Rwanda – When The Killers Go Home (pt2)

Boys in Rwanda.jpgRwandan roads are among the best in Africa, one of the few positive legacies of the Belgian colonial regime. The roads extend like the spokes of a wheel from the hub of Kigali in the center of the country to the towns around the perimeter.


To travel along the outer rim between these towns entails riding crammed minibuses first to Kigali and then outward again. To avoid constantly heading back to the capital or to get to tiny villages far from the towns often means hitching lifts with madly weaving moped riders or drivers of ancient trucks carrying market produce down choking dirt tracks.

The dirt gets into every fiber of your clothes, every pore of your skin, and the sapping 90 percent humidity, in a landlocked, high-altitude country of endless mountains and hills, leaves you permanently lightheaded and jelly-legged. But I wanted to know what was happening out there, on the periphery. What did everyday villagers, out of the earshot of government officials in Kigali, think about the release of genocide suspects and about gacaca? Lugging a rucksack and a tent, I crisscrossed the country for five months, talking to rural Rwandans about the prospects of Hutus’ and Tutsis’ ever living together again.

The genocide affected every Rwandan— either as a perpetrator, a survivor, or the friend or relative of either of these—but each individual experienced it and its aftermath differently. Yet one feeling seems to unite everyone: uncertainty. And it is no wonder. In the last two years, a flurry of events has left the population dazed. In the first eight months of 2003 alone, Rwandans faced the first of several releases of genocide suspects from prison into the solidarity camps and then into the community; the expansion of gacaca from 750 to nearly 8000 jurisdictions; the government’s banning of the Mouvement Démocratique Républicain (MDR), the largest Hutu opposition party; a referendum on a new constitution; the first parliamentary and presidential elections since the genocide; Rwanda’s increased involvement in conflict in the DRC; and an escalation of tensions with its neighbor and previous ally Uganda that many feared would lead to all-out war.

I heard the same refrain of anxiety and confusion everywhere I travelled. In a village outside Ruhengeri, in the fertile volcanic hills near the border with Uganda, I met Célestin, a fifty-five year-old Tutsi farmer. He pointed to deep scars on his left cheek and said that during the genocide he had been attacked with a machete. Moments before the attack, he watched as his wife and two young sons were hacked to death only meters from where he stood. Célestin chewed on a stick of millet and drank water from a calabash, sitting on a low stool outside of his mud brick house. “We heard on the radio in January that the génocidaires were coming back. At first, we were very scared. Since then, the government has told us nothing.” He paused to take a long drink from the calabash. “And now they talk of an election. We have to walk to the municipal office to register [to vote] and we lose a day’s work on the farm. We just want to work and live in peace but that’s impossible with all of these things going on.” Célestin said that life had improved a little since the genocide: he had remarried, and his millet and maize crops had done well. “But we live every day with the memories of what happened,” he said. “Sometimes it seems too much to keep going. But God gives us strength, and somehow we keep on living.”

Genocidaires at one of the many Solidarity Camps

Post-genocide trauma affects every facet of people’s lives, meaning that many Rwandans not only find it difficult to talk about the past but also to fulfill basic everyday needs and to earn a living. The government recently trained a handful of national counselors to help genocide survivors deal with their trauma. The task, though, is overwhelming. Hundreds of thousands of survivors, especially those in rural places, will never benefit from the counselors’ expertise. And, as I discovered in the weeks after the bus ride from the Kinyinya camp, the release of detainees retraumatized many survivors. On the side of a hill near Nyamata, two weeks after the suspects began returning, I sat in the house of Marie, a thirty-six-year-old Tutsi woman wearing a bright floral shawl around her shoulders. Marie said that during the genocide she hid in bushes for three days as the Interahamwe swept through the village; she found refuge in Burundi. When she returned to Nyamata, she found her house burned to the ground. She now lived in a house that, like most of the neighboring homes, the government had built for genocide survivors.

Marie’s three children chased each other, laughing, through the four sparse rooms as we spoke. One of her boys, Marie explained, was a Hutu whom she adopted after his parents fled to the DRC near the end of the genocide. “His parents killed some of the children in my household,” she said, staring blankly out of the window. Marie’s parents, her son, three nephews and two nieces were killed during the genocide. She didn’t know who had killed her parents, but she suspected that the parents of her adopted son were responsible for the murder of the six children. I asked why she had adopted the boy. “Before the genocide,” she said, “we all lived together. No one cared if you were Hutu or Tutsi—we were like one family. Their children lived with my children. This one has really always been my son.”

