From American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR NewsSM. On the Internet at Part of the story Justice on Trial

July 2002

Rwanda's Revolutionary Justice

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Eight years after the genocide in Rwanda, only a handful of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania has tried and convicted ten of the ringleaders, most of them military leaders and government officials. Twenty-one more are under indictment and awaiting trial.

Rwanda began holding trials in 1997, three years after the genocide. Since then, about 5,000 have been tried and sentenced. But in Rwanda itself, more than 115,000 accused are still in prison awaiting trial. Rwanda has only 17 courtrooms to try the rest and thousands of judges and lawyers were killed or fled the country. It would take decades to try the cases in a regular courtroom.

So Rwanda has reached back into the past—and tradition—for an answer. In an effort to speed the pace of justice, Rwanda is beginning an experiment in what it calls "revolutionary justice". In the coming months, more than 10,000 open-air people's courts, called "gacacas" will begin hearing genocide cases.

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.

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 solution—and 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 posts—and the job of rebuilding the nation. They include most of the prison officials and government prosecutors who have been preparing for the gacaca process.

Rewards for Confession

At Gisovu Prison, tucked high in the tea plantations south of Kibuye, a prosecutor addresses the crowd of prisoners standing patiently before him in the drumming rain. Each carries a copybook with lined paper, their dossiers with details of the accusations against them. Under the Gacaca Act passed by the Rwandan legislature in 2000, each prisoner will be ranked by the seriousness of his or her crimes. Category I is the most serious. It includes organizers of the genocide and rapists.

Prisoners in Categories II and III are eligible to confess and have the possibility of getting their prison term halved. For example, someone sentenced to ten years would serve five years in prison and five years performing community service.

27-year-old Caliste Gashiarawa was one of the first to confess. He says he participated in many attacks against the Tutsis and killed five people himself, including the family of a neighbor and good friend. "The day before, we heard shots coming from the commune office and the next day, the police came and told us, "Now all the Tutsis have to die, and those who will not participate in killing them will also die."

Caliste's story is a familiar one. No-one knows how many people participated in the genocide. Alison DesForges of Human Rights Watch estimates that between 20-30,000 did most of the actual killing, wielding machetes and ponga sticks. But thousands more manned roadblocks to stop Tutsis from escaping or reported their whereabouts to the gangs of killers.

Caliste says he is ready to accuse more of the killers who acted with him when he stands before neighbors, family and the survivors of those he killed. "I know that nothing can replace a person once they've died, but if the survivors could agree and forgive me, then we could share whatever I had."

Though there have been rebellions in some prisons that are still dominated by Hutu hardliners, the number of prisoners coming forward to confess is growing. With the incentives clear, it's even possible some innocent prisoners will confess to get their sentences shortened.

Judge Tharcisse estimates as many as 20 percent of the prisoners are innocent, "It's a nightmare of work" he says. "After the war, people pointed fingers." He says arresting officials often didn't know legal procedures, so no formal charges were made. He says these are the people they'd like to process first. He says,"The gacaca process will allow us to go backward and from there, the truth comes out."

Will the Gacacas Work?

But finding the truth won't be so easy. Across the road from the prison in Kibuye is a shelter for women who were raped during the genocide and who have since been abandoned by their families. Their stories illustrate some of the difficulties of the gacaca process.

One woman with scars on her arms and torso and a large gash on the side of her head explains that she is a Hutu who was married to a Tutsi. Her relatives killed her husband and four children. "My family doesn't want to look at me because they believe I'll report them."

Finding victims who can present clear and coherent testimony will also be a problem. The survivors today often live surrounded by Hutu who have family in prison. During the genocide, they were in hiding or on the run and didn't see a lot of what was happening. And many are badly traumatized. One of the women at the shelter keeps her face covered with her hands, crying continually. "If you are wondering why I am dropping tears, it is because I do not know the number of people who raped me" she says.

When she lowers her hands from her face, she has the high cheekbones and thin face that many consider classic Tutsi features. Women like her often received particularly cruel treatment. After her husband was killed, she says, she was taken captive by the Interahamwe militia, and kept for months as a sex slave. The men took her with them when they fled to Zaire before the Rwandan Patriotic Front. They abandoned her there and she found her way back home. She has AIDS and her family doesn't want her back. She says she would never be able to identify the men who kidnapped and raped her.

The women say they would welcome compensation--help rebuilding their houses for example. But they're dubious about the gacacas, especially their emphasis on reconciliation. One of the women, a rape victim says, "To me…justice is all about the government, because the government allowed the people to do what happened. But you don't expect the people themselves to ensure justice."

Still, Prosecutor Tharcisse is optimistic. He says from his experience, the best verifiable evidence is from the Hutu prisoners. "They knew what was going on. The others were in hiding. The evidence of the perpetrators is much more solid than someone who was on the run." And, he's sure people will tell the truth at the gacacas.

