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.”