Global Policy Forum

Letter from Rwanda


By Victoria Brittain

September 1, 2003

The main road out of Kigali winds past steep slopes packed with small wooden shacks, a reminder of how overcrowded this tiny country is. Once outside the capital and into Gitarama province it is a different picture--high hills stretch into the distance, and the villages on the hilltops are widely spaced, disappearing in the mist that hangs over them. The tarmac soon turns into a red dirt road pitted with huge potholes. It rises fast, through banana groves, past barefoot children minding cattle with great curving white horns, and outside wattle huts with straw roofs smaller children play. A very occasional motorbike or battered truck passes, but otherwise the only sound is birdsong. This is the rural Africa of no running water or electricity, no hint of the modern world of instant communications, computers and mobile phones. In a scene so quiet, it is impossible to imagine the terror that gripped this place nearly a decade ago, when up to a million people were butchered, many with the machetes used for farming, in three months of organized genocide against the Tutsi minority.

The government that trained, armed and ordered men and women from the majority Hutu tribe to kill all Tutsis (whom they called "cockroaches") took this extreme step to subvert a power-sharing agreement brokered in neighboring Tanzania with the armed rebels of the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), led by the current president, Paul Kagame. In 1994 the country was ripped apart, with the vast majority participating in killings, rape, mutilation, looting and burning of property. Justice, not only for survivors but also to enable the whole country to live again, is widely recognized as key to the future. The United Nations Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which sits in Arusha in neighboring Tanzania, is trying major genocide suspects but has been plagued by internal bickering and inefficiency. It has completed only fifteen cases, and acknowledges that it will be unable to complete the trials of the forty-nine suspects now under arrest before it ends in 2008. Its squandered budget of $180 million a year could have helped Rwanda apply its own solutions to many problems, and not just in the justice area.

In Rwanda around 120,000 men, women and some children packed the jails beginning soon after the genocide and have been fed and supervised by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Sometimes, rounding one of the hairpin bends on the main roads, you see a work-party of men in pink uniforms mending the road or building a house. The broken judiciary, rebuilt at record speed, has begun trials, but it could never complete anywhere near 100,000 in this generation. Recently 23,000 of these suspects were released because they were very old, sick or young, or were among those who had already confessed to crimes and seen their probable sentence commuted to half, which they had already served. An ambitious attempt to close the chapter of the 1994 genocide is now being played out on hilltops with traditional local courts, called gacaca, sitting to judge what their families and neighbors did in the terrible months of violence from October 1990 to December 1994. Each community elects nineteen judges--respected in the community and not necessarily literate--and the whole community sits as a general assembly to hear confessions and accusations. Each assembly will sit seven times, establish who was there during the genocide, who was killed, who lost their property, who was responsible. The lowest court, at village level, will sentence only property crimes--category 4--while more serious crimes--categories 3 and 2--will be tried at sector and district gacaca courts. Only those accused of ordering killings, or of rape--category 1 cases--will be tried in a conventional court.

Earlier this summer, under a big tree, a row of wooden benches and stools was set out for the nineteen elected judges in the village of Kigese, and in front of them, the villagers sat in rows on the grass, women and babies in front, men behind. People arrived in ones and twos, suddenly emerging from the head-high maize stalks from all directions. Each one would greet every person along the line with a handshake, or the Rwandan customary restrained embrace, hands on the other's shoulders, before sitting down. This is a society where politeness and rituals are all-important, and in a small community like this everyone knows everyone, and everything about them.

Sixteen of the nineteen elected judges were present on this day, and before the session opened they were studying rule books, some making notes. One hundred people are a quorum, and by 10:30, 120 residents of Kigese were present. The deputy chairman, an elderly man with the gnarled skin of peasant work, dressed in dark trousers and battered shoes, asked everyone to rise for a moment's silence and reflection on the events that had brought them there. Then he read the rules, reminding people that there could be no interrupting of witnesses, courtesy must be maintained, the truth must be told. He then invited those with written confessions to bring them forward.

