“Once I know the truth, I can forgive,” Albert told me a few weeks ago. “This man, he burnt my grandmother alive in her house. He is in jail and refuses to testify in front of gacaca. If he did testify, and if he told the truth, I would accept him into society.”
The concept of gacaca and reconciliation in Rwanda is something I have struggled to understand since I learned about it many years ago. How can simply admitting your crimes – killing, raping, genocide – and serving community service be sufficient for forgiveness from survivors and victims’ family members?
The gacaca court, a traditional judicial process, originated in Rwanda and was originally used to settle village disputes. Following the genocide in 1994, as the country struggled with overcrowded prisons and a need to speed up the judicial process, the government returned to the gacaca process to expedite trials. The gacaca courts allow the entire community to take part in the judicial process, with the hope that they will promote truth, healing and reconciliation. The courts have been the subject of criticism from various angles – that the judges are not chosen fairly, that the courts are biased toward either the survivors or the defendants, that the courts lead to retribution killings – but the majority of Rwandans that I have spoken with claim that this is the best option available.
I decided that the only way to comprehend gacaca was to observe a trial firsthand, so after loads of paperwork and various meetings, I obtained a permit to visit a proceeding.
The day before my visit, I shared a beer with my friend Muhire – who kindly served as my translator during gacaca – to talk about what we would see and hear during the trials. I asked if he thought the courts were fair and what they did when they heard contradicting stories. “What do the judges do if it is just one man’s word against another man’s word?”
“It is never like that,” he said. “In Rwanda, you eat something at your house, and everyone else knows what you ate. No one killed alone, there are always witnesses or people who know what happened.”
I didn’t buy it, but I would have to wait and see for myself.
The next morning, we set out for Ruhango bright and early. In Ruhango, we met up with Emilienne Mukansoro, a counselor with Ibuka who graciously accompanied us for the day (interview with her coming soon…). We set out on the most nauseating forty-five minute taxi ride of my life to a small village in the hills. Upon arrival, we learned that the man who was supposed to testify had died the night before and gacaca had been canceled. Muhire assured me that the man had been sick for a long time, but I had heard from others that this was not an unusual occurrence before gacaca.
“No problem,” Emilienne told us, “We will go to the village in those hills.” She pointed in the distance, and I knew we were in for another bumpy ride. A few wrong turns and an hour later, we reached the town of Akagari ku Nyakabungo, where we would finally observe two gacaca trials.
We sat in the grass amongst about fifty other members of the village – men, women, and babies – who were all suddenly more interested in the muzungu than the trial. Emilienne showed my permission to the Inyangamugayos – “people of integrity,” 5 or 6 judges known as the wise and trusted members of the village; both men and women – and they nodded, approving my presence.
In the first case we observed – a property case – a woman accused a man of stealing and slaughtering her cow during the genocide. The man told his side of the story. He claimed that he had seen others with meat, had asked them to share it with him, and they told him where he could find his own meat. He then went to this place and took the meat, but he did not know it was stolen. A man came to his defense and told the court that the woman did not see who stole the cow and was unfairly accusing this man. Another man took the woman’s side. Various others passionately, but politely, shared their recollections of the history of the woman and her cow… fifteen years ago!
While I was amazed that not only those involved, but the fifty others quietly spending their Tuesday morning listening to the case, would care about a cow that might have been stolen in 1994, Muhire and Emilenne grew bored. They told me we would go listen to a more “interesting” case in a field about 100 feet away.
In the next case, a man in a torn coat and raggedy pants stood before the panel of Inyangamugayos, who charged him with three crimes: killing, killing with intent, and burning two daughters of his neighbor. Witnesses claimed that he buried the remains of the girls and their clothing in his house. He denied these accusations and said he was being tried unfairly. While the defendant and the witnesses spoke passionately, no one interrupted anyone else and the judges took copious notes, asked questions to try and uncover the truth about each event mentioned, and called various witnesses who were not even at the trial (a man was designated to get these witnesses from other trials or from other locations in the village).
We did not get to stay for the end of the trial so I don’t know the verdict – it was far from over when we left, and we wanted to get back before dark – but it didn’t look good for the defendant. Muhire predicted that he would get at least ten years in jail.
While we were waiting for our motos to take us from the village to Ruhango, a group of children on their way home from school spotted the umuzungu (yours truly) and rushed over to say hello. As I took their photos and then turned the digital camera around to show them the images, they squealed with delight.
The moto ride back was not nearly as nauseating as the taxi rides, but the chance of death escalated severely. As I clung to the driver’s waist for dear life, I mulled over the trials I had just seen. I thought after visiting gacaca I would have all of the answers (or at least some), but the visit only multiplied my questions.
Was this really justice? Can the survivors truly accept those who committed genocide and went through gacaca back into their communities? Will there be retribution crimes? Are the punishments fair? Can people really remember who stole property fifteen years ago and testify truthfully? Up to a million people dead; who cares about a cow? Can gacaca lead to genuine reconciliation in Rwanda? Will the children who so happily and innocently played with me while their parents sat in the grass participating in gacaca feel that justice was served? Will they be able to live with their history in peace and unity?
While visiting the courts may have only raised more questions in my mind, it did clarify that I may never truly understand gacaca, and perhaps the children of those participating in the trials – the kids of Akagari ku Nyakabungo and others like them throughout the country – are the only ones who will ever truly know the answers.
*A special thank you to Muhire and Emilienne who made my visit to gacaca possible.
**For more photos of the visit, click here (I was not allowed to take pictures from the second case, so all of the photos are from the first property trial).
***For an interesting (and controversial) read on gacaca, check out Philip Gourevitch’s New Yorker article, “The Life After.”