Post-Genocide Rwanda: Seeking Both Justice and Reconciliation


A soft, out-of-focus light, points of view that muddle the future, and an admonition to embrace the haze

With this installment, Radha Webley concludes her dispatches from Rwanda.

Somehow two months have come and gone and I am set to leave Kigali tomorrow. It has been an extremely full two months here, and it is difficult to sum up my experience in any kind of coherent fashion. But I think the best way to do so is to take a step back, to my first impressions of Rwanda.

The first thing that struck me about this place as I sat on a plane two months ago, flying from Nairobi to Kigali, was the light, the diffuse quality of the sunlight as it drifted down to cover the hills of Rwanda. I had read about the light here, how it tends to be rather soft and hazy, and I could really see that from the air. I remember noticing how the light allowed me to look out at the landscape below and see not only sharp angles and perspectives, but a softer, more fluid version of the landscape. It was like an out-of-focus photo, where the different elements in the photo bleed into one another in a collage of colors and tones, without really allowing you to look at a tree, a hill, a house, a friend in isolation from each other.

I was remembering that today, and thinking about how this quality of diffuse and hazy light is somewhat similar to my overall experience of Rwanda this summer. Throughout my stay here, in exploring the processes of gacaca and reconciliation, the one thing that has consistently stood out is the fundamental impossibility of separating these topics from basically every other aspect of Rwandan society – from the politics of Rwanda; from the economic situation here; and from Rwandan culture, history, and tradition. Rather than being issues that can be examined in isolation from the rest of Rwandan society, justice and reconciliation in Rwanda seem to me to be part of a much more complex picture, one whose significance can only be grasped by taking a step back and looking at the many overlapping connections that together form the complex fabric of Rwandan society.

A little girl, maybe one and a half years old, lying down on the side of a street in downtown Kigali, wearing a vest fashioned out of bubblewrap over her little dress (maybe to make her concrete bed a little softer?)

So in addition to the various ways that I have formally explored the issues of justice and reconciliation this summer, there have been countless other informal experiences that have also contributed to my understanding, many of them only small notices.

Images such as …

Driving down the road that connects the cities of Kigali and Butare and seeing crowds of people dressed to the hilt and gathered in grassy town squares for the campaign rallies that started last week and that are leading up to Rwanda's first elections since the 1994 genocide. People wearing hats and t-shirts emblazoned with the photograph of the charismatic current president and presidential candidate, Paul Kagame, his photo against a background of the RPF party flag. While there are four official presidential candidates, there is only one visible campaign.

A little girl, maybe one and a half years old, lying down on the side of a street in downtown Kigali, wearing a vest fashioned out of bubblewrap over her little dress (maybe to make her concrete bed a little softer?), who sees me sitting idle in a car and waddles over to me, smiling and babbling to me in baby language. And then, still giggling and talking away, she puts out her small hand in a begging gesture, asking for money whose use she isn't even old enough to comprehend.

Perennial questions such as …

The issue of truth, mentioned by everybody who I talk to about gacaca and reconciliation, each with a different understanding of what truth is and what it means, both for them personally and for the process of national reconciliation.

The question of history, both recent and long past, and the many different and often competing interpretations about the same events. Stories about the 1959 revolution (or uprising, depending on who you talk to) that toppled the Rwandan monarchy and then led to the end of Belgian colonial rule in Rwanda. Stories about the 1994 "genocide." Or what others call the 1994 "war." Points of view that dictate not only our understanding of the past but also our understanding of the present.

And on and on and on and on. Pieces of an intricate puzzle, a society that has been ripped apart and is now being put back together again. But how to do that? So many different opinions exist, everyone pointing to a different part of the puzzle that needs to be addressed. Many people seem to have given up altogether. And so it is a work in progress, full of struggles, pushing and pulling, piecing and re-piecing the Rwandan story.

Earlier this week I was talking to two women in a rural area in southwest Rwanda. These women, both genocide survivors, had also both been elected as judges for the gacaca courts. In response to my questions about their perspectives on the gacaca courts, they described difficult situations that their community is facing, similar to many other such descriptions that I have heard during my time here: the paucity of truthful confessions, the hesitancy of people to testify, divisions within the community, and a decreasing participation rate.

And yet they made a point to emphasize that overall, the gacaca process is a positive one. There are clear difficulties and challenges to be overcome for sure, yet they wanted to make sure that I didn't dwell only on the negative, that I incorporated these criticisms within a larger picture that is, although not without difficulty, a step forward. So I will take their admonition home with me as a reminder of the complexity of the situation here, as a reminder that a blurred and fuzzy picture might in fact portray a more accurate reality than any precise and sharp-edged image possibly could.