Post-Genocide Rwanda: Seeking Both Justice and Reconciliation

On the road departing Kigali
The view from a car heading down a country road outside of Kigali

The stories of three widows, lost children, and the "provisional release" of 30,000 prisoners accused of genocide

One issue that has struck me repeatedly during my time here has been the question of water. In many parts of Kigali (at least in my apartment, in the office where I work, and in all of the other places that I frequent in the city), water is readily available straight out of the tap. But generally, this is the not the case in Kigali or elsewhere in Rwanda.

At water tanks throughout the Rwandan countryside, small children wait to gather water. Yellow plastic water containers, sometimes 50 or more, are clustered around the tanks. While most of the children fill the containers and carry them home in their hands or on their heads, many of the older children load bicycles with several containers of water to take home. It is not just in small villages where you see this. Even though tap water exists in Kigali, it clearly does not exist everywhere in the city, for every day I see children with yellow water containers walking with their loads down the streets of Kigali.

It is easy to forget that so many of the things that I take for granted both here in Rwanda and in the U.S. are luxuries from the perspective of a huge percentage of the world's population, many of whom are living within miles, if not yards, of my apartment here.

In Taba, however, I met women for whom access to transportation is not only extremely difficult, but can also, at times, be a matter of life and death.

This point was driven home to me yesterday when I visited the town of Taba, located in the rural outskirts of Kigali. Driving with a small team from Internews to this small rural town, I took for granted the fact that I am able to get around Rwanda fairly easily, either by bus, taxis, or rides in cars like this. In Taba, however, I met women for whom access to transportation is not only extremely difficult, but can also, at times, be a matter of life and death.

The three women that I met in Taba were part of a network that helps women and children who were widowed or orphaned, either by the genocide or by the violence that followed the genocide. All three women were widows. Some had lost children to violence. One had lost all of her children. All three had been victims of the sexual violence that became widespread during the time of the genocide (studies estimate that between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls who survived the genocide had been raped). And all three were HIV-positive, having contracted HIV from the men who raped them.

Afflicted with HIV, access to transportation is critical for these women. Transportation allows them to reach the clinic where they can get medications to help them in their struggle against the debilitating effects of AIDS. In our discussions with these women, there was no mention at all of the anti-retroviral drugs that can fight, though not cure, the symptoms of AIDS. Clearly, access to transportation would not afford them access to these costly drugs. Nonetheless, transport would allow them access to a vaccine against tuberculosis, the main cause of death for AIDS patients here. This vaccine is available to these women without cost in clinics here, but the nearest such clinic for them is 40 kilometers away. Although a relatively short distance, it is quite a long trip on the roads here, and it requires money for bus fare to the clinic and for a possible overnight stay. Bus fare is often beyond the means of these women, and so these women have formed a cooperative association to collectively try to make this and other such necessities possible. Despite their best efforts, one of the four women remains without access to this vaccine.

Judging the courts

These women's stories, I'm sure, are echoed in the lives of tens of thousands of other women around Rwanda, so it was mere coincidence that these women happened to live in Taba. This is the town whose former mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, was convicted in 1998 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) on 15 counts of genocide and other crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual atrocities. Akayesu's conviction was not only the first verdict given by the ICTR, but the first time an international court had handed down a conviction for genocide or had punished sexual violence in an intrastate conflict, and also the first time a legal body had judged rape to be an act of genocide.

Tied into all of their views on gacaca, however, was the issue of the recent provisional release of approximately 30,000 prisoners accused of crimes of genocide.

Taba's history is so significant to the history of the ICTR that it offered a compelling context in which to talk to these women about their own perspectives on issues of justice. None of these women have testified before either the ICTR or the national courts. For them, said one of the women, the kind of justice rendered at these courts is remote from the kind of justice that would mean anything to them. Testifying offers them no tangible benefits, yet promises a slew of drawbacks, not the least of which is the extreme cultural stigma that makes talking about rape and sexual violence extremely difficult in the Rwandan culture. Not surprisingly, they voiced similar opinions about the gacaca courts. Essentially, they questioned the real relevance of the judicial efforts to their own lives.

Tied into all of their views on gacaca, however, was the issue of the recent provisional release of approximately 30,000 prisoners accused of crimes of genocide. This provisional release, designed to allow these prisoners to reintegrate into their communities while awaiting their trials before the gacaca courts, has generated a variety of responses from genocide survivors here. Even though the release is explicitly provisional and does not entail amnesty in any sense, one of the women that I met pointed out that many people in Rwanda have nonetheless interpreted this release as a mass amnesty. Regardless of whether it is or is not technically an amnesty, she pointed out, the fact is that these prisoners are out of jail and back living in small communities side by side with people whose families they may have been responsible for killing. How can justice occur, how can the truth come out, how can people testify in a gacaca trial or in any other court when the person they are testifying against is living next door to them?

Although such concerns about this provisional release and its potential impact on the gacaca courts have been echoed by numerous people I have talked to during my time here, one person I talked to yesterday, a representative of a genocide survivors' organization, pointed out that people really have no choice but to accept these people back into the community and to continue their lives. For, in the end, what alternative do they have?

— Radha