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Letter From Rwanda | The Nation

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Letter From Rwanda

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Over years of interviewing genocide suspects in prison in Rwanda, I have found that all the people I have spoken to, both men and women, have always denied their guilt, each blaming another as the organizer of their group. Kigese was at first seemingly little different. But then the confident body language of the suspects began to change, sometimes as a number of women witnesses rose to speak of the day and the moment when they had seen a suspect searching for a particular victim, or coming home and taking the property of someone just killed. One woman, looking straight ahead and not at the man being cross-questioned, said to him, "You killed my son." After a rambling denial from him, she spoke again, calm and determined: "You killed my son." The chairman told her gently that her case would not be discussed immediately, but would be heard another day.

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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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As the hours went on, contradictory stories were told, and witnesses and defendants went off on irrelevant stories. Many times someone in the general assembly rose to ask the chairman to keep the witnesses to the point. But no one shouted or showed anger, no one wandered away or chatted with his or her neighbor. Gacaca is certainly a scene of considerable confusion, and one that cannot bring precise justice, but it is a dignified process, and the village confronts experiences of terror, deep sorrow and collective guilt in a unique and promising way.

The Minister of Justice, Jean de Dieu Mucyo, wears a dark suit and speaks rapid-fire French. In this former Belgian colony French was the prevailing European language, but today Anglophone ministers are more common because so many in the Tutsi diaspora were educated in English-speaking Tanzania or Uganda, where the RPF was started among young Rwandans serving in Uganda's army. The minister's busy modern office in Kigali seems remote from a place like Kigese, but he has been speaking in such villages for months. "Gacaca is not perfect, but it is much better than conventional justice; and with time, patience, this very long process we have started will give us what we must know, we must know what happened," he says. He tells two stories, which illustrate both the drama of the process for individuals and the shrewd calculation that makes many of yesterday's killers a continuing threat. The first is about a man who confessed to participating in the genocide, and when he was then freed, died of shock. The second is of how prisoners abruptly stopped confessing when there was a spate of incursions from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire, and rumors ran around the prisons that the tide had turned, the present government would be overthrown, the 1994 genocide would become considered just another episode of violence and the Hutu majority would be back in power.

The end of the culture of impunity in Rwanda, which saw successive massacres and dispossession of Tutsis in 1959, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964 and 1972--making them in their diaspora the Palestinians of Africa--is at the center of this government's goals. The public execution of twenty-two genocidaires in the early days of the new regime, led by then-General Paul Kagame, showed Rwandans just how seriously the new authorities took this question. The rejection of the pleas to halt the executions--from the Pope, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and others--was an early indication that the outside world could not impose conventional solutions to problems here.

Like many of Rwanda's original home-grown solutions to political and security problems, so overwhelming that outsiders find them almost impossible to grasp, gacaca has come in for harsh criticism as unworkable from some sections of the donor community. How can untrained and mainly illiterate peasants be trusted with the judgment of tangled tales often involving their own relations? Where is the administrative capacity to process 100,000 dossiers, or more? What will happen to the approximately half a million new suspects, now at large, named already in suspects' confessions during the gacaca process of the past few months? What does the election as judges of some people known to have been active participants in the genocide say about the fairness of the trials?

With gacaca the government has calculated that enough guilty people "will want a second chance to live a decent life," as the president put it, and will therefore confess. Gacaca, with its emphasis on collective truth-telling as a means toward reconciliation rather than summary justice and punishment, has more elements in common with South Africa's traveling Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the 1990s than with, say, Latin American versions following dictatorships, such as Peru's. Typically, it is home-grown to meet the unique and overwhelming problem of majority participation in the genocide. Foreign lawyers and organizations such as Penal Reform International and African Rights are conducting careful studies of the process.

"I have wanted to be original about my own thinking, especially in regard to my own situation here," Kagame told New Yorker journalist Philip Gourevitch some years ago, when his reputation was as a military intelligence chief, a brilliant military strategist who won a guerrilla war against all odds. Later he became Rwanda's president, and that uncompromising determination to go with his own original way of doing things has brought some misunderstandings, and some dangerous enemies.

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