Community Courts in Rwanda: Is Reconciliation Possible?

Prisoner at Gacaca Court*

Toward Freedom publisher writes about a recent trip to Rwanda, community justice courts in the country, the situation under current President Paul Kagame and Keith Harmon Snow’s article on Paul Rusesabagina.

While in East Africa for the World Social Forum in January, I traveled to Rwanda for a week to visit friends and had the opportunity to sit in on a Gacaca Court (pronounced Gachacha) on the outskirts of the capital city of Kigali.

The Gacaca is a traditional system of community justice courts, officially instituted in 2001 by the government of Rwanda in the wake of the 1994 genocide, when between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans, mainly of the Tutsi ethnic group, were slaughtered by extremist Hutus.

Gacaca is a Rwandan word meaning ‘justice on the grass,’ as grass is the usual gathering place. And indeed this Gacaca took place on a road and a grassy strip of land in an urban community of one story houses – what might be called a middle class area in Rwanda.

The Gacaca Courts take place every Sunday afternoon throughout the country, and an individual from every household is required to attend, but many others come.

My friends called a judge and received permission for me to attend as long as I did not film or take notes. I was the only white person there. A few people brought their own chairs, but most stood during the two hour meeting. My friend spread her shawl near a brick wall for us to sit on. What struck me as curious is that community members did not cluster around the table where the judges officiated; they gave ample space for those being questioned to perform.

The mission of the Gacaca Courts

The official ‘mission’ of the system is to achieve "truth, justice and reconciliation". It aims to promote community healing by making the punishment of perpetrators faster and less expensive to the state.

Most of the questioning was done in the spirit of inquiry, not of presumed guilt. The rules of the court, read at the opening of the Gacaca, resemble the codes of conduct often read at the beginning of non-violent trainings in the U.S. – no one should interrupt, everyone should speak respectfully, etc.

It is a remarkable process. Here, 12 years after the war, people are still hoping to come to terms with their memories and nightmares of guilt and revenge through this weekly encounter of information gathering and confession. But many fear to speak out because of retribution from family members on one side or the other.

It is important to remember that, although the government since the genocide has been primarily Tutsi, Hutus make up 85% of the population. But being Hutu does not automatically imply complicity in the genocide. One might make the comparison that being white doesn’t make you a member of the KKK, but if you don’t speak out against their values, and acknowledge the privileges their existence provides you, you are, in a sense, complicit).

An additional problem is that often whole families were slaughtered leaving no witnesses to the crime. Many of those who did survive – both killers and witnesses – have fled the country. 167 witnesses have been murdered since 2001, according to the English language paper here. This is seemingly not a large number, but those deaths have silenced many others. The Hutus are, as mentioned above, the majority. Of course now everybody is Rwandan. It’s in bad taste for an outsider to inquire whether a person is Hutu or Tutsi.

Those being questioned at the Gacaca – first a man, then a woman – stood alone in the large empty space between the judges’ table and the community. They are not allowed a lawyer. Initially, virtually all the questions were asked by one of the five judges, Kavuise Franco. Later, in the case of the woman, a number of community members spoke up. The questions were along the line of ‘Were you at a certain roadblock on the evening of April 20, 1994? What happened there?’ One of her two brothers was a Interahamwe, the name of the extremist Hutu group that started the killing. He, or perhaps the other brother, had spent time in jail.

The judge was very patient, and kept urging community members to give testimony. I had the impression that he had received information in private on the woman’s culpability but could not charge her directly without a witness speaking up. As it turned out, she was excused but will probably be asked to appear again.

Later, at a restaurant, I had the opportunity to talk with the judge. He said that five people questioned at his court had been sent to prison. Another person at the table who serves on the national Human Rights Commission is researching the role of the Catholic Church in the genocide.

I asked him whether what happened in Rwanda might not better be described as a civil war than a genocide. Or perhaps a double genocide; insofar as the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front, in exile in Uganda invaded to stop the slaughter, then indulged in a slaughter of its own, and two years later, extended that slaughter to the Congo, where many of the Hutu Interanamwee families had fled. He strongly disagreed with this interpretation of events.


