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Letter From Rwanda | The Nation

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Letter From Rwanda

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The main road out of Kigali winds past steep slopes packed with small wooden shacks, a reminder of how overcrowded this tiny country is. Once outside the capital and into Gitarama province it is a different picture--high hills stretch into the distance, and the villages on the hilltops are widely spaced, disappearing in the mist that hangs over them. The tarmac soon turns into a red dirt road pitted with huge potholes. It rises fast, through banana groves, past barefoot children minding cattle with great curving white horns, and outside wattle huts with straw roofs smaller children play. A very occasional motorbike or battered truck passes, but otherwise the only sound is birdsong.

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About the Author

Victoria Brittain
Victoria Brittain, journalist and former editor at the Guardian, has authored or co-authored two plays and four...

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This is the rural Africa of no running water or electricity, no hint of the modern world of instant communications, computers and mobile phones. In a scene so quiet, it is impossible to imagine the terror that gripped this place nearly a decade ago, when up to a million people were butchered, many with the machetes used for farming, in three months of organized genocide against the Tutsi minority.

The government that trained, armed and ordered men and women from the majority Hutu tribe to kill all Tutsis (whom they called "cockroaches") took this extreme step to subvert a power-sharing agreement brokered in neighboring Tanzania with the armed rebels of the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), led by the current president, Paul Kagame. In 1994 the country was ripped apart, with the vast majority participating in killings, rape, mutilation, looting and burning of property.

Justice, not only for survivors but also to enable the whole country to live again, is widely recognized as key to the future. The United Nations Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which sits in Arusha in neighboring Tanzania, is trying major genocide suspects but has been plagued by internal bickering and inefficiency. It has completed only fifteen cases, and acknowledges that it will be unable to complete the trials of the forty-nine suspects now under arrest before it ends in 2008. Its squandered budget of $180 million a year could have helped Rwanda apply its own solutions to many problems, and not just in the justice area.

In Rwanda around 120,000 men, women and some children packed the jails beginning soon after the genocide and have been fed and supervised by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Sometimes, rounding one of the hairpin bends on the main roads, you see a work-party of men in pink uniforms mending the road or building a house. The broken judiciary, rebuilt at record speed, has begun trials, but it could never complete anywhere near 100,000 in this generation. Recently 23,000 of these suspects were released because they were very old, sick or young, or were among those who had already confessed to crimes and seen their probable sentence commuted to half, which they had already served.

An ambitious attempt to close the chapter of the 1994 genocide is now being played out on hilltops with traditional local courts, called gacaca, sitting to judge what their families and neighbors did in the terrible months of violence from October 1990 to December 1994. Each community elects nineteen judges--respected in the community and not necessarily literate--and the whole community sits as a general assembly to hear confessions and accusations. Each assembly will sit seven times, establish who was there during the genocide, who was killed, who lost their property, who was responsible. The lowest court, at village level, will sentence only property crimes--category 4--while more serious crimes--categories 3 and 2--will be tried at sector and district gacaca courts. Only those accused of ordering killings, or of rape--category 1 cases--will be tried in a conventional court.

Earlier this summer, under a big tree, a row of wooden benches and stools was set out for the nineteen elected judges in the village of Kigese, and in front of them, the villagers sat in rows on the grass, women and babies in front, men behind. People arrived in ones and twos, suddenly emerging from the head-high maize stalks from all directions. Each one would greet every person along the line with a handshake, or the Rwandan customary restrained embrace, hands on the other's shoulders, before sitting down. This is a society where politeness and rituals are all-important, and in a small community like this everyone knows everyone, and everything about them.

Sixteen of the nineteen elected judges were present on this day, and before the session opened they were studying rule books, some making notes. One hundred people are a quorum, and by 10:30, 120 residents of Kigese were present. The deputy chairman, an elderly man with the gnarled skin of peasant work, dressed in dark trousers and battered shoes, asked everyone to rise for a moment's silence and reflection on the events that had brought them there. Then he read the rules, reminding people that there could be no interrupting of witnesses, courtesy must be maintained, the truth must be told. He then invited those with written confessions to bring them forward.

Two men rose from among the audience, one young, in a khaki suit with short trousers, the other older, with a white shirt. They gave folded sheets of paper to the secretary, a young woman with a mobile, intelligent face, wearing a worn red T-shirt and rubber sandals. As they turned to go back to their places, another two men, and then another two, came forward and handed over papers. The confession of one was read out in Kinyarwanda, and the man stood at the front while people questioned him: "Why is this story different from what you said last time?" Through a long morning, another four men, brought in from police cells, rose from their place sitting among their peers and came to the front for questioning.

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