Global Policy Forum

Village Courts Left to Unearth the


By Jeevan Vasagar

July 29, 2005

Bahati is having trouble with his memory. A small, slight man, dressed in an olive green shirt and jeans, he smiles nervously before answering the questions. "Uniforms and weapons were brought by a man called Tuse," Bahati says. "There was an army lieutenant too, who worked at the airport, but I can't remember his name ... I was given a uniform, but not a weapon. I don't know the names of the people who were given weapons." He fans himself with a green exercise book, not meeting anyone's eye. Nearly 200 people are gathered in a dusty street in a suburb of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, watching as Bahati slowly tells them what he knows.

In the 11 years since the genocide which claimed 800,000 lives, Rwanda's prisons have been filled with genocide suspects. The justice system is so overloaded that up to 30,000 prisoners, most of whom have confessed to a minor role in the mass murder, are to be released today without appearing before a conventional court. Instead, these prisoners and thousands of others accused of murder, violent assault or looting during the genocide will be dealt with through community trials known as gacaca, meaning "grass" - on which the trials are usually held. In the Kigali suburb, Bahati has not been charged with any crime. He is only providing information, so when he finishes speaking he sits down among his neighbours.

The hearing moves on. A local official, Franí§ois Nsholeyinka, reads out a list of names - people marked for execution - which was sent to the court by a returning refugee who found it in her house. "Does anyone know any of the people on this list?" Mr Nsholeyinka asks. "If you know where any of these people are, would you help us reach them?" There is silence. The crowd, women in colourful cotton wraps and men in smart shirts and trousers, seems intent but impassive, betraying no emotion.

The court turns to discuss another deathlist. This time a bearded man in a checked shirt stands and tells the hearing that he is a survivor. "I was held in a hole," he says, referring to the pits in which captives were sometimes held before being massacred. "I have a scar on my head where I was struck." In the dusty street, nearly 200 people are gathered. Half of them sit on wooden chairs or benches painted in pastel colours and the rest stand in a wide semi-circle around them. Mr Nsholeyinka stands at the front, under the veranda of a snack bar. The bar is closed for the morning, but still has a menu board up, decorated with gaudy pictures of grilled fish and roast chicken.

Attendance is compulsory. Before the hearing starts, Mr Nsholeyinka berates latecomers and takes a roll-call. The official informs the crowd that failure to attend will be punished with a fine of 5,000 Rwandan francs, the equivalent of £5, while repeated failure to show up will attract the attention of more senior officials. For obvious reasons, reluctance to attend gacaca attracts suspicion. In post-genocide Rwanda, the communities which once existed have been ripped apart; many people are dead, or are refugees who came back after the genocide and know little of what took place, and survivors live alongside perpetrators. The gacaca hearings have yielded up a wealth of detail about what transpired in each neighbourhood; telling people how their relatives died, and even where the bodies are buried, as well as uncovering the mechanics of mass murder; the distribution of weapons and the deathlists.

Skeletons have come tumbling out of closets. This is potentially embarrassing for the present Rwandan government, whose idea it was to revive the traditional gacaca courts. During the pre-trial hearings, a number of political leaders have been named by witnesses in connection with alleged genocidal crimes. Those named include Alfred Mukezamfura, the speaker of the lower house of parliament; General Marcel Gatsinzi, a defence minister; and Boniface Rucagu, a provincial governor.

The gacaca system rewards confessions. Suspects who admit guilt receive lighter sentences, and the information they give is used to prepare cases against alleged accomplices. Onlookers at the hearing in the Kigali suburb say Bahati was implicated by another man who was questioned over his participation in genocide. "That man gave a list of names which included Bahati," says Felix, 22, gesturing at a man in a white T-shirt sitting just in front of him. Gacaca is intended to bring justice and reconciliation to a traumatised society. But Felix is there for his own security. "If someone like Bahati is your neighbour, now that it's been pointed out that he contributed to the genocide, you can take care of yourself, you can be safe, if something like that happens again" he says. "Now you know which of your neighbours are the killers."

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