There’s a shorthand in journalism for the difficult work of covering foreign communities – of landing on a dusty airstrip in some remote region barely on the map, knowing no one, and yet somehow leaving a week later with a half-dozen stories full of illuminating quotations and details.
Reporters and editors call it “parachuting in,” and the cliché could only be more accurate if the pilot actually pushed the reporter out of the plane. After a few jumps, most journalists figure out how to make it work, and the most ambitious of those make books out of their experiences, lingering for six weeks at a time to do intensive reporting, and then withdrawing again to the comforts of home.
Jean Hatzfeld is not one of those guys. The Antelope’s Strategy, third in a series of books the French journalist has written on the Rwandan genocide, is born of seven years of sustained conversation with survivors and perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, men and women who populate the hilltops around Nyamata, roughly 20 miles from the capital city of Kigali.
The world is awash with stories about Rwanda. Most of them are frozen in time, commemorating the genocide and castigating the international community for its failure to intervene. In these stories, the legacy of the genocide is fixed, always reflecting backwards.
Hatzfeld’s books acknowledge something that those by parachuters cannot: the passage of time.
When Hatzfeld began his trilogy, writing about survivors in “Life Laid Bare,” Nyamata was a full day’s drive from Kigali, down a dusty, potholed road. Today, smooth blacktop cuts the trip to an hour. In “Machete Season,” Hatzfeld interviews imprisoned perpetrators, some of them on death row; last year, Rwanda abolished capital punishment.
The Rwanda of “The Antelope’s Strategy,” Hatzfeld’s third book, is not the country we usually get – neither the mournful, traumatized society of memorial stories, nor the slick regional business hub of glowing media profiles. Hatzfeld has cultivated relationships with ordinary Rwandans who, in the 15 years since the genocide destroyed both family structures and trust between neighbors, have had to renegotiate their everyday lives.
Among them is Mediatrice who, as an 8-year-old girl, survived the genocide by accident. She was paralyzed by fear during an ambush but simply passed over by killers. A Hutu woman then hid her and fed her sweet potatoes; when the genocide ended, Mediatrice had to flee with the Hutus, lest her Tutsi identity be uncovered and she fall in the final days of the killing. “We were zeroes in rags,” she tells Hatzfeld, describing what the journey had reduced them to.
Mediatrice lived in Congo for eight years, always concealing her identity. “There were days I felt so abandoned that I tried to talk to myself,” she says. “I would search for a first word ... but I had nothing to say to myself.”
Mediatrice is one of 25 people who appear in the book, but one of only a few who emerge as individuals. Others are quoted in such dizzying call-and-response pattern that their idiosyncrasies fade, and at times, their stories blend into one another. It’s a feeling Hatzfeld reinforces with the book’s sometimes-affected tone and its structure.
“Life Laid Bare” offered portraits of survivors, presented in the first person and preceded by an introduction that explained the events and context of the genocide. It may be a bit predictable, as structure goes, but it effectively anchors each person in the reader’s mind.
“The Antelope’s Strategy” is instead an impressionistic read, its chapters organized loosely by theme. (A good amount of historical context is missing in this arrangement, although thankfully translator Linda Coverdale clarifies some of the resulting confusion with well-chosen footnotes.)
Between extended quotations, Hatzfeld’s narration feels ethereal, less concerned with filling in gaps than with setting the scene of ordinariness.
“See, over there, that’s Angelique Mukamanzi, holding her little Cedric’s hand. She’s the one who escaped the massacre in the church....”
The tactic and its tone call to mind Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog,” the seminal French film which conjured the horror of the Holocaust by contrasting idyllic images of rural Poland with our knowledge of what happened there.
Part literary reportage, part oral history, and with only a subtle narrative arc, Hatzfeld’s book defies form. It’s a daring conceit as he writes about a history which defies comprehension. But “The Antelope’s Strategy” may be a little too loose, and the reader must bring considerable background to this final volume to keep up.
In the end, however, it is worth the effort. Hatzfeld captures ordinary Rwandans at their most contemplative, working out the dilemma that will define the rest of their lives: How can survivors and killers share hilltops again? “Living together in trust like before – no one can hope for that,” says one survivor.
Another says, “Reconciliation would be the sharing of trust. The politics of reconciliation, that’s the equitable division of distrust.”
These are the kinds of things rarely said in a country controlled by a strict and worried government. Hatzfeld gets closer to Rwandans, and stays longer to listen, than any other journalist has. What he reveals is a country of unspoken loss.
Jina Moore has reported for the Monitor from Rwanda.