Two men rose from among the audience, one young, in a khaki suit with short trousers, the other older, with a white shirt. They gave folded sheets of paper to the secretary, a young woman with a mobile, intelligent face, wearing a worn red T-shirt and rubber sandals. As they turned to go back to their places, another two men, and then another two, came forward and handed over papers. The confession of one was read out in Kinyarwanda, and the man stood at the front while people questioned him: "Why is this story different from what you said last time?" Through a long morning, another four men, brought in from police cells, rose from their place sitting among their peers and came to the front for questioning.

Over years of interviewing genocide suspects in prison in Rwanda, I have found that all the people I have spoken to, both men and women, have always denied their guilt, each blaming another as the organizer of their group. Kigese was at first seemingly little different. But then the confident body language of the suspects began to change, sometimes as a number of women witnesses rose to speak of the day and the moment when they had seen a suspect searching for a particular victim, or coming home and taking the property of someone just killed. One woman, looking straight ahead and not at the man being cross-questioned, said to him, "You killed my son." After a rambling denial from him, she spoke again, calm and determined: "You killed my son." The chairman told her gently that her case would not be discussed immediately, but would be heard another day.

As the hours went on, contradictory stories were told, and witnesses and defendants went off on irrelevant stories. Many times someone in the general assembly rose to ask the chairman to keep the witnesses to the point. But no one shouted or showed anger, no one wandered away or chatted with his or her neighbor. Gacaca is certainly a scene of considerable confusion, and one that cannot bring precise justice, but it is a dignified process, and the village confronts experiences of terror, deep sorrow and collective guilt in a unique and promising way. The Minister of Justice, Jean de Dieu Mucyo, wears a dark suit and speaks rapid-fire French. In this former Belgian colony French was the prevailing European language, but today Anglophone ministers are more common because so many in the Tutsi diaspora were educated in English-speaking Tanzania or Uganda, where the RPF was started among young Rwandans serving in Uganda's army. The minister's busy modern office in Kigali seems remote from a place like Kigese, but he has been speaking in such villages for months. "Gacaca is not perfect, but it is much better than conventional justice; and with time, patience, this very long process we have started will give us what we must know, we must know what happened," he says. He tells two stories, which illustrate both the drama of the process for individuals and the shrewd calculation that makes many of yesterday's killers a continuing threat. The first is about a man who confessed to participating in the genocide, and when he was then freed, died of shock. The second is of how prisoners abruptly stopped confessing when there was a spate of incursions from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire, and rumors ran around the prisons that the tide had turned, the present government would be overthrown, the 1994 genocide would become considered just another episode of violence and the Hutu majority would be back in power.

The end of the culture of impunity in Rwanda, which saw successive massacres and dispossession of Tutsis in 1959, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964 and 1972--making them in their diaspora the Palestinians of Africa--is at the center of this government's goals. The public execution of twenty-two genocidaires in the early days of the new regime, led by then-General Paul Kagame, showed Rwandans just how seriously the new authorities took this question. The rejection of the pleas to halt the executions--from the Pope, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and others--was an early indication that the outside world could not impose conventional solutions to problems here.

Like many of Rwanda's original home-grown solutions to political and security problems, so overwhelming that outsiders find them almost impossible to grasp, gacaca has come in for harsh criticism as unworkable from some sections of the donor community. How can untrained and mainly illiterate peasants be trusted with the judgment of tangled tales often involving their own relations? Where is the administrative capacity to process 100,000 dossiers, or more? What will happen to the approximately half a million new suspects, now at large, named already in suspects' confessions during the gacaca process of the past few months? What does the election as judges of some people known to have been active participants in the genocide say about the fairness of the trials?

With gacaca the government has calculated that enough guilty people "will want a second chance to live a decent life," as the president put it, and will therefore confess. Gacaca, with its emphasis on collective truth-telling as a means toward reconciliation rather than summary justice and punishment, has more elements in common with South Africa's traveling Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the 1990s than with, say, Latin American versions following dictatorships, such as Peru's. Typically, it is home-grown to meet the unique and overwhelming problem of majority participation in the genocide. Foreign lawyers and organizations such as Penal Reform International and African Rights are conducting careful studies of the process.

