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.
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.