Global Policy Forum

Neighbours Accuse a Prisoner


By Mary Kimani

Hirondelle News Agency
June 22, 2001

A crowd of about 2,000 has been waiting for two hours under a scorching sun in the Katatari district of Gashora (Bugesera region), about 50 kilometres south of the Rwandan capital Kigali. Around midday, a truck arrives carrying prisoners dressed in their pink jail clothes. The vehicle has hardly stopped before the people crowd around it. "Oh there's so and so," they cry, and continue to comment for about 15 minutes before going to take their places.

At around 13.00 hours local time, the Nyamata state prosecutor begins to speak to the crowd, using a megaphone: "Here are your children, your neighbours," he tells them. "You know what happened in our country in 1994. They are suspected of having participated in the genocide. You are going to tell us what you know about them, either against them or in their defence, how they behaved during that macabre period. Beware of becoming too emotional. Don't make false accusations. Do not be afraid of telling the truth. Your local authorities are here. I have come with the regional chief of police. They are there to protect you whenever you might need it."

The prosecutor then summons the first prisoner and gives him the megaphone. The prisoner introduces himself, giving his name, names of father and mother, birthplace etc. "Who knows this man?" the prosecutor asks the crowd. Hands are raised, shyly at first. One by one, people go to the middle of the large circle formed by the crowd, and tell what they know about the prisoner. And so it goes on for each of the 18 detainees, lasting until about 16.30 local time. As the process goes on, people speak with more confidence.

Accusations are particularly serious against one prisoner. "He killed my son- in-law and made my daughter a widow," says an old man who survived the genocide. "He and his band of killers wore hats of green banana leaves and carried big clubs. They said that all those who had given their daughters in marriage to Tutsis should also be exterminated." His daughter (the widow) and numerous other people accuse the man for the deaths of a good half-dozen families, plus commando operations into neighbouring sectors. Emotions are running high, with tears now flowing down many cheeks.

Another prisoner is accused of being the local leader of MRND, the former single party of the late president Juvenal Habyarimana, whose death on April 6th, 1994, sparked the genocide. "He used his truck to act as driver for the Interahamwe," people claim. "The militiamen used machetes stored at his place."

Another prisoner is said to have followed " the paramilitary training for Interahamwe. He learned to kill as many Tutsis as possible in a short time. He killed brothers, sisters, children of many of his neighbours and friends".

"That one there almost killed me with a club" says another member of the crowd. "He took my bicycle. I managed to escape, but he got my young brother who was lagging behind me on the path."

Everything is brought out into the open, as the heat of the day becomes more and more oppressive. But for about 10 of the prisoners, the testimonies are positive. One of them was not a permanent resident of this sector. People do not know how he behaved during the genocide. The prosecutor says he will be sent back to his birthplace (Sake, Kibungo, in the southeast) so that his file can be followed up there.

The prosecutor's team records everything. At the end of the meeting, someone in the crowd tells the prosecutor: "You should have brought us the list of these prisoners well beforehand. That way we would have been able to say lots of things about them." But the prosecutor replies: "No! We don't want to run the risk that people set up witness syndicates, either for the prosecution or the defence."

"By June 21st, all prisoners hailing from Gashora district are to have been presented to their neighbours on the hills," the prosecutor told Hirondelle after the Katarari meeting. "In general there is a big turnout for these meetings and people speak with sincerity. They tend to be shy at the beginning, especially the survivors. But in the end it works well."

The prosecutor further said that in the districts under his responsibility -- Gashora, Ngenda and Nyamata (formerly Kanzenze) -- a total of 431 prisoners are to be brought before the population, with the aim of "completing those files that are still incomplete". This operation is under way throughout Rwanda and must, according to the law, be completed by June 30th, 2001.

"The advantage is that everyone knows everyone else," the prosecutor told Hirondelle. "The genocide was committed in broad daylight. Everyone knows what everyone else did. All the prisoners who are said to be innocent will be released in the coming days, and for the others, proceedings will go on in the normal way."

The deputy-mayor of Gashora also expressed approval. "This is a good trial run for gacaca, where justice is to be rendered by the citizens themselves on their friends, neighbours or relatives," he said.

Rwandan authorities say that the new system of "gacaca", based on a form of traditional justice, could begin at the end of this year. Judges have yet to be elected and trained for these "people's courts".

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