Rwandan mist

On a late February morning a mist blanketing the hills and valleys of Rwandan capital Kigali, refuses to lift.

Below the mist is one of the smallest, poorest and most densely populated countries in Africa. It is also a country still coming to terms with its past—the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and the massacre of moderate Hutus in which an estimated 800,000 to one million people were killed.

Images of the exodus of millions of refugees across the Rwandan border and hundreds of thousands in makeshift camps captured the international media’s attention. What was often overlooked at the time, however, was the failure of the international community—including the UN who had a small mission deployed in the country—to intervene and stop the genocide.

In Rwanda these days there are many reminders of the past—mass graves, a high number of widows, child heads of households and orphans. According to Ministry of Justice sources, something like 600,000 accused of crimes during the genocide, still await trial. Furthermore, tens of thousands of Rwandans remain in exile.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi, a short drive from the capital, serves as one further reminder and the government intends this one to be permanent.

Partly modelled on a holocaust museum, it will serve as a memorial—the surrounding gardens are the burial place of 250,000 victims—and an education centre.

Although construction began in 2000, in February 2004 it still looked like a construction site. Hundreds are working to complete it by 7 April—the date earmarked as the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.

In the week leading up to this anniversary, survivors will gather from all over Kigali to remember and plant roses in the bare garden beds. Other commemorations will take place throughout the country.

It’s hard to get your head around genocide. Even Rwandan government ministers and officials echo this sentiment.

Yet Busingye Johnston, Secretary General of the Rwandan Ministry of Justice, is certain of this, ‘… across Rwanda there is a determination never to return to the killing, to get out of the past.

‘If we lost one million people in 100 days, then a lot of people are implicated as killers, looters, rapists, planners and financiers.’  He adds, ‘Genocide is not just about criminal killers, nor is it just about criminal justice issues ... The seeds of this genocide come from decades of irresponsible governance.’

That irresponsible governance resulted in ethnic discrimination, a culture of impunity, and the failure of the judicial system, the rule of law and the police to protect the civil population. Added to this was a civil war, and the overriding poverty of the majority of the population, in a country with one of the highest population densities in Africa.

Coming to terms with the past and rebuilding a unified Rwanda takes enormous political resolve and reform. Yet if last year’s overwhelming election of the Government of National Unity (GNU)—its main political party the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF)—is any indication, Rwandans believe they are the best option for moving forward.

From 1990–94 Paul Kagame led the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) which stopped the 1994 genocide. He then became Vice-President and Minister for Defence in the new government, before being elected president in 2000.

When the GNU came to power, it inherited a decimated country. Social and economic infrastructure had collapsed, there was a high level of insecurity and law enforcement agencies no longer functioned. Nor did basic services like hospitals and schools, since many of their staff had been targeted in the killings. The civil service was also non-existent and even the Central Bank had been looted.

The GNU’s reconstruction strategy was not only to get the country functioning and to transform post-genocide Rwanda—in spite of the loss of so many professionals and civil servants and the destruction of infrastructure—but also to begin a program of unity and reconciliation.

The ‘top-down’ nation-wide education program on unity was as extensive as it was necessary.

Back in the exhibition space at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, there are glass cabinets full of human remains. On top are human skulls, many cracked or smashed, evidence of the blows to the head. The middle shelves are stacked with arm and leg bones and the bottom rung exhibits pieces of victim’s clothing.

In another glass display, weapons—many of them wooden instruments used to bludgeon victims to death—bring home the shocking aspect of this genocide. The number of Rwandans not shot at a distance with semi-automatic gun-fire, but hacked, beaten and macheted to death where the perpetrators were militias, villagers, neighbours, friends, and in some cases the victim’s own family members is abhorrent.

With almost every village in the country affected by the genocide, the government searched for a way forward to establish the truth about 1994 and bring to trial those implicated in the genocide, while fostering restorative justice and forgiveness.

‘We needed to look at our history and our future as a community,’ explains Busingye Johnston. Rather than follow truth and reconciliation commissions used in other countries, such as South Africa, Rwanda embarked upon a traditional model of village justice

Gacaca does not replace the criminal justice system, but rather allows for the collection of evidence at the local level. Where the crimes are considered appropriate to be dealt with by a panel of local judges—those against property, as distinct from murder, rape or planning the killings—the judges have capacity to do so.

Like so much of the reconstruction of Rwanda, the establishment of the Gacaca system, including the education of the judges and reviews of the process, has taken time. Although it is too early to speak of its success, many believe it is worth the investment.

Mary Gasengaire, 35, a widow with three school-aged children, and a worker at the Seeds of Peace tourist resort—a reconstruction project at the village of Gahini in the eastern part of the country, supported by Anglicord—has been elected by her village to be a Gacaca judge.

She recalls that during her grandparents’ lifetime, Gacaca was the system of participatory justice used in the villages.

One day a week she is released from her work at the resort to attend Gacaca proceedings. She received one month’s training to be a judge and like the other judges, she is not paid any additional salary for her services.

‘Rwanda is a poor country and we all have to do something to make it a good place
to live’, she says.

Judges come from a variety of backgrounds. Some of the ones Mary serves with are teachers, cultivators and local business people. They were all elected by the village members to preside over the local Gacaca court.

In the community where Mary lives, she, along with a panel of between 10 and 19 judges must deal with crimes of the past: listen to the evidence, establish the truth, and refer the accused where appropriate to the criminal justice system. (The accused and the victim often live in that same community, or nearby.) ‘One judge cannot preside over a Gacaca case,’ says Mary, explaining that having the accused face friends, neighbours and respected community leaders is an integral part of the process.

The Rwandan prisons were so filled with people awaiting trial, that tens of thousands have been released because, after eight years in prison, their crimes would carry a lesser or equal sentence to the term they had already served. Mary explains that many people come to Gacaca to confess and to seek forgiveness. In this way, Gacaca is as concerned with reconciliation at a community level, as it is with justice.

When I ask how people can forgive, she stops in her tracks, looks me in the eye and says, ‘We must forgive. If we do not, then God will not forgive us’.

‘But not everyone is religious, or shares this view, surely?’ I ask.

‘No, but we must teach everyone to forgive, otherwise how can we live together?’

But everyone must pay for their crime, in some way. According to the local Gacaca judge, there are no exceptions to this, although some form of community service, compensation for destroyed property or a prison term already served, may be deemed adequate. 

This is Mary’s second year as a Gacaca judge. Of the evidence she had heard, eight accused who were in prison have been freed, and ten others have been sent to prison.
There is a sense that the Gacaca process is going to take a long time. ‘It may,’ agrees Mary, ‘but the results will be good.’

‘After 1994 people just wanted to be alone. They were afraid to look at each other. But now it’s different. That’s a big change.’

And even the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), established by the UN Security Council in 1994, has had its difficulties. Although high-level genocide organisers have been convicted, the process has been slow, expensive, and dogged with administrative and procedural difficulties.  This includes reports of genocide suspects working at the tribunal.

As Rwanda faces the tenth anniversary of the genocide, democratic institutions, including a new constitution have been implemented, basic social services restored, strategies for economic development  implemented, and there is no longer talk of Hutu and Tutsi, but rather of ‘the Rwandan people’. Much effort has been invested in unifying the country, in establishing truth, justice and reconciliation.

Looking out over the gardens from the Kigali Genocide Memorial, one can’t help wondering when the burdens of the past, not unlike the mist in the valley, will finally lift. 

Michele M. Gierck is a freelance writer.Photos by Michele M. Gierck



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