Rwanda – When The Killers Go Home

Rwanda1Phil Clark describes post-genocide Rwanda, in the lead up to the resurrected gacaca courts system in this, the first of two parts.

The international community ignored the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when nearly one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were macheted to death, many by their own friends and neighbors, and it was almost entirely absent on the most momentous day in Rwanda since the genocide. Two Western media agencies, BBC Radio and the Canadian television network CTV, together provided a total of three and a half minutes’ coverage when, on May 5, 2003, more than twenty thousand confessed genocide perpetrators were provisionally released into their hometowns, after spending nearly a decade in prison.

I had expected to fight my way through hordes of journalists to talk to the detainees before they boarded buses, returning to the same communities where they committed their crimes. Instead, I walked unimpeded into the Kinyinya “solidarity camp” on the outskirts of Kigali, one of eighteen civic education centers around Rwanda, where, for three months between leaving prison and being released into the community, around a thousand confessed génocidaires received instruction from government officials on how to be good citizens in the post-genocide society.

On board the bus with the detainees

The Rwandan government struggled for a decade to solve the problem of prisons massively overcrowded with genocide suspects. In 1994, the Tutsi-led rebel force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which halted the genocide and currently constitutes the ruling party in Rwanda, rounded up nearly 120,000 Hutu suspects and piled them into prisons built to hold only 40,000 detainees. Most suspects, never normally charged with any crime, were forced to live in hellish conditions: underfed, drinking dirty water, crammed into tiny rooms, where they slept on top of one another in latticework formations.

To help process the enormous backlog of cases, which would take a conventional court system around two hundred years, the government announced that it would provisionally release selected suspects who had already confessed to their crimes. Back in their home communities, these suspects would now face justice at communal courts known as gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-cha and derived from the Kinyarwanda word meaning “on the grass,” referring to the outdoor setting in which the hearings take place). With courts established in around nine thousand towns and villages, each overseen by nine locally elected judges, gacaca is a traditional Rwandan institution of participatory conflict resolution that has been controversially revived and reformed to deal with genocide cases.

Arrival of detainees at drop-off point

Gacaca is founded on the principle that the community should reintegrate the individuals whom it punishes. Under gacaca’s plea-bargaining scheme, some convicted perpetrators who confess early enough will receive reduced sentences or be able to commute part of their sentences to community service. In April 2005, after three years of gathering evidence, gacaca courts convicted and sentenced the first wave of génocidaires, many to new prison terms. The government continues to release new groups of selected detainees who now await trial, while gacaca hears the cases of those released earlier.

After some hasty negotiations, the camp wardens at Kinyinya agreed to let me ride on a run-down, white Mercedes-Benz bus carrying seventy detainees to an undisclosed drop-off point somewhere south, near the Burundi border. First, though, I went looking for Laurent, a short, gray- mustached, forty-two-year-old Hutu detainee whom I had met on my initial visit to the Kinyinya camp three weeks earlier. When I first interviewed Laurent, he asked me to turn off my dictaphone and, unlike most detainees, refused to describe the crimes to which he had confessed. A camp official later told me that Laurent had confessed to murdering three men and a woman in 1994. I wanted to know how he was feeling now as he prepared to return to his community.

Solidarity camp at Gashora

I found Laurent sheltering from the blazing afternoon sun beneath a blue tarpaulin, a tattered bag of clothes by his side and his left knee heavily bandaged. “I’m sick and I have to walk home today,” he said. “I’m sad because I have no family left. What am I going back to? I’m going back to nothing.” All of Laurent’s family, themselves Hutu, were killed during the genocide. Although Tutsi were the main target, thousands of Hutu were also murdered either because they were mistaken for, or displayed sympathy toward, Tutsi, or because they were the victims of RPF revenge attacks.

All around, detainees were hugging one another and exchanging addresses, as though they had been at summer camp. “When I see these people outside of the camp,” Laurent said, “they will be like my brothers and sisters.” Laurent picked up his bags and began limping toward the camp gates. I asked him why he wasn’t riding the bus with the rest of us. “My name isn’t on the list of people to ride in the bus,” he said. “I’m sick and my leg is bad, but [the camp officials] tell me I have to walk home.” Laurent said goodbye and inched up the dusty slope toward the gates.