In trying to learn more, I read New York Times correspondent Howard French’s ‘A Continent for the Taking: the Tragedy and Hope of Africa.’ He was one of the few journalists who ventured into the eastern Congo in 1996, where, two years after the genocide, Rwandan troops, allied with Congolese rebel Joseph Kabila senior, swept across that huge country to overturn the monster dictator Mobutu.

As one contemporary writer described it "the tiny butcher bird of Rwanda is pecking at the eyes of the dying elephant which is the Congo." On the way, they slaughtered tens of thousands of unarmed Hutu refugees in makeshift camps far from the eyes of the international community. The few survivors of this mass murder are not likely to get a chance to tell their story to a Gacaca Court any time soon.

Back home, I talked to a Congolese activist, Paul Gatanga, who lives in Burlington, Vermont and produces a show "Hope Congo" for CCTV. "Are the Gacacas serving a useful purpose?" I asked.

No, he said. "I think they are a distraction. There was killing on both sides, and no one agrees to that. These Gacacas are organized just for the Tutsi. A Hutu cannot go to a Gacaca and say ‘my family was killed by Tutsi.’ The Tutsis are in power. They make the final decision. Justice has to be made more equitable for everyone. They need to bring the people in the diaspora back to Rwanda and allow them to defend themselves with a lawyer. To have real reconciliation will take real time."

I began to see that my outsider’s view of reconciliation was superficial.


Comment on Keith Harmon Snow’s article on Paul Rusesabagina

I was in Rwanda earlier this year, and I think that Keith Harmon Snow is overstating the case when he says that Rwanda is a ‘cauldron of terror’ in his introduction to the Paul Rusesabagina interview published on this website recently.

As Snow states, and many writers agree, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has sponsored politically motivated assassinations and caused the growth of a significant domestic and foreign-based opposition including defectors from the organization he founded, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. I would agree that, given the nature of power and history, there is no doubt that President Kagame’s reputation amongst the global elite as a "new generation of African leader who would accomplish the goals of the ‘African Renaissance’" is overblown to say the least. Despite this, it seems to me that the Kagame government has managed to lead a period of relative peace, stability and reconstruction in post-genocide Rwanda. (I think of it as a double-genocide).

One way for a visitor to get a sense of what is going on in a country is to read the local newspapers. I found the main newspaper of Rwanda more upbeat than others in East Africa. It makes an effort to deal directly with the trauma of 1994-1996 whose after effects continue to cause turbulence among the people.

For example, three recent articles in the Kigali New Times stress poverty eradication:

1) A Liberian delegation visiting Rwanda and studying the idea of communal work (Umuganda) that has been promoted by the Rwandan government, states "We appreciate this action of collective involvement of residents in activities that develop the nation."

2) The Ministry of Local Government has developed a program targeting the 30 poorest sections of the country. The minister said that there is a "need to break the vicious cycle of poverty and the only way to do it is by making sure that people have what is needed in terms of income generating projects and encouraging them to work harder."

3) The Rwanda Senate says that a study leading to the publication of its book "Rwanda, Genocide ideology and strategies for its eradication" reveals that poverty has links with the development of conflicts and ideas underlying them.  "Therefore, the effective eradication of the ideology of genocide will also depend on the fair distribution of national wealth and the results that will be achieved by poverty eradication programs as well as the living conditions of the population," the Senate says in the book’s recommendations.

Maybe all this is whistling in the wind.  Underneath these front page stories are short notices on inside pages that describe murders of retaliation and revenge. As I mention in the article above, 167 witnesses to the violence of 1994 have been murdered since 2001. As we know that Kagame is supported by the US in its effort to shoulder France out of Central Africa, I think it is important for more US activists to pay attention to developments there. Clearly, forces promoting violence are still at play there.

Robin Lloyd is the publisher of Toward Freedom.

*The Gacaca court photo is by Shacon and is available through Create Commons.