Global Policy Forum

The Only Way to Bring


By Richard Sezibera *

Washington Post
April 7, 2002

Two images turn in my mind, incessantly and relentlessly, every time I think of the genocide that began eight years ago today, April 7, in my country, Rwanda.

These images are more real to me than the statistics, which are so huge as to resemble fantasy. A recent census carried out by the Rwandan government has confirmed that 1,074,017 innocent people were clubbed, stoned or macheted to death within the space of 100 days. That is slightly more than 10,000 deaths every day including Sundays, as the world stood by for more than three months.

The two images help explain why I believe we Rwandans can only reconcile ourselves with those horrendous crimes by seeking justice, not amnesty, for the people who committed them.

The first image dates from the first week of the killing spree, when I was serving as a frontline doctor with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which was trying to stop the mayhem. It is the image of a 5-year-old boy we found playing in the sand with bullets whizzing past him. Knowing that the Interahamwe -- the band of killers who had already begun slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus -- were closing in on their home, the boy's mother had dressed him up in his best clothes, and sewn a little bag around his left armpit with some food and water. Then she abandoned him in the middle of a dirt road and made herself visible to the Interahamwe to lure them away from her son. We later found her mutilated body some distance away. When I reached the boy, the first question he asked me was, "What crime did I commit to be born a Tutsi?" In all the chaos and evil that was Rwanda in that spring of 1994, this child and his haunting question remain fixed in my mind.

The second image is from a year later. By that time, I had joined the president's office and had been working 22 hours a day -- a form of therapy -- as my colleagues and I struggled to put a broken country back together. One day, I stole a little time to rest and was lying on my bed at home in Kigalifully clothed and utterly fatigued, when I received a frantic phone call from a woman I did not know and had never met. She had simply picked my name from the list of people attending an international conference that Rwanda's president had convened to discuss genocide and accountability. Exhausted, I was taking a break from the conference.

This distraught woman's husband and children had been killed during the genocide. She herself had been sexually abused and traumatized. And now she had heard that one of the conference subcommittees was discussing amnesty as an option for those who had committed genocide. She was almost incoherent with despair and rage. Her voice broke and I was hard pressed to hold my own emotions in check as she periodically burst into tears during our conversation.

I gave her whatever assurances I could, jumped into my beat-up truck and sped to the Hotel des Milles Collines, one of the two barely functioning hotels where the committees were still meeting. There, I joined the drafting committee for proposals on justice after genocide.

To say we faced moral dilemmas in our quest for justice would be the ultimate understatement. On the one hand, Rwandan President Paul Kagame had made clear that revenge killings were not an option. On the other, the justice system had been completely destroyed in 1994. Judges, prosecutors and others had either been killed during the genocide or had participated in it and fled the country. Furthermore, during Rwanda's history, successive regimes had promoted people, even in the justice system, who had been the most zealous during the anti-Tutsi pogroms of 1959, 1963,1967, 1973 and 1992.

To prevent a repeat of the genocide, we had to eradicate the idea that people could kill with impunity. But how? A survey carried out in 1994 in some districts of Rwanda had provided us with evidence that we were dealing with millions of potential defendants if the guidelines in the U.N. Genocide Convention were adhered to rigidly.

Some foreigners attending the conference had described the truth and reconciliation commissions in Chile, South Africa and other nations where amnesties had been used to bring swift confessions, uncover the truth of the past, and move forward. While it was clear to some of us that we would have to fashion mechanisms for confession and forgiveness, especially for the foot soldiers of genocide, the idea of a general amnesty was not only abhorrent but morally indefensible to us. Yet we had the imperative, as leaders, of rebuilding Rwanda as a viable country and promoting national unity and reconciliation. We needed to establish a new political dispensation based on the rule of law and respect for human rights in a country that had known neither during its colonial and post-colonial days.

We finally agreed that our own justice system was simply inadequate to handle the demands placed upon it. Immediately after the killings, we had a total of 40 lawyers in the country, including the president. And yet, even though we had asked the international community to set up a tribunal for Rwanda, we knew that, given the way international bodies work, the bulk of the cases would have to be handled by our own legal system.