Detainees disembarking at drop off point

I boarded the bus with the last of the detainees. The men onboard waved ecstatically to their friends as the bus pulled out of the camp. Once outside the gates, they began dancing and singing in celebration, stomping in unison and rocking the bus back and forth. The lone, fresh-faced security guard in a maroon uniform smiled and kept the beat by banging the butt of his rifle on the floor. I prayed he had the safety catch on. Waving, cheering Hutu lined the streets to welcome the returning prisoners as if they were a liberation army. Shopkeepers and schoolchildren waved as the bus bounced along the rutted, dusty tracks out of Kigali.

One detainee, Karisa, sat silently near the front as the rest of the bus celebrated behind him. He told me that he had confessed to being an infiltré, one of the hundreds of Hutu militiamen known as Interahamwe (literally “those who work together”) who fled into the jungles of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]) after the RPF victory in 1994, and then returned repeatedly to attack RPF troops and Tutsi civilians. Karisa was captured in 1996 and jailed as a genocide suspect. “Today is an amazing day,” he said. “All I want to do is walk the streets of Kigali for one or two hours. I want to remember what it’s like to walk those streets.” Karisa was from Bicumbi, in central Rwanda, but said that he wanted to find his older brother, who he had heard was living somewhere near Butare in the southwest. “We have a new life now,” he said. “Everything is new. But what will happen to us now? None of us can know.”

Detainees boarding trucks at Kinyinya solidarity camp

The detainees fell silent as the bus rolled further away from Kigali. For weeks, I had heard rumors that Tutsi lynch mobs would be waiting when three hundred trucks and buses of released prisoners like this one arrived in marketplaces all over Rwanda. Undoubtedly the detainees had heard the same rumors. Some of these men would also be found guilty at gacaca and sentenced to further years in prison. The coming months would therefore be only a short, and in their eyes, cruel, taste of liberty.

One of the detainees was nineteen-year-old Damascène, who had been ten during the genocide. He had confessed to being in a group of three boys who killed another boy with a machete and hacked the Achilles tendons of an old man whom they left for the Interahamwe to finish off. The bus was a good snapshot of the overall population of genocide suspects: most are men aged between twenty-five and forty-five; some are younger; and a few are much older, including some in their seventies and eighties. Not all of them killed during the genocide; some injured others or looted property. Only the women suspects, of whom there are thousands in Rwanda, were missing from this group.

The road wound south following the Nyabarongo River, which snakes through a fertile valley of thick, green vegetation, surrounded by hills of cocoa plants, sunflowers, and banana palms. It took more than two hours to travel the nearly seventy kilometers of corrugated road. No one spoke. We pulled into a small village, and the bus stopped. Outside, schoolchildren watched as the detainees picked up their bags and stepped slowly into the village courtyard. Except for several officials who greeted the detainees as they walked off the bus, no adults were visible. The officials took the men to an open-sided room, where one official began lecturing them. The detainees would remain in this village for the night; then they would be sent home on foot tomorrow.

Solidarity camp in Butare

One by one, adult villagers emerged from the surrounding houses, to catch a glimpse of the prisoners. They stood at a distance and whispered to one another. The return of these detainees attracted no fanfare; that would come when they arrived in their home villages. The official’s lecture ended and the gathering dispersed. I found Karisa, who told me, “There are only a few survivors in this village, so we can sleep here tonight in peace.” An official approached me and said that no outsiders were permitted to follow the detainees home the next day.

The driver and I climbed into the empty bus, which bounced and jolted its way through the fading evening light back to Kigali. When I got off, the dark streets of the capital were beginning to crackle with people leaving offices and flooding out of the market. Music blared as the bars overflowed with workers. I scanned the dark circle of hills surrounding the city: out there in the hills, all over the country, the killers were going home.

Author – Phil Clark
Photography – Phil Clark
Copywrite – Dissent Magazine

Phil Clark is a Research Fellow at the Transitional Justice Institute, Belfast. He has conducted extensive field research on conflict and post-conflict societies in Africa.

This article, edited from the original version, is reproduced with the kind permission of

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