The Antelope's Strategy

Living in Rwanda After the Genocide

Jean Hatzfeld; Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Picador

Chapter One

More Questions?

 

"When Satan offered the seven deadly sins to mankind, the African took gluttony and anger. I don't know whether he was the first to choose or the last. I don't know what the Whites or Asians snagged for themselves, either, because I haven't traveled through this world. But I do know that our choice will always work against us. Greed sows more strife and warfare across Africa than drought or ignorance. And in the mayhem, it managedto sow our thousand hills with genocide."

 

Pausing with a slow smile, as if to soften her words, Claudine Kayitesi adds, "I am content to be African, for otherwise I could not be content with anything. But proud—no. Can one be proud while feeling troubled? I am simply proud to be Tutsi, yes, absolutely, because the Tutsis were supposed to have disappeared from this earth and I am definitely still here."

 

When I had last visited Nyamata, Claudine had been living in a house that had once belonged to a female cousin, where she was caring for a swarm of local kids whom she had helped to rescue after their parents had been murdered in the genocide. Perched at the top of a steep path on the hill of Rugarama, the adobe house had deeply fissured walls and a rusty sheet-metal roof, but it nestled in a magnificent, sweet-smelling garden tended by Claudine's own hands. At the far end of the yard stood a shed for cooking pots and a pen for the calf.

 

In 2003, however, when the farmers who own the neighboring fields were released from the Rilima penitentiary, Claudine became anxious. One of the farmers was the murderer of her sister, and she feared coming face to face with him at night. She was therefore relieved to move to another plot of land with her new husband, Jean-Damascène, a former primary-school classmate, after a memorable wedding she describes like this:

 

"My husband and I, we met again two years ago. We exchanged friendly words to begin with, we saw each other in a new light at the New Year, we agreed on things in July. The wedding was a splendid affair: the singers led up to the ceremony robed in colorful pagnes, just as in photographs; I wore the three traditional dresses, and my husband's hands were formal in white gloves. The church offered us its courtyard and its tablecloths. Three vans carried the wedding party—with Fanta sodas, sorghum wine, and Primus beer, of course. The revelry lasted some three unbelievable days. Thanks to the wedding, time wears a kind face at present, but only at present. Because I see clearly that the future has already been eaten up by what I lived through."

 

Today, Claudine lives in a new house, one of dozens of identical houses in a mudugudu* on a rocky, brush-covered slope just above Nyamata's main road, a few kilometers from Kanzenze. When we arrive, she places a spray of artificial blossoms on the low table in the main room to set off the bouquets of real flowers, shoos a gang of curious kids from the courtyard, draws the curtains, and with a look of amusement sits down in one of the wooden armchairs.

 

"More questions?" she says in feigned astonishment. "Still about the killings. So you just can't stop. Why keep on? Why ask me? A person can feel uneasy, answering—and at fault from the very first line in the book. In the marshes, Tutsis lived like wild pigs. Drinking the blackish swamp water, grubbing on all fours for food in the night, relieving themselves in a frantic hurry. Worse, they lived as prey, as they told you, crawling in the slime, their ears pricked, waiting for the hunters' machetes. It was an unnatural hunt, because all this prey was meant to disappear without even being eaten. In a way, they experienced the battle between good and evil right before their eyes, stark and simple, so to speak.

 

"Myself, I would naturally think that good finally won out, since it gave me the chance to run away and survive, and now I'm well provided for. But the mama, papa, little sisters, and all the dying who whispered in the mud and who had no ears listening tenderly for their last words—they can't answer your questions anymore. All those chopped-up people who longed for a human breath of comfort, all those who knew they were leaving this earth bare naked because they'd been robbed of their clothes before the end, all the dead moldering away under the papyrus or drying up out in the sun—they've got no way to tell anyone they disagree."

 

Claudine has a painful secret, but she never complains of anything. Every morning she goes down with her husband to their field. At noon she lights the fire under the cooking pot. Afternoons she goes here and there, visiting her girlfriends, the church compound, Nyamata. She no longer demands reparations, and she has given up on justice. She avoids working with others, disdains all pretense, is not afraid to speak her mind. She makes no effort to hide her fears, her hatred of the killers, her envy of survivors who still have parents to welcome their grandchildren, or her frustration at having missed out on getting a nursing degree. In short, she says, "In difficult encounters I match evil looks with a straight-ahead stare"—evil looks that are in striking contrast to her cheerful face, her scarlet dresses, and the boisterousness of her two offspring, who are in constant orbit around her.

 

Grinning, she anticipates my question: "Yes, this calm is real. I have lovely children, a decently fertile field, a nice husband to help me along. A few years ago, after the killings, when you met me for the first time, I was a simple girl among scattered children, bereft of everything but drudgery and bad thoughts. And since then, this husband has turned me into a family lady in an unbelievable way. Courage tugs me by the hand every morning, even when I awaken from terrible dreams, or during the dry season. Life offers me its smiles, and I owe it my gratitude for not having abandoned me in the marshes.

 

"But for me, the chance to become someone is over. You will never hear answers from the real Claudine in response to your questions—because I'm no longer truly happy in my own skin. I've known the defilement of a bestial existence, I've witnessed the ferocity of the hyena and even worse—since animals are never that wicked. I was called a cockroach, as you know. I was raped by a savage creature. I was swept away to that place, out there, which no words of ours can ever match. But the worst walks on ahead of me. My heart will always look around suspiciously; I know so well now that destiny can break its simple promises.

 

"Good fortune has offered me a second life, and I won't push it away. But it will be half a life, because of the complete break. I was hunted by death, and I wanted to survive at any cost. Then, when I asked only to escape this world and the shame corroding my soul, I was plagued by fate.

 

"When I was a girl, I placed my trust in life with all my heart. Life betrayed me. To be betrayed by your neighbors, by the authorities, by the Whites—that is a staggering blow. It can make one behave badly. For example, a man turns to drink and refuses to take up the hoe, or a woman neglects her little ones and won't take care of herself anymore.

 

"But to be betrayed by life . . . who can bear that? It's too much. You lose all sense of where the right direction lies. Reason why, in the future, I will always stay one step to the side."

 

Excerpted from THE ANTELOPE'S STRATEGY by JEAN HATZFELD
Copyright © 2007 by Éditions du Seuil
Published in March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

 

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