The Antelope's Strategy

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

No crime is more human or inhumane than genocide, the intended destruction of one national, ethnic, racial, or religious group by another. Other creatures do not make and enact such catastrophic plans. In particular, genocide is alien to the fleet-footed and vulnerable antelopes that are widespread in Africa. Nevertheless, it becomes clear that The Antelope’s Strategy is an apt title for Jean Hatzfeld’s latest report about Rwandan life after the 1994 genocide.

Hatzfeld’s chapter “Forest Exploits” focuses on Eugénie Kayierere, who “gave the most prodigious athletic performance” ever known to him. This performance took place not in a sporting event but in a five-week run for her life in the Kayumba Forest during April and May of 1994. Kayumba Forest stands on the hills above Nyamata, a town about twenty miles south of Kigali, the Rwandan capital. In 1994, the Nyamata district was a Tutsi-dominated region in the small, predominantly Christian countrythe most densely populated in Africawhose people numbered approximately eight million. Some 85 percent of the population was Hutu.

Systematic killing of Tutsis began in Nyamata on April 11, after Juvénal Habyarimana, the Hutu president of Rwanda, was assassinated in a missile strike against his airplane. The identity of the strike’s perpetrators is still under dispute. However, the April 6 attack inflamed preexisting ethnic prejudices and violence, as the extremist Hutu leadership feared that a Tutsi takeover was imminent. Thus, Hutu troops, supported by militias known as interahamwe (“those who attack together”) and soon augmented by large numbers of local Hutu men, unleashed a plannedand in their eyes justifiableslaughter of the Tutsi people, whom Hutu propaganda dehumanized as “cockroaches.”

Genocide engulfed the Nyamata district, as frenzied massacres left fifty thousand Tutsis dead. Five of every six Tutsis in the region were murdered, including five thousand who were killed in or around Nyamata’s main church and an equal number who met the same fate in another church at nearby Ntarama. By May 12, the genocide in Nyamata was over, as Hutus fled from the troops of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who returned from exile to take control of the country. The RPF arrived too late, however, to prevent the national death toll from reaching 800,000. Nearly all of the dead, including moderate Hutus and about one-third of Rwanda’s eighty thousand Twa (commonly known as Pygmies), were butchered by machetes wielded by tens of thousands of Hutus.

Two of Hatzfeld’s earlier books documented this history. Concentrating on the Nyamata district, Dans le nu de la vie: Récits des marais rwandais (2000; Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan GenocideThe Survivors Speak, 2005; better known as Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak, 2006) presented testimony by Tutsi survivors. Saison de machettes (2003; Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, 2005; also as A Time for MachetesThe Rwandan Genocide: The Killers Speak) was Hatzfeld’s stunning account of ten Hutu men from the Nyamata areafriends and neighbors, mostly in their twenties and thirtieswho became machete-wielding killers, hunting their Tutsi prey day after day in the marshes and hills and profiting from the loot that mass murder brought them.

Eventually captured, tried, and imprisoned in the penitentiary in Rilima, not far from their homes, these killers spoke with Hatzfeld freely, if not always honestly. They anticipated neither release from their sentences nor further recriminations resulting from the testimony they gave him. In early January, 2003, however, President Paul Kagame decreed that thousands of perpetrators whose confessions had been accepted and who had served at least half of their prison sentences would be released from captivity. By early May, most of Hatzfeld’s interview cohort was home again. Throughout Rwanda, known perpetrators and survivors of their onslaughts had to live together. Hatzfeld felt compelled to return to Rwanda, reestablish contact with friends and acquaintances in the Nyamata district, and document how the Hutu-Tutsi encounters were unfolding in the genocide’s aftermath. Those decisions led him to tell Eugénie Kayierere’s story, a vital part of his book’s message according to Hatzfeld, and to reflect on the antelope’s strategy.

Hatzfeld notes that his earlier books scarcely mentioned the killings in Nyamata’s hilltop forests, sparse with “thorny shrubs and stunted eucalyptus trees.” Unlike the thick marshes in Nyamata’s lowlands, Rwandan hilltop forests such as the one at Kayumba lack hiding places. Hatzfeld estimates that equal numbers of Nyamata’s Tutsis fled to the marshes and to the forests to escape their Hutu predators. However, those who survived in the slime and muck of the swamps far outnumbered the few who escaped the Hutu killers in the forested hills. Hatzfeld thinks that...

(The entire section is 2045 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 11 (February 1, 2009): 12.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 2 (January 15, 2009): 69.

New Criterion 26, no. 6 (February, 2008): 64-69.

The New Republic 240, no. 16 (September 9, 2009): 35-42.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 1 (January 5, 2009): 40-41.