The nature of divisions between Hutu, who make up nearly 85 percent of the Rwandan population, and Tutsi has always been complex, especially since the Belgian colonial era. Before colonialism, “Hutu” and “Tutsi” signified little more than socioeconomic status, with Hutu the cultivators who worked in the service of the Tutsi pastoral aristocracy. Hutu and Tutsi spoke the same language, held many of the same religious beliefs, and practiced the same rituals. The categories were permeable, so that a Hutu who gained sufficient wealth, usually in the form of cattle, could become a Tutsi. The lines blurred further with widespread intermarriage between the groups over several generations.

In 1933, the Belgians, inspired by Social Darwinist theories and seeing a hierarchical society as easier to govern, introduced identity cards that categorized all Rwandans as either Hutu or Tutsi. Individuals were divided according to an array of personal characteristics including the length and width of their noses (Hutu were assumed to have stubbier noses) or the number of cattle owned (ten cows or more signified a Tutsi, fewer than ten a Hutu). From 1933 until identity cards were scrapped after the genocide, all Rwandans inherited their ethnicity from their father’s line. It is conceivable that some Tutsi, murdered during the genocide, could trace their ancestry to a male Hutu relative who acquired a tenth cow in the week before identity cards were distributed and thus became a Tutsi, with absurd and tragic consequences six decades later.

After 1933, Hutu and Tutsi in many communities continued to intermarry and live together, relatively oblivious to official ethnic distinctions. Successive Hutu governments, which gained control after independence, however, incited ethnic hatred to mobilize the Hutu majority and to subjugate Tutsi, who for decades, Hutu leaders claimed, had ruled Rwanda as Belgium’s lapdogs. Hatred and fear escalated, leading to pogroms of Tutsi in the 1960s and 1970s and sowing the seeds of genocide.

Marie explained that one of her teenage nieces, murdered because she was a Tutsi, had married a Hutu only months before the genocide began. Her niece’s husband was also murdered because the Interahamwe accused him of protecting Tutsi. “I have forgiven [my son’s parents] for what they did, even though I will probably never be able to tell them. But I will never forget what happened. Who can forget such horrible things?”

I asked Marie how she felt about the return of genocide prisoners to her village. She said that, thankfully, she now lived in a different community from the one where her relatives were killed, so she hadn’t yet come face-to-face with their murderers. She had, though, met one released detainee in the market whom she believed had killed a friend of hers. “It is frightening for us survivors to see these people back here. Can we trust them not to repeat what they did to us before? They might not have received enough lessons from the government [in the solidarity camps]. For most of us survivors, the release was a mockery. Haven’t we suffered enough already?”

Rwandans offer mixed responses to the question of whether Hutu and Tutsi can live together after the genocide. Some survivors say reconciliation is possible; others say Hutu and Tutsi will always be divided. Genocide suspects and the wider Hutu population offer similarly mixed views. Different factors influence what people say about the prospects for reconciliation: the degree of intermarriage in their own families, the viciousness of the violence in their communities, or their religious beliefs, which, in a country where 80 percent of the population is nominally Catholic, inspire many people to claim that God commands them to forgive the perpetrators.

Jean Bosco, a survivor in Gisenyi, a town on the shores of Lake Kivu on the DRC border, whose wife and three daughters were murdered by the Interahamwe, echoed a common sentiment when he told me, “We must forgive because God forgives. I’m not saying it’s easy to forgive those who killed, but that is our Christian duty.” Reconciliation in Rwanda requires much more than that Hutu and Tutsi live together without violence. Peaceful coexistence and reconciliation are very different things. To be truly reconciled, perpetrators and survivors will have to confront head-on the root causes of the conflicts between them.

In many communities, aiming for reconciliation will be asking too much. There is too much hatred, distrust, and fear for people to hope for anything more than peaceful coexistence. In other places, however, reconciliation stands a better chance. The difference between reconciliation and coexistence was evident in the story of the detainee Laurent, whom I found nearly three weeks after he was released. We went to a bar near the main Kigali football stadium. Over bottles of local Primus beer, Laurent told me that several friends took him home and cared for him after his release; his illness subsided, and his leg healed. His friends were now paying his way through a computer course, and he hoped to earn a living as a computer repairman. “I want to learn new skills,” he said, “so that I can support myself. But these skills will be wasted after gacaca if I go back to prison again.” It was the first time Laurent had alluded to the severity of his crimes. I asked him whether he had met any of the relatives of his victims. “I haven’t returned to the district where I committed my crimes,” he said. “I have no reason to return to that place. The house where I live with my friends is many miles from there.”

