Posted by: biblioglobal | January 15, 2013

Rwanda: Is it always better to talk about it? (Book-from-every-country #31)

The Antelope's Strategy by Jean HatzfeldThe Antelope’s Strategy by Jean Hatzfeld

Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

A while ago I listened to a story on the radio about Cambodia and memories of the Khmer Rouge. Apparently young people in Cambodia often know very little about the atrocities that happened in their own country because no one wanted to talk about them and the history wasn’t taught in school. Some groups were working to change that. At the time I heard that story, it seemed obvious to me that those groups were in the right, that Cambodians would be better off talking about their history. After all, I’ve always been  taught that it is better to talk about things rather than bottle them up inside. After reading The Antelope Strategy about the Rwandan genocide, I’m no longer quite so confident in my opinions. If your next door neighbor murdered your sister, is there any useful way to have a conversation about that? Or would it be better to just exchange comments about the weather and move on?

The Antelope Strategy is a book of interviews with both the survivors and the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda who now find themselves living together side by side. The book is the third one that Hartzfeld has written about the Rwandan genocide and it was initially a bit confusing because he seemed to assume that the reader had already read the first two. Once past that initial confusion however, the words of the Rwandans who were interviewed offer a fascinating view into life in Rwanda today, giving cause for both optimism and pessimism.

The title of the book refers to the Tutsis scattering like antelopes to try to escape the Hutus who were hunting them in the forests and marshes of Rwanda. The survivors frequently make comparisons between themselves and animals in describing their experiences- being hunted, living like animals, the loss of human thought processes. In fact, that’s one of the reasons they are reluctant to describe their experiences to their Hutu neighbors- the survivors feel like it would be demeaning to themselves to tell people how it was that they lived. On the other side, the murderers don’t want to recount their experiences either. In large part, of course, this is out of self-protection, but they also say that it doesn’t seem to help the survivors to hear more, that if they share the wrong information it just brings the survivors more pain.

Most discussion of the genocide takes place in formal settings, rather than informal ones. There are annual remembrance ceremonies and memorials. Additionally, the government instituted a system of local community courts called gacacas to try many of those accused of genocide in part because the official court system was overwhelmed and in part as an effort toward reconciliation. The gacacas don’t seem to be the most effective system since very few of the killers have faced any punishment. There might not be a better solution though. One survivor said it eloquently:

“Delivering justice would mean killing the killers. But that would be like another genocide and bring chaos. Killing or punishing the guilty in some suitable way: impossible. Pardoning them: unthinkable. Being just is inhuman.”

Despite the silences and the animosities between the two groups, despite their tragic history, they do seem to be managing to live together. They manage to bumble through, going to the same churches and bars and markets. Relationships may be tentative and awkward, but they aren’t violent either. As one survivor puts it:

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


  1. An interesting and somber read I’m sure. Are you going to read the first two books now?

    • I don’t have any immediate plans to read them, but if I came across them certainly I would. The first two tell the experiences of the survivors and the killers during the genocide. I thought that this one would be the best to read since it has some sense of hope of things getting better.

  2. Wow, that sounds like a very powerful read. As exlibrisheather asked, any plans to read the first two now, too?

    • I expect the first two to be very tough reads since they talk about happened from the perspectives of the survivors and the killer. I’m sure they would also be valuable to read though.

  3. Interesting review. Love it. Very understandable and concise.
    I have read about the Rwanda genocide in a novel called “My Father, Maker of the Trees, 2009: How I survived the Rwandan Genocide by Erik Irivuzumugabe with Tracey D. Lawrence” below is the link of my review

    I have another non-fiction about Rwanda high in my TBR it is called “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families : Stories from Rwanda” by Philip Gourevitch.


    • Thanks! I’d heard of the second book you mention, I hadn’t heard of the first. I’ve also seen several other novels and non-fiction books about the genocide in Rwanda. Which bring me to wonder, do you know of any Rwandan books that aren’t primarily about the genocide?

      • The Rwandan Genocide was hard, I believe when something like that takes place, the citizens are found in a state of shock. Probably, writing about it, or telling others (foreigners) about it, is their way of healing. It would almost be a lack of respect if any writer in Rwanda or from Rwanda could write about anything if not about the Genocide.
        Again, I believe with time, when the healing process has occurred, they would come to write about something else.

        The same situation happened with the Biafran war, Apartheid, Black Segregation and the Holocaust. Atrocities like these shouldn’t be happening in the world we live in.

        Nevertheless, if i find any Rwandan book that is not primarily about the Genocide I would let you know.


      • Wow, that’s a very good point, thank-you.

        My thinking was that as an outsider, when I think of Rwanda I immediately think of the genocide and that it would be good to know more about the country than just that one dimension. I thought that maybe in the U.S. we tend to only pay attention to the books that are about the one bad thing we know about and don’t see the others. But your point about the process of writing and healing is a very good one and makes me realize that I might have been thinking about it from the wrong perspective.

  4. Do these sad books haunt you?

    • Hmm, that’s a hard question to answer. I feel like I ought to be haunted by them, but I’m not. Rather, I would say that I feel affected by them.

  5. Thanks for sharing this, I’m impressed by the wisdom in the statement that to be just would be inhuman.

    • Yes, the insight in that statement just blew me a way.

  6. It is difficult to say isn’t it. If you don’t talk about it there are higher chances history could repeat itself, but if you do talk about it, it could give ideas to people who might want to perpetrate it again. It’s a lose-lose situation.

    • A major point I got from this book is that sometimes there just is no good solution. A number of the people interviewed thought it would be better to be able to talk with each other about the killings, but it just wasn’t possible because of the animosities that would be stirred up.

  7. Having read all 3 of Hatzfeld’s books plus a bunch more on the topic, you end your post in exactly the right point. This is why it is safe and not safe. One has seeds of hate not being sown…but not being thrown away. Pretty fragile peace in some parts. A more robust peace will require some form of acknowledgement of damage done, whether one is Hutu or Tutsi. Still, your point is well taken. Sometimes it is safer to not talk.

    • Thanks for your input as someone who is much better read on this topic than I am. I think you put it well- that it is safer not to talk but that safety comes with a longer-term price.

  8. This sounds like a great, thought-provoking book. We often think that we must talk about the problems in our past so that we don’t repeat them, but we need to remember that sometimes we need to put some distance between the events and talking about them in order to heal.

  9. Sounds like a sad, but important read. I studied history in school so I always advocate knowing your past. It isn’t always pleasant, but the victims deserve our attention.

  10. […] Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, Syria, Botswana, Vanuatu, and […]

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