Rwanda turns to its past for justice

Beginning next month, participants in the genocide will be tried in communal courts.

Anastase Nabahire was out of the country in 1994, studying in the Congo, when 1 million Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers were slaughtered in the space of 100 days. After it was over, he returned home to find that his grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, three sisters, and four brothers and their wives and children had perished. Only his youngest sister survived.

"I came home, saw all our Hutu neighbors and friends in the village hanging around as usual, and asked how my family had been killed," he says. "They looked away."

Eight years later, it is finally judgment time for the accused perpetrators, and looking away will be impossible.

Out of the some 135,000 suspects jailed after the genocide, only 5,000 have been tried, and 8 out of 10 found guilty. At this pace, it would take 200 years to try the rest. So Rwanda is looking to its past for help in healing its wounds.

Beginning next month, all but those accused of orchestrating the worst acts of genocide will be tried under a traditional system called gacaca. Pronounced "gachacha," the word means open-air debate in the Kinyarwanda language. It is a system of participatory justice, in which the accused stand trial before a panel of judges they have chosen from their own community.

Gacaca courts were common in precolonial Rwanda, where feuding clans would assemble to discuss problems and resolve differences between them amicably, with village elders standing as judges. Today's gacaca courts will work in much the same way: Victims will be given an opportunity to confront their assailants in public.

In two weeks, training begins for the 260,000 gacaca judges, most of whom lack formal education, and some of whom are even illiterate. The government hopes to give the judges basic training in principles of law; group management; conflict resolution; judicial ethics; and financial management. The trials are expected to last three years.

"The central issue here is truth more than punishment," says Protais Musoni, the local government ministry's top official. "It is a cleansing mechanism. We will move the genocide from our subconscious to the conscious, and hopefully, at the end we will allow bygones to be bygones."

Today, Nabahire is a director of Ibuka (which means "remember" in Kinyarwanda), a survivors group. If he could have his way, he admits, all those implicated in the genocide would be given the death sentence. He knows, however, that this will never be.

"Gacaca is a compromise political solution," Nabahire says, "but at this point, it is all we have to look forward to."

Time is of the essence, he adds, for there are whole villages in which not one victim survived to tell the tale. "We can't have any unity or reconciliation if we don't have truth ... and punishment first," he says. "This must happen before all the witnesses are gone."

Gacaca courts will be set up at four different administrative levels. Relatively minor crimes, such as arson and looting, will be processed at the lowest village level. Cases of wounding with intent to kill will be tried at sector level. Murder will be tried at the higher administrative levels, commune and district.

Only "Category 1" prisoners, the approximately 10,000 alleged architects of the genocide and those who participated in sexual torture, will remain in the classic legal system, which can hand out death sentences. The gacaca courts can give sentences up to life imprisonment.

The UN's International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, is trying alleged top-level orchestrators. So far, nine cases have been tried, resulting in eight convictions and one acquittal.

The Ramera prison gives a graphic picture of why gacaca courts are being employed. Once a parking lot, it is now a sea of dirty tents crammed with 7,051 suspects awaiting their day in court.

Jeremiah Budahararwa is charged with throwing a child to his death in a deep ditch. An elderly man, he has not seen his family since May, because they do not have the bus fare to make the trip to the jail. He has 10 children and countless grandchildren. So many babies must have been born during his seven years here that he can't keep track, he says. He insists he is innocent.

"I want the opportunity to explain what happened that day," he says. "I want to stand before the community. And I want to go home.... I will start from nothing there, but at least I will try."

Peter Mutsinzi is charged with partaking in the clubbing murder of a family of nine, his neighbors. Mr. Mutsinzi, who is ready to confess, claims he joined the criminals only in order to save his own life and that of his wife, who is a Tutsi.

"I don't know how my neighbors will receive me," he says. "But I know I am not wicked. I did what I did because of circumstances, and I have since written to the neighbors, confessing and asking for forgiveness."

At his gacaca trial, he says, he will repeat this. "I hope they are ready to forgive. I am ready to stand before them and clear my conscious. I want to."

No one knows if the gacaca experiment will work, if it will promote both confession and forgiveness. Almost everyone, however, agrees that it may be the only way for this country to come to terms with the past and move forward.

"Justice is the first condition for rebuilding a better society. People need closure," says Benoit Joannette, director of Justice and Democracy, a legal nongovernmental organization in Rwanda. "We think gacaca can help - not only in speeding along justice, but also in bringing people together in the same space so they can work through the history of their suffering.... It will be the test of whether the country can move on."

There are many potential pitfalls for the gacaca courts. Ethnic animosity remains strong, and anger and frustration linger, so no one can say for sure how fairly the system will work.

There is no paper trail here, no hard evidence. Only personal, painful testimony, and one person's word against another's. Judges, untrained and unpaid, might become weary with the hard work and simply stop showing up. Equally, the witnesses might be pressured by the different groups within their communities.

And, while the healing forces of such an experiment could be tremendous, so is the potential for reawakening trauma or even precipitating more violence.

"For all these years, people have been living with the trauma of the genocide bottled up inside them," says Mr. Joannette. "Now it will all come out, and we need to be careful how it is managed."

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