Will Native Courts Heal Rwanda?

( [email protected] ) Oct 31, 2003 10:34 AM EST

IN A hilly neighbourhood of Kigali, Rwanda's capital, beneath a makeshift tent bathed in mid-morning sunlight, a pivotal social experiment unfolds.

A woman, her face creased with pain, addresses a panel of stern-looking men. To their side, a man and his wife listen in stony silence.

"These people," the woman begins, pointing at the couple. "My husband was running as fast as he could. He found a hiding place. But these people found him and caught him and handed him to the militias, who killed him and left him for the wild dogs."

In a normal society, face-to-face encounters like this one usually take place in a police station or wood-panelled courtroom. But across this deeply traumatised central African country, the victims of a state-sponsored genocide are starting to confront their alleged attackers in community courts convened in open fields and school yards - literally 'in the grass,' where the dead were once piled high.

Almost a decade after the erstwhile extremist Hutu government launched a wave of ethnic slaughter that left an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu dead in 1994, the country is grappling with two related and potentially destabilising issues: Nearly all of the country's trained judges and court staff were slaughtered in the genocide and, as a result, more than 100,000 suspects are still in detention awaiting trial.

According to some estimates, it would take the remaining judges and clerks more than 150 years to hear their cases. To cope with the backlog and promote national reconciliation, Rwanda has adopted an approach that some hold up as a model for other African nations needing to restore social cohesion after extensive civil strife.

After years of preparation, during which judges were trained and perpetrators were identified, Rwanda has established community tribunals to hear all but the most serious cases connected with the genocide. Called gacacas, the Kinyarwandan word which means 'in the grass', these panels eschew the procedures and sentences of formal courts in favour of direct, face-to-face encounters between victims and alleged perpetrators. The goal is to promote remorse and forgiveness.

Truth-telling as a means of social healing is not new. In the past 20 years more than a dozen countries set up truth commissions to mend their societies after prolonged and traumatic civil strife. That approach, for example, enabled South Africa to shed light on the worst atrocities of its apartheid past and foster racial healing.

"Victims need closure," says Charles Villa-Vicencio, a former member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "They need to articulate their anger and see the perpetrators stand accountable. It is cathartic for victims when the culprits admit to what they have done."

Now the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Villa-Vicencio is advising Rwanda in its gacaca process. When perpetrators relate their crimes, he says, 'there is great remorse which often leads to forgiveness'.

Rwanda has a long and tortured ethnic history. Its population is 85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi and 1% Twa. The stark imbalance, however, isn't all that it seems.

All Rwandans hail from just 18 clans. They speak the same indigenous language. Culturally, the names Hutu and Tutsi referred more to economic status than ethnic affiliation. But German and Belgian colonial rulers exploited those social divisions to suit their purposes. The divisions engendered deep resentment and Rwandans have suffered waves of ethnic killing in the decades since independence. Gacacas are an age-old practice in Rwanda. Traditionally, elders initiated the process when they judged an offence or a dispute serious enough to be brought before the entire community. The courts' goals weren't so much punitive as to restore harmony.

Although the judges underwent about six weeks of training in relevant basic legal principles, observers worry that other factors could undermine the courts. "We need to see more sensitisation, more education, and more efforts to motivate personnel,' said Klaas de Jonge, a senior researcher for Penal Reform International, monitoring the process.

"Because of the very nature of gacacas, genocide victims and their families will end up thinking they are too lenient," says David Songa, a retired military officer.