When, in the aftermath of a genocide, Rwanda's government faced the task of bringing more than 100,000 suspected perpetrators to justice, everyone, it seemed, pitched in to help.
The US State Department sent detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department to teach Rwandan prosecutors how to preserve a crime scene. The German Cooperation, that government's humanitarian arm, created a database of prisoners and their alleged crimes. Belgium-based Lawyers Without Borders offered free defense counsel. And the United Nations set up a war crimes tribunal in The Hague to judge the leaders of the Rwandan genocide - a state-sponsored campaign that claimed an estimated 1 million lives in 1994 and nearly exterminated Rwanda's Tutsi minority.
What no one did, justice officials in this country say, was part with enough cash to let the Rwandans do the job themselves. As a result, little has changed. The UN tribunal convicted five people. The State Department stopped sending detectives. Lawyers Without Borders provided legal defense nearly single-handedly. But for all their efforts, only 2,500 cases have been processed so far. Rwanda's jails are still crowded with some 125,000 genocide suspects, all of whom are waiting for their day in court.
That day will come, the Rwandan government promises, but not the way everyone thought. Faced with the prospect of another 100 years of genocide trials, the government recently decided to turn the majority of jailed suspects over to their communities, to be judged by their neighbors and relatives - be it Hutus, Tutsis, or both. Come January, the trials will take place in gacacas, a term used to describe a field of grass, or an open space in which, under traditional law, members of a community gather to arbitrate small disputes.
"The whole idea behind the gacacas is that of participatory justice," says Monika Klinger of the German Cooperation, who has been working closely with the government on the project.
Behind the notion of participatory justice, adds Rwanda's Justice minister, Jean de Dieu Mucyo, lies the deeper issue of reconciliation between Rwanda's Hutu population, an 85 percent majority, and the Tutsi minority they attempted to eliminate. For reconciliation to take place - as the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa has shown for crimes much less severe - the government in Rwanda believes there first must be a collective profession of guilt. "Do we want the truth to be known? Do we want impunity to be punished?" asks Mr. Mucyo, himself a Tutsi genocide survivor.
Whether the gacaca system, which is scheduled to start in January, will actually induce Rwanda's Hutu population into a collective admission of responsibility after what is bound to be a traumatic process of recollection is a question neither the government nor the people of Rwanda can answer.
One Western observer in Kigali points out that most Hutus were involved with the genocide in some capacity. "Placing a genocidaire [someone who committed genocide] in front of his community will put the community itself through a test of innocence or guilt," he says.
So far, few Hutus have attempted to come to terms with their guilt, either at individual or collective levels. This is partly because the people they tried to exterminate, the Tutsis, are now firmly in power in Rwanda, and the Hutus fear retaliation.
Still, most Hutus have not accepted responsibility for the genocide. The most common refrain from peasants who admitted killing their Tutsi neighbors is that they did so in the context of the war their government was fighting against the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The RPF was a rebel army largely composed of exiled Tutsis who had invaded Rwanda four years earlier to topple the Hutu government then in power. In the months prior to the genocide, all Tutsi civilians, even those far removed from the fighting, were portrayed in inflammatory radio broadcasts as RPF collaborators and enemies of the state whom the Hutu masses were obligated to kill.
"Let them tell their communities how they killed, the manner in which they killed, and let their communities decide whether it was a war," Mucyo says.
The gacaca, like the genocide law promulgated two years ago, will have jurisdiction over crimes committed as early as October 1990, the date of the RPF's invasion of Rwanda. Thousands of Tutsis were massacred as the RPF advanced toward Kigali. And the government believes their killers also should be charged with genocide. But it is unclear that the Hutus intended to commit genocide, eliminate the Tutsis as a people, as early as 1990.
Moreover, in the ongoing discussion on the motives and mechanisms of the genocide, many have asked whether in the absence of a Tutsi rebel force on Rwandan soil, the Hutu government could have used the instrument of fear as effectively as it did, by telling the population that once in power, the Tutsis would kill them all.
"One of the controversial issues about the gagacas is that the government is implying that there was always the intent to exterminate the Tutsis," says another Western observer in Kigali. "And now the time has come for the Hutu to face up to that. This leaves the RPF, and the government, safely out of the equation."
The RPF came to power in July 1994, putting an end to the genocide. Since then, it has come under attack by lobbies of genocide survivors who have accused it of contributing to the genocide by refusing to retreat.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society