So we did the best we could to cope with the problems of crime, punishment and reconciliation ourselves. We decided that we would separate cases by degrees of responsibility. Category One was reserved for the most culpable: the architects of the genocide, or those who used rape or sexual mutilation as instruments of genocide. Defendants in this category, if found guilty, could face the maximum sentence allowed under Rwandan law, which is capital punishment. People in the other three categories would have the opportunity to confess and, if they did so, would be allowed to plea bargain for reductions in sentences.

Furthermore, we set up a compensation fund for the survivors of genocide, into which our government puts 5 percent of its annual revenues. We had hoped that, given their sins of omission in failing to stop the genocide, foreign governments also would contribute. But we were to be sorely disappointed in this regard.

More than six years after the Kigali conference, those of us who experienced the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath are still struggling with the contradictory demands this catastrophic event places on Rwandans in general and policymakers in particular.

Since trials began in Rwanda in 1997, we have dealt with more than 5,000 cases. This is a herculean accomplishment given the fact that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, with a budget more than 10 times that of our entire justice system, has indicted fewer than 100 people and has brought fewer than 10 of them to trial so far.

However, we still have 115,000 prisoners in our overcrowded jails who are suspected of committing genocide, and it has become clear to us that the classical justice system cannot achieve the objectives we set for ourselves. This is why we have now decided to revert to our traditional methods of conflict resolution, commonly known as gacaca, to deal with cases apart from those subject to the death penalty before the international tribunal or in Category One. Under this traditional approach, in which ordinary Rwandans serve as judges and jurors as well as witnesses, the aim is not only to punish but to rehabilitate the perpetrator, as well as to restore harmony between the aggrieved community and its persecutors. We have modified the process to meet international standards as much as possible and placed the gacaca courts under the control of our supreme court. The system is designed to be flexible enough to turn a portion of any period of incarceration into community service. It will also allow Rwandans, through their participation, to own the process of justice after genocide.

Our fundamental law states that justice is served in the name of the people. We have gone the extra mile and taken it directly to the people. The system will allow us to put more than 10,000 courts into operation with more than 250,000 judges and jurors hearing cases -- a mammoth undertaking indeed. We expect that this will provide a degree of healing for our still very fragile society. We are sailing through uncharted waters. No expert has ever had to handle the problems that Rwanda is faced with.

Furthermore, the remnants of those who organized the genocide are still active. They have reorganized and continue to pose a threat toour people, with the active and direct support of successive Congo governments from the late Mobutu Sese Seko to the Kabilas, father and son.

Today, on the anniversary of the start of the massacres, Rwandans remember the innocent dead. As we move toward gacaca, I know this traditional approach is the right thing to do. I know my society needs to perceive justice as being done. I take solace from the vow we have made that, as long as we live, 1994 will not happen again, no matter what. I know that most of the prisoners we have awaiting trial, and some others at large, are capable of rehabilitation. At some point, they will probably become productive citizens in a land that has seen so much suffering, misunderstanding and indifference.

I also know, as Rwanda's current ambassador here, that if the United States, whose assistance has been invaluable on our march toward normalcy, chose to commit more resources to us, our route to justice would be enormously simplified. The few millions of dollars we need would be peanuts for the United States.

When I go back to Rwanda, I see the hustle and bustle of my boisterous countrymen trying to earn livings. They have chosen not to make genocide an albatross around their necks, not to let it prevent them from living and breathing. So I know we must have done something right.

And yet when I go to bed, I recall that telephone call and that young boy's haunting question. I feel exhausted and yet I wonder whether we are doing enough. Now, as official periods of mourning and remembrance begin in Rwanda, I will not hear prayers for my people offered in churches, mosques and synagogues here in the United States or around the world. So I toss and turn in bed wondering whether the anguish I heard over the phone can ever go away. I wonder whether there is anything that can ever assuage the sufferings of my people.

If the world made itself part of our healing, showed remorse over its indifference at our time of greatest need, and established an International Coalition Against Genocide that recognized the threat genocide poses to all societies, maybe that would help quiet those voices and make my sleep less troubled.

* Richard Sezibera, a physician and former member of parliament, is Rwanda's ambassador to the United States.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.