s as much ground for hope as can be expected considering how little time has actually elapsed. 

I liked this book very much. I think Hatzfeld’s non-linear approach for communicating what we need to understand about the current situation is brilliant. He is also most personally present in this book, it seems to me, of the three, acknowledging his “obsession” with this genocide and others, and his feelings of “bewilderment, vertigo, intoxication.” He acknowledges that the writing of the previous books brought a particular dynamic into the lives of his contacts as well.

As for the one “lesson” above many I’m taking away from this exercise in moral education, it’s the assessment of current life in Rwanda by one Nyamata resident.

They no longer sow hatred, but they are not throwing away the seeds.

That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? An almost superhuman challenge for the Rwandans, but relevant to so many of the conflicts we engage in as well. But if a lesson, it’s also a question. No longer sowing hatred is one (huge) thing. But how do any of us throw away the seeds?

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