Gacaca: Evoking A Narrative To What End?

–  That man…that man has morals: they’re just different to everybody else’s.

The man’s frustration was understandable, tangible, and manifested itself through his heavy irony.  The focus of his harangue was a farmer awaiting sentence by gacaca, accused of the attempted murder of C., and of subsequently stealing his land.  C.’s voice shook with restrained emotion as he lifted first his trouser leg, then his shirt, to reveal the uneven scars wrought by a nail-studded masu.  He appears older than his 40 years, as he gingerly walks to a nearby rock with a club-induced limp.  His eyes, framed by a gaunt, shrink-wrapped face hint at horrors seen – horrors which no-one should have to endure.

–  Do they think I did this to myself?

It is a rarity in Rwanda that someone will approach you voluntarily to recount their stories from those fateful 100 days in 1994.  Although an atmosphere of reconciliation is officially encouraged by the government, the truth is that many people prefer to get on with the here-and-now; to stop re-living their past traumas for journalists, well-meaning NGOs and sensationalism-seeking tourists.  Yet, it seems, C. is an exception.

–  Sawa. Ndashaka kukubwira ijambo. Listen. I want to tell you something.

Initially wary, I approached expecting requests for faranga, for money. Afterwards, I felt that C. had not deliberately planned to approach me due to any sense of affinity.  He did so just because I was there, and possibly because I represented the international community.  One could almost sense a need for catharsis.  He needed to unload his frustration, and maybe he thought this muzungu held some sway in the legal proceedings: that I could somehow fix the situation.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to attend one of Rwanda’s gacaca trials.  Gacaca, in Kinyarwandan, literally means “justice on the grass”.  Introduced in 2002, it was primarily an attempt by the Rwandan government to alleviate the burgeoning caseload of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).  Eight years after Kagame’s RPF liberated the country, some 120,000 alleged genocidaires were still awaiting trial in unsanitary, dilapidated and overcrowded prisons. Gacaca was also an attempt by Kagame to keep some of the judiciary process “in-house”.  For it could be construed that only now, post-genocide, was the international community taking an active role and moving the main Category 1 trials all the way to Arusha, Tanzania.

Gacaca had its roots in the pre-colonial era, as a means of resolving disputes over family matters and property rights.  The forum was typically led by village elders and respected community members.  Traditionally, the format was simple, yet democratic. Both the accused and accuser would give their respective accounts of the alleged offense. The village members spectating could, at any time, interject with their own additions or twist on the version of the current narrative.  For gacaca was supposed to be a communal experience.  It was believed that only through a re-living, or a reconstruction, of the events could the truth and ultimately reconciliation be attained.  It was essentially a participatory arena for openly airing, and resolving, local grievances.

One could be skeptical at first in reverting to such a tradition to deal with Category 2 genocidaires – those men and woman accused of a spectrum of misdeeds ranging from destruction of property and looting to murder.  However, it was argued that it was an affordable alternative to ICTR’s trials and that a confrontation between the accused and the community could finally offer some closure.  The population was also openly encouraged by the Rwandan media to participate.  This is how I came to meet C.

The setting was an incongruous one.  The village of Ntarama is hemmed in by the ubiquitous and lush banana groves, the kind that covered a large area of Rwanda’s mille collines.  The locals either stood, perched on their bicycles or simply sat on the sun-seared orange earth.  Men greeted each other with hearty greetings of amakuru: the women gathered in small groups gossiping, somehow managing to balance the babies swaddled to their backs; the older children propelling old bicycle tires down the road with sticks.  This typical scene of Rwandan village life was a surreal stage for gacaca.

The accused, garbed in the pink uniform of the Rwandan penitentiary system, stood for the duration of the trial.  He was polite and well-groomed. Before him were 5 prominent men from the community, draped in the blue, green and yellow of the nation’s flag. They sat, as was the tradition, under a large tree that offered some respite from the midday sun.

–       Ni iki cyatumye ukubita umugabo? Why did you beat the man?

Unsurprisingly the accused denied any such wrongdoing, and calmly proceeded to state to the panel how he had been in Butare at the time of the attempted murder.  He also denied the accusations of stealing his land, saying he had paid for it fairly.  Pausing occasionally to allow the scribe to capture his statement, he never once met C.’s eyes.

–  Wamazeyo igihe kinini? Did you spend a long time there?

The defendant told the judges he had spent a number of days in Butare on business at the time of the alleged attack, and that C. was lying.  This awakened the interest of many villagers present.  Several stood to speak, each either contradicting or corroborating this alibi.  Such a wealth of conflicting accounts would affect any court proceedings.  Ultimately, the trial is delayed to a later date to allow further investigation into the timeline of the case. However, one cannot help but feel a decision has been waylaid due to our presence.

So it is, we are sat with C. post-trial. He recounts to us how life in Ntarama used to be peaceful.  Hutus and Tutsis lived side by side and even inter-married.  He only felt unsafe when Habyarimana died.  That was when he says, goaded by the radio, the Hutus rose up and in a 2 week period massacred some 5000 people in the churches and fields of Ntarama.  He recounts how, oddly, the Hutus took their own wives out of the village before commencing the killing.

When asked of his family, C. shakes his head. He never found out what happened to his wife and four children but knows that they are dead – killed simply for being Tutsi.  C. himself was targeted by this one man, beaten as he tried to flee and left for dead. This happened just 5 days before the RPF liberated Ntarama.

C. now has many problems as a result of being attacked. He cannot work, and has a permanently weak voice.  Despite his physical scars and the loss of his family, his main point of frustration is that even after 15 years the accused can still not admit what he did.

At this point, we are interrupted by one of the gacaca stewards.  He informs us that there are reports of collusion amongst some of the witnesses who supported the claim that the accused was in Butare.  Allegedly before the trial commenced, he was seen talking with them, rehearsing the story.  Unfortunately for C., this will mean further delays in his quest for closure.

Whilst gacaca seems to be a well-intentioned, grass-roots means of dealing out justice on paper, the reality is very different.  The archaic process is fundamentally handicapped primarily by a lack of international standards, untrained judges and absence of any forensic evidence.  Instead there are cases of witness intimidation, collusion, overly zealous judges who may well have lost someone in the genocide, skewed facts and a reliance on hearsay without any real cross-examination.  There have been cases of judges either meting out heavy sentences because they felt it was expected of them, or of witnesses being threatened with sentences themselves if it was felt they were not telling the “truth”.  There have also been some disturbing suggestions that many Hutus see the trials as a Nuremburg-esque diktat, a victor’s justice.  The whole gacaca process is a blinkered one that conveniently ignores the reprisal killings of some 6000 Hutus in 1997 by the RPF.  This is certainly not the right way to go about achieving the goal of reconciliation that the Rwandan government preaches.  One cannot condone the genocide or the mantra of Hutu Power, but one must openly admit atrocities were committed on either side.  Until that time, one fears further outbreaks of violence in the region.

–  Murakose. Thank you.

We feel that it should have been us thanking C. for re-living his terrible story for us, not the other way around.  He seems resigned to the fact that he may eventually get justice, but by that point, what good will it do him?  He has dredged up all these old, dormant feelings of fear, anger and wretchedness seemingly for nothing. He raised his hand in a parting gesture, and smiled sadly.  We never saw him again.