Post-Genocide Rwanda: Seeking Both Justice and Reconciliation


A question of protocol, a bustle of prisoners in pink, reconciling what may be irreconcilable

Business in Kigali, it seems, tends to be mostly conducted either through letters or in person. The phone in the 10-person office where I am working only rings a few times a day, and although everybody checks their e-mail regularly, it doesn't seem like it is used much for work-related communications. At first, this seemed very strange to me, as cell phones and e-mail are widely used here, but in the last week or so I've come to understand that it is not so much a question of technology as a question of protocol. Formality and protocol are extremely important here, and so messages often get delivered in person rather than through e-mail or phone.

That's a long way of explaining how I ended up last week on my first visit to a Rwandan prison, on an errand to make a quick inquiry at the prison office. That day, it happened to be visiting day at the prison, and what I initially thought was a market outside of the prison proper turned out to be the prison courtyard itself. Several hundred women and children in brightly-colored clothing formed the bulk of the crowd, the remainder made up of the prisoners themselves, identifiable by their pale pink pajama-like uniforms. It was a bustling scene.

Though we locked the door to the car as we parked in the middle of the crowd and headed for the office, one of the people I was with pointed out that prisons are the safest place in Rwanda as far as crime is concerned. As we entered the office, I saw several pink-suited prisoners working at desks, and was reminded that prisoners in Rwanda comprise a large part of the prison staff, many appointed to quasi-managerial roles.

The following day I found myself at a local hotel attending a conference on reconciliation and democratization policies. With speakers from Rwanda, Germany, Namibia and South Africa, it was intended as a forum for discussing these countries' approaches towards post-conflict or post-war reconstruction, with a focus on how the experiences of these other countries could inform the process that Rwanda is now going through. The room was filled with government officials, representatives from both local and international non-governmental organizations, some journalists, and a smattering of students like myself.

Listening to these presentations, I couldn't help but wonder about this whole idea of reconciliation. Is it actually possible in practice? Can a country that has experienced such violence as has Rwanda ever really arrive at a point of reconciliation? Or is reconciliation better seen as a process rather than an endpoint, and if so, what does that process involve? I guess my curiosity about these questions is why I'm here.

— Radha