I have two big questions about Jean Hatzfeld's latest book, The Antelope's Strategy: Living in Rwanda after the Genocide. Number one is a basic question about the premise of the book: In 2003, the Rwandan government started releasing Hutu prisoners who had confessed to and been convicted of numerous murders of their Tutsi neighbors in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. I ask you: how is that going to work? My second question is more basic, and it's about Jean Hatzfeld: how does he stand continuing to write these books?
This is the third in a series of Hatzfeld's books, originally written in French (and translated beautifully by Linda Coverdale). The first book was Machete Season, and was an oral history of the Hutus who did the killing. In the second, Life Laid Bare, Hatzfeld spoke with Tutsi survivors. In this book, he speaks with both Hutu and Tutsi residents of Rwanda, many of whom are now struggling to live as neighbors, side by side with Hutus who hunted them (for the Tutsis) or with the Tutsis they couldn't catch and kill (for the Hutus).
I don't know if it's because it was the first book I read on this subject, or because it was the best, but Machete Season blew me away. That was a book that actually changed my view, not of the world, but of myself. When I recognized, in the Hutus' stories of why they picked up machetes and started murdering Tutsis, that part of why they did it was because farming was a ridiculously hard way to make a living and they coveted what their neighbors had, I could understand what they were saying. When they further explained how they had been hearing bad things about Tutsis all their lives, and how they hated them, I could get that too. Everyone, at some time, I think, has felt some sort of overwhelming disgust or dislike for their fellow humans and often, specific humans at that. I know we like to think, secure here in America with our clean water and our working sewage systems and our grocery stores full of food, that we would never commit atrocities. But couldn't we? If those grocery stores and water and everything else went away, wouldn't we?
I won't say it wasn't a depressing thought. But it changed how I thought about many other things in my life, and about myself. I'm not saying we're all killers at heart. What I am saying is that I don't think any of us are sure what we are truly capable of, especially in horrifying and lawless and threatening circumstances. That is a powerful thing to realize, and it makes you a little less likely to make blanket statements which start with "I would never..."
I can't say that this book gave me that experience, but it's a must-read anyhow. How will these people live together? Granted, I didn't know how it was going to work to keep all the Hutus locked up, either, but to let them all live together again? How can you be a neighbor to someone who once chased you with a machete through a forest, where the only way you could survive in a group was by employing the "antelope's strategy" of scattering out? (Hence the book's title.) I don't know. To his credit, I don't think Jean Hatzfeld knows, either, and he doesn't have much to say about it, as in this book he largely tells the story in the words of those people who he interviews. It's oral history at its finest, and saddest. If you can stand it, you should read it.