The Rwandan Reconciliation

(By Ricardo Mazalan -- Associated Press)
By Sarel Kandell Kromer
Sunday, October 16, 2005

The nine Rwandan judges filed into a grassy enclosure shaded by tarps to keep out the equatorial sun. Each wore a blue, green and yellow sash that said " inyangamugayo" -- trusted person. Two prisoners were summoned from the rear. Fifty or 60 people sitting on benches facing the court stood up. The chief judge said, "We are going to remember." Then, a long silence.

They were there not only to remember, but to be able to stop remembering, to find truth and maybe justice, and to rebuild their lives. This is the gacaca court (pronounced ga-cha-cha). The name means "on the grass." Throughout Rwanda's history, neighbors have settled disputes by adjourning to the gacaca to sit, discuss and mediate personal and community problems.

But now these Rwandan courts are faced with trying more than 40,000 prisoners implicated in the genocide of 1994, when the members of the country's Hutu ethnic majority killed nearly 1 million minority Tutsis in a 100-day rampage. Most of the accused have been in jail for more than 10 years without trial. While the masterminds of the genocide -- those who planned, organized and incited it -- will be tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda operating in Tanzania, and others charged with murder will be tried in regular criminal courts, the many more who abetted the slaughter will go before the gacaca courts. The gacaca judges are not lawyers, but respected persons selected by the community.

This is a strangely inspiring process to witness, especially for me, a retired lawyer used to the often acrimonious U.S. system. While the crimes in Rwanda are deeply disturbing, the gacaca courts, which generally meet once a week, emphasize reconciliation and deemphasize retribution -- though further punishment for those accused is still possible. There are approximately 10,000 gacaca courts, each with nine elected judges. They are how most ordinary people here are coming to terms with the past.

Rwandans want, above all, to find out exactly where and how those close to them died. Without this knowledge, it is hard to move on. Genocide memorials have been erected throughout the country in the solemn style of our Vietnam Veterans Memorial, only the slates are largely blank, listing hundreds of names of the known dead but leaving space for tens of thousands of others who perished and whose names are unknown. The need to learn the names of the dead is greater than the need to punish.

I was in Rwanda with my son over the summer to visit American friends. One conducts anti-violence workshops for gacaca judges for the African Great Lakes Initiative, a Quaker group. Her husband is a health adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Given my experience as a public interest lawyer, I wanted to attend a gacaca, even if I had to absorb the proceedings through someone translating Kinyarwanda in a low voice.

During the session I attended one day in early August, one of the accused, a man named Nicodemus, was summoned before the bench. His accuser rose, took an oath and stated: "Nicodemus was persecuting Tutsis, hunting them. I am not sure if he killed them." He then asked the tribunal to forgive Nicodemus, as though charging him in public were its own form of revenge.

A second accuser, named Bimenyimana, rose and accused Nicodemus of killing someone named Concord. A judge asked, "How do you know Concord died?" Bimenyimana answered, "I had lunch with people who said he died." The judge: "How did he die?" Accuser: "I don't know. I didn't see him again, and we were neighbors." At this point the judge read out an article of the laws of gacaca, informing the accuser that he was in danger if he was perjuring himself. At the earlier information stage of the court process, he had stated that he didn't know how certain people had died; now the judges wanted to ascertain whether he was bringing false testimony.

An imposing woman in a striking brown dress with a blue and white pattern and matching headdress rose from the audience and advised the accuser Bimenyimana to tell the truth. "Other people here are neighbors of Nicodemus," she said. Although Kigali is a populous city, the neighborhood where Nicodemus lived is a small, tightly knit community within the city where everyone seems to know everyone else.

To a foreigner like me, the ethnic lines that once meant life or death appeared blurred. Nicodemus was Hutu; the accuser who asked the tribunal to forgive him appeared to be Tutsi, but it wasn't obvious. Both Hutus and Tutsis sat on the tribunal; I could not tell the difference. Still other Rwandans are part Hutu and part Tutsi.

To many, the Hutu/Tutsi distinction is a matter of economic or social standing rather than ethnic origins. A display in the Kigali Memorial Centre says that if a Hutu acquired 10 cows or more, he was considered a Tutsi. The Tutsi guide who took us to the Kigali memorial had invited his Hutu friend along. We stood in the peace garden of roses overlooking the city's hills. Smiling, the guide said: "I'm Tutsi. He's Hutu. Why aren't we fighting?" Both young men had been children when the genocide occurred and have grown up together.

The first day my son and I spent in the country was a Saturday set aside for community service.We could have stayed inside, but we decided to join in. We were handed machetes, and walked down the dirt road to the center of Kicukiro, a sector of Kigali, together with hundreds of other people to clear land for a community center. It was surreal, given that machetes were the weapons used in much of the killing. Yet perhaps it was a metaphor -- as though ploughshares had turned to swords and back again.

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