I heard the same story from most of the released detainees I tracked down: they returned to live with family and friends far from the communities where they committed their crimes, hoping to avoid meeting genocide survivors until they came face-to-face at gacaca. Because most survivors and suspects avoided confrontation, it was hardly surprising that the release of detainees on the whole went off peacefully. There were of course exceptions. Rumours of reprisals against released prisoners circulated throughout the countryside. In late 2003, a group of returned detainees in southwest Rwanda murdered three genocide survivors because, it was widely reported, they intended to testify against the prisoners at gacaca. But there was no widespread violence when the detainees returned, as many people had feared.

If suspects and survivors refuse to speak to each other, however, how is reconciliation possible? This is the problem that gacaca is designed to overcome. On a humid Monday afternoon, I sat on a wooden stool beneath a plastic shelter on the edge of a grey lake near the Burundi border. Around me a crowd of 150 people chattered nervously, waiting for the gacaca hearing to begin. More than a quarter of them were amputees, their limbs presumably hacked off during the genocide. Eventually a young man, the president of the judges’ panel, explained that a prisoner had been brought from the nearby solidarity camp. A murmur went through the gathering as the suspect walked to the front, standing between the crowd and the line of judges seated on a long bench.

The man, head bowed, explained that he wanted to confess to killing his neighbour’s wife in May 1994. “I pulled the woman out of some bushes where she was hiding,” he said. “I was in a group of men with machetes and we were looking for Tutsi in the grass. We knew there were many Tutsi hiding from us. When I found the woman, I slashed her once across the neck with my machete and then once again and left her to die.” The president asked the prisoner to give the name of the woman he had killed, which the secretary of the judges’ panel recorded in a dog-eared notebook. The prisoner said that he was sorry for what he had done, and he now wished to ask forgiveness from the dead woman’s family, particularly from her husband, whom he had considered a good friend. The husband was absent from that day’s hearing, but others in the audience wanted to ask questions of the detainee.

Rural Rwanda – Parking Bisoke, near Ruhengeri in the northwest.

An elderly man, his right arm a stump at the shoulder, asked exactly where the killing had taken place. Another man and a woman accused the prisoner of committing other crimes, which he denied. The president explained that, as the purpose of this hearing was only to record the detainee’s confession (his trial would take place later), the assembly would have to wait to verify the details of his case. A security guard led the detainee away, as light rain began to fall. For the next two hours, the assembly painstakingly debated details about other genocide suspects in their community. The president had to coax information out of many people, the men in particular. But one by one, people stood to tell what they knew. Sometimes there was disagreement: No, that man couldn’t have killed on that day; my brother saw him in another village. No, that woman died much earlier than that; I saw her decomposed body on the date you’re describing. That boy wasn’t poisoned; he was beaten to death with a panga. The hearing proceeded calmly, methodically. Only when the rain began to fall so heavily that people could no longer hear each other did the president announce that gacaca was over for the day. Next week they would continue these discussions, and several more detainees would come to confess their crimes.

One aim of gacaca is to find out the “truth” of what happened during the genocide. Back in Kigali, Augustin Nkusi, chief adviser to the Gacaca Commission of the Rwandan Supreme Court, told me, “At gacaca, the truth ultimately comes from the population. We know that people will tell who is responsible because they saw what [the perpetrators] did. They stood there as it happened and they saw everything with their own eyes. There will be no confusion about who is responsible for these things.” But uncovering the truth of the genocide is much more difficult than Nkusi claims. Although gacaca offers Rwandans a rare opportunity to debate and record key details of the genocide, which might otherwise be overlooked or forgotten, the truth-finding process is often acrimonious, as people’s interpretations of the past inevitably clash. For this reason, gacaca is rarely as orderly as the meeting by the lake. Hearings are often heated and dredge up traumatic details that, for many survivors, are too much to bear.

On a patch of grass beside a football field in Kigali, a detainee wearing a bright red t-shirt, who had been released from a solidarity camp less than a week before, arrived halfway through a gacaca hearing. A woman sitting in the assembly spotted him and accused him of having burned the roof of a house belonging to an old woman in the village, whose murder the community was discussing. After the woman described the alleged act of arson, the accused man stood up at the back of the gathering and began shouting first at the woman who was giving evidence, then at the president of the judges’ panel for allowing this testimony to continue. The president told him to stop talking and to let the woman speak. The accused man refused and kept shouting. Some friends of the man also began shouting at the president to stop the woman from talking. A group of other women in the gathering told the man to sit and wait for his turn to speak, which he did momentarily, but he soon leaped to his feet again. The president could do nothing as the man screamed at the assembly, “I know many things that I will never tell. Everyone here today should be on that list of killers.” Eventually he sat down and allowed the hearing to continue.

Scenes like this worry many international observers. Gacaca, its critics argue, is likely only to inflame tensions in already fraught communities. