Post-Genocide Rwanda: Seeking Both Justice and Reconciliation


The gacaca courts gear up, with "persons of integrity" ready to hear accusations — but crowd is silent

Last week I found myself sitting on a dry hilltop in Rwanda's Kibuye province, observing a gacaca court in process. We had arrived at this small town by driving over dusty, rocky paths barely wide enough for the small car we were in, and up to the moment we arrived, I was sure we were going to get stuck. Somehow, however, the car managed to survive the trip.

When we stopped in this particular village, we were, as usual, immediately surrounded by a bunch of kids, who (also as usual) very quickly began a curious and energetic debate about exactly what I was. It was the same debate I've heard countless times since I've been here, a debate that centers around whether I'm Rwandan or white, the only two categories that most small children in rural areas have ever encountered. They inevitably end up confused, as it becomes clear after a few seconds of examination that I don't fit into either category.

It was about nine in the morning when we arrived, the official starting time for the weekly gacaca meetings, but when we asked when the proceedings would begin, everyone laughed and told us it probably wouldn't be until about 11. Sure enough, the proceedings began just a little bit after 11 a.m., on a small clearing that overlooked two deep valleys. About 150 people were seated there, many of whom held large rainbow-colored umbrellas to shade themselves from the noontime sun. Women nursed their babies quietly, while small children toddled around the lawn, their mothers trying to keep them still and occupied with quiet games.

Facing the crowd sat a row of "judges." Referred to as "Inyangamugayo," or "persons of integrity," these judges in fact have no legal training; they have been elected to these positions by popular vote on the basis of their reputations for honesty and integrity. In addition to their various other responsibilities, their work includes conducting and managing the weekly courts.

Although the actual gacaca trials will not begin for several months yet, there are various preliminary steps that the many gacaca courts across the country are in the process of completing. These include making lists of people killed in the community, of property destroyed or stolen, of accused persons, and so on. Although these are merely preliminary stages, they nevertheless rely on the full participation of the entire community. Such participation, however, is no small expectation, as has become evident while observing different courts in action.

To many prisoners, justice means a chance to start again and to be forgiven for their crimes, while many survivors' definitions of justice would have these prisoners suffer the same fate as the people they killed.

This particular court in Kibuye province was at the stage of making a list of accused persons. They had previously made a list of approximately 100 people who had been killed in their small village, and a list of persons accused of killing those people. Thus far they had accounted for the killers of all of the dead but six. One person I had spoken with before the court began had mentioned that people were very hesitant to accuse people, and that attendance and participation at the court had dropped severely when they had arrived at this stage in the proceedings. No one wants to come there to be accused, he explained, nor does anyone want to come to do the accusing. This hesitancy was obvious during the court proceeding, as the judges' repeated requests to the assembly for information were consistently met by long silences. After an hour and a half of such silences, the court was adjourned.

Observing this and other gacaca proceedings here, and talking to different people within the communities where these courts are taking place, it often seems that the interests of the survivors and of the recently released prisoners are diametrically opposed. And of course, in many ways, they are. Most prisoners are eager to return to their communities and to begin their lives again anew. At the same time, many survivors, who have lost most if not all of their family members, are understandably hesitant to have the people who killed their families back living next door. To many prisoners, justice means a chance to start again and to be forgiven for their crimes, while many survivors' definitions of justice would have these prisoners suffer the same fate as the people they killed.

Nevertheless, in talking both to survivors and to recently released prisoners, it is clear that these two groups also share a number of the same interests, many of which are very practical. I talked to one recently released prisoner on the path outside his small house, which he explained had been destroyed and looted after the genocide. He is in the process of rebuilding it, but is without the necessary materials, and so his house currently lacks not only a roof but also most of its walls. At a nearby gacaca meeting a few hours later, the discussion centered around stolen property, as survivors and others in the community tried to determine collectively whose property had been looted during the genocide (roof tiles seem to be an especially valuable commodity in rural communities here), and then to determine whose had been returned and whose had not. Talking to survivors in yet another village, the issues remained the same - the gacaca courts had brought them many promises that their property would be returned, but had not yet resulted in the actual return of these goods.

While these practical issues may seem peripheral to the process of justice, they are crucial to the question both of justice and of reconciliation here in Rwanda. For many people, it is hard to understand how they can possibly embrace either of these two processes when they are struggling with obtaining the basics of everyday life such as food, medical care, and housing. As one genocide survivor explained to me, a man who had lost his entire family and also his house during the genocide, "I don't see how I can reconcile with people who are living in their houses when I'm homeless and living in the bush."