"We're not saying gacaca has no shortcomings, but it's a risk worth taking. In our society, it is very rare to tell lies publicly," he explains. "So we are hoping peer pressure will force people to tell the truth. In our tradition, if you tell a lie to a hundred listening people, chances are someone will pop up and say, 'stupid, don't tell lies'."

Reason to Reconcile

In Ruhashya, a hamlet in the southern province of Butare, a dozen young couples are gathered to be married in a civil ceremony. The brides are wearing circlets of white pearls in their hair. The young men are in their best suits and ties. But before the wedding begins, there's another matter to take care of.

A crowd of about 700 people-including children and old folks-sit on the ground. Some hold striped umbrellas against the strong midday sun. As the wedding guests stand by, twenty young men in pink uniforms are brought from the local prison. They're here for one of the first trial gacacas.

In the center of the crowd, a prosecutor from Kigali stands in white shirtsleeves. "We're here to tell the truth about the prisoners who might have acted in the genocide," he explains. "If we hear of anyone threatening a witness, they will be punished. So even if you're sitting next to someone who participated in the killing, stand up and testify. And if there is somebody in prison who has done nothing, you should also say that, and we will let him go home."

One by one, the prisoners are brought forward, and people stand and tell what they saw or heard eight years ago. Stories of murdered children, a young man who killed his teacher. Complicated details are argued back and forth. Some of the witnesses are jeered and laughed at, including a woman who everyone says is crazy from grief because of her dead children.

Finally, the most dramatic moment of the day: a sobbing woman accuses one of the prisoners of killing her child. But a young man comes forward and says the boy is innocent. He knows because the real killer is his own brother, who is at home. Another witness agrees. A policeman is dispatched to arrest the elder brother, and the boy who has been in prison since 1994 is set free. He rolls on the grass laughing and runs across the field giving high-fives to the other prisoners. This afternoon, five of the prisoners are released on the spot. The other twenty are sent back to prison. Some who confessed will be released early. Others will have to stand trial in a regular courtroom, and could be executed.

As the gacacas begin in earnest this summer, human rights groups will be watching. One concern is that the prisoners' dossiers are prepared by the government, but there are no defense attorneys.

Justice Tharcisse says he knows many in the West are disturbed by the lack of "due process," but he says that, "Gacaca is a much more perfect system in the sense that its mission is much greater than what trial by jury does. It reconciles the community with the suspect. You are talking about large numbers of who are traumatized, who are suspected, who are weakened by genocide. Now without truth, everyone is apprehensive, suspicious of the other. A society that lives in suspicion is not a society that develops."

"The whole country is full of these things, these crosses."

One of the most famous massacre sites in Rwanda is on the outskirts of Kigali, in a field covered with white crosses. Karasira Venuste has told the story many times. How in the first days of the genocide, several thousand people came to the École Technologic seeking protection from the Belgian peacekeepers billeted there. But the UN ordered the Belgian troops to leave.

"And we cried," Venuste says. "We said, 'Why are you leaving us?' They told us there would be some gendarme coming to protect you. We asked them do not leave. We told some young boys to lie down in front of their jeeps and cars. "

But the Belgians left anyway and less than two hours later, Hutu militia entered the school grounds. They marched the refugees along a dirt road lined with purple morning glories and yellow daisies to an open clearing. Then, Karasira Venuste remembers, the killing began. "It started around 5:30. Around 6:30 they stopped, but very few survivors were remaining."

Venuste lost his arm to a machete blow but saved himself by lying under a pile of corpses. His wife and son also survived. His daughter is buried here among the plain white wooden crosses. The very idea of compensation, he says, is crazy. "What price could you give me to buy my right arm? When I come here I see all these people who were my friends, my people. My daughter is lying here, maybe."

And the worst thing, he says, would be listening to the stories and seeing the killers. "I fear that people will be more traumatized than they are now. Including myself, including myself. I don't want to hear somebody telling me 'I killed your son or your daughter'. I don't wish to hear those stories. No. Because I would run mad. I would run mad."

From the villages of Rwanda, to Bosnia and to Germany, justice—whether in the grass or in a courtroom—is a long and uncertain journey.

The United States played a key role in trying to bring justice to each of these conflicts. Indeed, the world’s first ever genocide conviction…at the Rwanda tribunal...was secured by an American prosecutor. Today, the United States continues to support war crimes trials for individual countries but opposes a global war crimes court that could place Americans under its jurisdiction.

At his famous opening speech at Nuremberg, U.S. Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson said that the laws used against Nazi leaders would serve little purpose if they were not applied to all nations.

Today, Jackson’s vision is still far from becoming a reality.