Rwandan community courts slow to bring justice

Twenty-six pilot courts, called gacacas, have been begun hearing testimony about Rwanda's 1994 genocide

Once a week, the inhabitants of this tiny, mountaintop village meet in a small clearing next to a carefully cultivated potato and bean field. Women comfort babies under the shelter of brightly colored umbrellas. Old men holding the smoothly carved sticks of a village elder huddle under a nearby tree.

When 100 people have arrived, trickling in from their fields in the nearby hills, a lanky man with a soft voice rises from his wooden bench and opens a small box containing a list of names. He solemnly begins a prayer for those who were killed during Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

"God has brought rain to remind us of those who died in the genocide," he says, looking at the threatening skies. "We are here in their memory."

Court is in session.

The people of Gasharu have been meeting in this unsheltered field once a week for more than three months, attempting to compile a record of what happened during those terrible 100 days when an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Rwandan Tutsis and their Hutu supporters were slaughtered. It is the first step in a process expected to last three years, during which time those accused of genocide will be tried by newly revived village courts, called gacacas for the grass clearings in which they are held.

But questions remain whether these trials, whose success is based on people's willingness to speak openly about what happened, can bring justice.

Earlier this year, gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-cha) courts were initiated to relieve Rwanda's overburdened justice system. Twenty-six pilot courts out of an expected 11,000 have begun hearing testimony. In this first phase, the courts are collecting evidence and compiling lists of the victims and the accused. With strong incentives for prisoners to confess (their sentences are halved), government officials are hoping that the vast majority of the accused, including the more than 100,000 languishing in Rwanda's overcrowded prisons, will voluntarily tell their stories. This crucial information about what happened in 1994 can be used to try the still unrepentant.

But Rwandans are wary of digging up the past. As yet, the outflow of information has not been as abundant as the government had hoped. Terezia Uwimana, a Hutu grandmother with snow-white hair and small whiskers poking from her chin, says that everyone knows what happened in 1994. But like many here, she has left the difficult accusations to others, testifying only about the theft of some cattle by Tutsis. Many of the courts have struggled with low participation. And Tutsis have been reluctant to testify for fear they will be victimized again.

Questions about the judges

So far, the courts have operated with a town-hall meeting format. A panel of 15 judges listens to testimony by community members or prisoners who have chosen to confess. The judges, many of whom are only semiliterate, often ask the speaker to stop or speak more slowly.

Worrying to some human rights groups is the training and independence of judges. Some have been accused of complicity in the genocide. And with minimal preparation time, they often lack uniformity in interpreting the law.

"The question really is why are people so reticent ... and how will the government respond to that," says Alison des Forges, a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch who has followed the trials closely and testified at the United Nations trials that deal with the genocide planners. "Is it going to react by reconsidering the system or will it simply go ahead as planned?"

Ms. Des Forges says that one reason for the low participation from Hutus may be that the government has refused to allow the gacaca courts to deal with crimes allegedly committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi-led rebel army that ultimately toppled the Hutu government and ended the genocide. As a result, many Hutus say they feel the trials are not addressing the whole story of what happened.

One day recently, Didas Rutashungirwa was among those who waited for hours for the proceedings in Gasharu to begin. But for Mr. Rutashungirwa, an aging cattle herder who lost six children and his wife of 20 years, this day was special. He had come to hear the confession of the man who killed his wife.

Confronting his former neighbor brought the memories of those terrible days rushing back. Rutashungirwa is anxious to hear this man, one of three prisoners in pink prison jumpsuits returning to testify. But he is also afraid.

"The men who killed children and babies, we especially fear them," says Rutashungirwa, who has the haunted look of many survivors. "Maybe," he says, "they will come back to kill the survivors, to finish the job." Though the charge for murder carries a maximum sentence of 15 years, many who have confessed have already served eight years and will be coming home soon.

A model for reconciliation

Despite a wave of new confessions, it is difficult to find anyone here who admits to actually killing anyone.

Augustin Ruhigisa's story is common here. This bulky former bar owner confessed to handing over an old woman to be tortured, but only because a soldier with a gun ordered him to. Under the gacaca legislation, however, giving someone up to be killed is the same as killing. (It is still unclear whether individual courts will convict on that basis.)

Even with the challenges, Rwanda's chief prosecutor says Rwanda is making the community courts an example for post-conflict resolution.

"By and large, we've been able to make so much progress compared to other countries emerging from conflict," says Gerald Gahina, a slim, well-spoken former refugee who heads Rwanda's 300 prosecutors who are working with the gacaca courts to provide evidence on the prisoners. "Is it a model? In my view, God forbid that any country ever goes through this again, but for us this is working."

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