Recovering from genocide: Rwanda's next steps

How can a society heal after widespread atrocities?

In spring 1994, this tiny Central African country saw an orgy of violence that in 10 weeks killed around a million Rwandans, most of them ethnic Tutsis. Now the country's leaders and most of its people are trying to put the most troubling legacies of the genocide behind them. If they succeed, they could provide a valuable lesson in recovering from atrocities.

The most pressing issue here is what to do with the 100,000-plus Rwandan Hutus incarcerated on the suspicion that they participated in the genocide.

The country's court system – itself badly shattered by the genocide – has processed only around 5,000 of these cases. The international court that the UN established to try genocide ringleaders has completed only nine trials.

This month, the government will launch a massive project that aims to clear up its backlog of genocide-related cases – and do so in a way that strengthens national reconciliation. Most of these cases will be sent to a new, community-based justice system called the gacaca (ga-cha-cha) courts, a hybrid of the formal-style courts and a traditional gacaca hearing system.

The project will start, on a pilot basis, in 12 different communities. Men and women elected to represent their neighborhoods will start by constructing a historical record of what happened there during the genocide. Aided by confessions offered by many detained suspects, these gacaca judges will then try to figure which suspects committed which of the genocide-related actions.

They will sort suspects into categories, from Category 1, for genocide ringleaders, to Category 4, for those accused only of genocide-related property crimes. Category 1 cases will stay in the formal courts. All the others – including people who killed during the genocide but were not ringleaders – will be tried in neighborhood-wide gatherings presided over by the gacaca judges.

Gerald Gahima, Rwanda's prosecutor-general, says he hopes the whole process can be finished in "three to five years" – not a moment too soon for those numerous suspects who have spent seven-plus years in badly overcrowded prisons without having their cases heard.

In the courtyard of Kigali Central Prison, a convoy of well-guarded pickups disgorged prisoners clad in distinctive pink uniforms returning from their work details around town.

Meanwhile, imprisoned businessman John Hitimana explained that he had introduced gacaca into the prison back in 1998 by bringing together groups of prisoners who were encouraged to confess to their genocide-related deeds. One of the 650 women among the prison's 6,600 inmates told me that in one such gathering she'd confessed to having carried a hand-grenade without authorization during the genocide.

Confessions have always been encouraged under the country's 1996 Genocide Law. But the incentive to make them increased when the plans for gacaca courts gave prisoners hopes for a more speedy release. Mr. Gahima says he expects that with prison sentences halved for those who confess, the gacaca courts will be releasing nearly all the suspects they try back into the community once their cases are heard. Only the Category 1 suspects – whom he numbered, "at the very most, 10,000" – would remain behind bars.

Are the still-traumatized survivors of the genocide ready for the imminent release of these suspects? A surprising number of those I spoke to said they are. Many of them echoed Robert Niwagaba, who said he hoped the gacaca process could generate more information about who was responsible for killing three of his siblings and numerous other family members during the genocide.

"Once someone tells me he did it, and asks for forgiveness, then I can forgive," he told me. "It's not knowing who did it that makes me insecure."

The government has done much to prepare the country's 7 million people, including the pitifully small number of Tutsis who survived the genocide, for the launch of the gacaca courts. It has been helped by nongovernmental groups, including local churches whose members see intergroup reconciliation as an urgent necessity.

The Protestant churches, whose influence has increased in recent years, have played an especially valuable role. By stressing personal responsibility, sincere confession, and the need for forgiveness, they seem to provide a moral framework for repairing the country's social fabric.

During my visit to the prison, I heard a prayer group inside the walls sing with lilting local rhythms about repentance. And in evangelical-sponsored projects throughout the country, wives of prisoners work alongside genocide survivors to try to build better communities.

None of this will be easy. The country faces many other problems, including poverty, donor fatigue, and a huge failed state – the Democratic Republic of Congo – to its west. These challenges all make national reconciliation even harder.

Eight years ago, the United States and United Nations stood aside while Rwanda was devastated by the genocide. Now that the country is trying to repair itself in a way that seeks to forestall recurrence of that violence, it deserves the international community's strong support.

• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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