"I have wanted to be original about my own thinking, especially in regard to my own situation here," Kagame told New Yorker journalist Philip Gourevitch some years ago, when his reputation was as a military intelligence chief, a brilliant military strategist who won a guerrilla war against all odds. Later he became Rwanda's president, and that uncompromising determination to go with his own original way of doing things has brought some misunderstandings, and some dangerous enemies. Gacaca is the centerpiece of an ambitious set of reforms this year that has already seen the writing of a new constitution, overwhelmingly passed by a referendum in May, and will see presidential elections this August and parliamentary elections in September. With the elections the current leadership has calculated that Rwandans will buck the trend of ethnic voting in Africa and instead vote for a party (the RPF) and a president who have proved they can bring stability, offer reintegration to old enemies and begin to revive an economy at rock bottom. The RPF currently leads a transitional government of eight parties, and the prime minister is from a prominent political family identified with Hutu-power politics in a previous period, and from a party now banned because of its divisiveness on ethnic issues. This ban is sharply criticized by the donors as antidemocratic, though given what the last "democratically elected" government did here in 1994, this seems shortsighted.

With a few individual exceptions, the donor community and Western nongovernmental organizations have rather strained relations with the government, which they criticize as inward-looking, paranoid and controlling, and which they accuse of stoking the war in the eastern part of the DRC. This perception of reality is in total contrast to how the Rwandan government and military leadership experience nine years of bringing Rwanda back from the abyss of hate and destruction of 1994. Generous outreach to exiles not personally responsible for the genocide is an ongoing policy, while the reintegration of many former soldiers recently returned from the DRC, in their villages, augurs well for gacaca.

The influential New York-based Human Rights Watch has set the harshest critical tone, with Amnesty International and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group using similar language. A much-quoted UN report blamed Rwanda (among others) for looting the DRC's wealth, though it has been little noticed that the report had to be rewritten twice because of errors, and even some of those close to it say that none of the assertions against Rwanda were supported with evidence. President Kagame is typically cool about the criticisms: "It is because again we want to do things our own way--they want to give lessons.... This hysteria always mounts when there is a big event: the constitution, the elections. They forecast disaster. We just have to go on with our own business of changing lives here."

Not surprisingly, among the most vociferous critics are the French, who have never forgiven the RPF for winning the war against the French-backed regime responsible for the genocide, and for thwarting the French military's Operation Turquoise, which occupied a swath of western Rwanda in 1994 as part of an effort to preserve its clients. Then, in 1996, the Rwandan military attacked and closed the refugee camps in eastern Zaire controlled by the genocidaires of 1994, where active military training and resupply for another genocide carried out under the noses of the international organizations feeding and caring for 2 million refugees was under way. More than a million peasants then walked home and were resettled, with the help of the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, in an extraordinary feat of organization.

However, around 370,000 soldiers and militia of the former regime fled west through Zaire and regrouped in Zambia, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon and Angola, with leaders also in Benin, Togo and Kenya. In one of the astonishing twists of regional politics that have bedeviled the Great Lakes in recent years, genocidaires were taken from their refugee camps across the region into Kinshasa's army. They believed, as prisoners and deserters have testified, that they would return to Rwanda and complete the genocide. Today 15,000 of them are still military players for the Kinshasa government in the DRC's intense power struggle. Rwanda's security, and its moves toward normality after decades of state-sponsored ethnic hatred, harassment and destruction, are thus still threatened by the leadership flaws in the DRC.

But up on hills like Kigese, a very different world of peace may be built by gacaca. The mass participation of these peasants, the confessions and the apologies are the most hopeful sign that Rwanda can become synonymous not with genocide but with an extraordinary reconciliation. Then there will not be another generation of people like Venuste, a middle-aged survivor of the genocide, whose right arm is a stump that still twitches painfully when he writes with his left hand, and who talked to me last month in Kigali of survivors' feelings of "loneliness, unbearable loneliness," through the years since 1994.

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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.