Account by an MP and former solicitor of a visit to Rwanda where she discovered a chaotic system to try those accused of genocide
At first glance, the scene appeared to be almost idyllic. Women in brightly coloured clothes sat on the ground in the shaded wooded area along with numerous babies and toddlers. More women together with the men of this rural community stood at their back or at the sides of the loosely formed square, about 500 in all. On the other side of the square, perched on small wooden chairs, sat 18 men and women with a man sitting next to them huddled over papers on a rather unstable wooden table. The sun streamed through the trees as the children of the local school ran up to stand behind the seated dignitaries. But then my eyes were drawn to the four men sitting on the bench dressed in bright pink shirts and shorts. Because this was no village celebration or festival – this was one of the Gacaca courts (literally grass courts) established in Rwanda this year to handle almost 120,000 outstanding cases relating to the horrors of the 1994 genocide when approximately 1 million people were killed with machetes, clubs or guns within a 100-day period.

I was there earlier this month as part of a British cross-party parliamentary delegation. On the same day we had travelled south of the capital, Kigali, to one of the many genocide sites in the country – most often churches where terrified Tutsis and moderate Hutus had gathered under the false belief that they would gain sanctuary from the rampaging mobs. Over 5,000 people had been killed at this site alone – mostly women and children – a dreadful reminder of the legacy that the people of Rwanda have to cope with as they struggle for survival.

After a short introduction from the President of the judges and a minute’s silence in honour of the victims, each of the prisoners walked up to the desk in turn and was asked to identify the killers of two local people. They gave out a list of names dispassionately and returned to sit on the bench. The President however called back one of the prisoners, Martin. He looked to be only in his early twenties, which meant that at the time of the genocide he would only have been in his early to mid-teens. He was asked to give an account of his actions on a particular day. He stated he was part of a group who went out to look for and kill some of the local Tutsi population. The victims were put into one of the irrigation ditches and they started to attack them with machetes. A local senator came along carrying a gun. He asked Martin if he had ever used a gun before; he said ‘No’ at which point the senator suggested he try it out in an attempt to kill off the remaining victims.

The assembled community hears this confession in silence. It is a requirement of the system that at least 100 local people are present at every hearing. Then suddenly a woman who is sitting behind us walks up to the judges and stands beside the prisoner. Some of the women assembled give her a quiet handclap of support. She asks how her father, one of the victims, was killed. Martin doesn’t look at her but confirms a sword was used to kill him. Then she states that the mob cut off her sister’s breasts before she was killed and that her mother had been stripped of her clothes. Martin doesn’t deny this contention. Still remaining outwardly composed, she asks if he killed her three children. Due to a mix-up, she is forced at this point to hand the microphone directly to Martin. He states without showing distress that he murdered thirteen people that day including the women’s children. She walks back to her seat where she later breaks down in tears. The clerk writes up the statement for Martin to sign and the President announces the end of the hearing – the hearings are held weekly – and the crowd disperses.

It is difficult to guess at the feelings and reactions that must have been raised in this community by this stunning confession – many are still deeply traumatised and find it difficult to discuss their loss; many are still afraid that the current peace will fail and the country will again descend into violent revenge; and some who took part in the genocide but remain free are afraid of being identified by the prisoners. To us in the West such a lack of outward emotion from both the victims and the perpetrators seems incredible but these courts are the first nationwide attempt since the genocide to recognise the truth and achieve some form of comprehensive reconciliation amongst the Rwandan people.

Two days later we visited one of the country’s prisons – inside were gathered 7,000 prisoners – men, women and children – literally squashed in appallingly squalid and tiny accommodation. Even after only a few days’ stay it is glaringly apparent that the government does not have the resources to maintain so many prisoners whilst such a large proportion of the population outside is living in abject poverty. This is the main reason that the government have offered such a generous deal to those prisoners who agree to confess. Martin’s punishment will be determined not by the Gacaca court but by a superior District court although the maximum penalty for those who murdered under the direction of others and who confess is a 20-year sentence of which one half will be served in the prisoner’s own community. As Martin has been imprisoned for over 7 years he can expect to return home in under 3 years’ time. In turn the victims’ families and the local community are encouraged to accept the confessions and in a few short years to allow the perpetrators to live amongst them again.

The U.K. government has assisted in funding some independent research of the new system that is currently being piloted in different localities across the country. Although the initial reaction has been largely favourable, significant problems still exist in achieving consistency and implementation. It is clear that the meetings do revive very painful memories that can lead to even more trauma for the witnesses and the level of support offered is still weak. In turn, the prisoners can either appear emotionless or even aggressive when giving their evidence. Probably this is, in many cases, a symptom of traumatic stress which many of the perpetrators experience in coming to terms with their participation in the killings followed by many years of brutal imprisonment   In addition, many of the local judges are illiterate and at present they only receive a maximum 36 hours’ training in Gacaca law and the process itself. Understandably their decisions are at times unsatisfactory and they find it difficult to respond to the often complex questions about the process from members of the local community.

As yet the Rwandan government is still to find much of the funding for this scheme including the implementation of the Community Service programme. In contrast the international community will contribute this year over $177 million to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda established by the UN at Arusha, Tanzania, in 1995 to try the leaders of the genocide. To date only nine cases have been fully processed although in a welcome step, the UN agreed in August this year to treble the number of judges to speed up the backlog. But time is not on the side of the Rwandan government. Next year the transitional government will come to an end and for the first time since the genocide there will be elections for both the Parliament and the President. It is clearly a political priority to ensure that the courts are well established and operating prior to the preparations for voting and the approval of a new constitution.

This system of justice on such a scale is unprecedented and the risks of failure are high. Whilst the necessity of establishing the International Tribunal to deal with the ringleaders is not in question, the response of the international community to the struggles of ordinary Rwandans in coping with the aftermath of this unique genocide has been weak. The UK Government, and in particular Clare Short, have taken a commendably pragmatic view in assisting the Rwandan administration to develop essential public services. But the approach of the EU, which holds the main sphere of influence over this part of the African continent, has been disjointed and slow. Rwanda suffers from all the major problems that afflict sub-Saharan Africa but it is also a country where the overwhelming majority of its adult population directly witnessed acts of violence and killing during the genocide – their scars run deep and unless the global community, particularly in the West, is prepared to support their search for peace, democracy and justice with real and substantial measures, the possibility of further genocide cannot be discounted.

SCIAF (Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund) is currently funding a four-year programme to train and support local judges for the Gacaca courts. Donations can be sent to their offices at 19 Park Circus, Glasgow G3 6BE.

The writer is the Labour MP for Glasgow Maryhill. Before her election in June 2001, she was a practising solicitor in Scotland for 18 years. She has a longstanding interest in international development issues and is currently a Council Member of the World Development Movement and a Director of Aid International/Mercy Corps Scotland.

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