No Place to Hide
The roads in Rwanda cut around steep hillsides connecting provinces and villages, neat farmsteads and the genocide memorials that dot this tiny country. One of these, in Bisesero in northeastern Rwanda commemorates the thousands of Tutsis who died on a nearby hillside. One of the few survivors tends the memorial, a tin-roofed shed with bleached skulls, arm and leg bones piled on wooden tables. It's peaceful place where occasional visitors come to pray and pay their respects. There's a very different atmosphere in Rwanda's crowded prisons, which also mark the places where genocide happened.
The prison in Kibuye is separated from the town by mud brick walls and a wire fence. It would be easy to walk away from here. It almost never happens. Rwanda is a small, crowded country. There's no place to hide. So the thousands of prisoners spend their days like any other inhabitants of a small village: tending vegetable patches or working at a crude forge. There's even a guitar shop where a young man shows off the instruments he makes with thin strips of wood.
A grandmother takes care of her granddaughter who was born in the prison. The older woman and her daughter (not shown) are both accused of participating in the genocide. Photo: D. George / American RadioWorks
Nearby, a 58-year-old woman sits on the ground cradling her grandchild in her arms. The child is her daughter's she says, born here in the compound 2 years ago. Savayla Mukavokas says she was accused of murder while her daughter is accused of pointing out fleeing Tutsis at roadblocks. "I don't know why", she says. She's confident her old neighbors would come forward to exonerate her, but, she says, if she's found guilty, she would make compensation.
This is the kind of case that the Rwandan government hopes to hear in the first round of gacaca courts. Tharcisse Karugarama, Vice President of Rwanda's Supreme Court explains that the gacacas are rooted in Rwandan culture and tradition. The word, he says, means a type of grass "so the gacaca court means people sitting in the open, in the grass, sorting out your problems."
Traditionally in Rwanda, gacacas were used to settle disputes over cattle and land. Murder and other serious crimes were referred to Western-style courts. The gacacas differ from Western ideas of justice because the objective isn't to find and punish the criminal, but to find an appropriate and fair solutionand thereby restore the balance of the community.
Judge Tharcisse says the gacaca verdict "reconciles the community with the suspect. You are talking about large numbers who are weakened by genocide. If you can get a community to judge itself and forgive itself…justice will not only be done but will seen to be not by strangers, but by the community itself."
Tharcisse himself probably has never attended a traditional gacaca. He is part of Rwanda's new governmental elite, a generation that grew up outside Rwanda, in places such as France or Uganda. When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of the country after stopping the genocide in 1994, thousands of Tutsi exiles came back to good jobs and government postsand the job of rebuilding the nation. They include most of the prison officials and government prosecutors who have been preparing for the gacaca process.
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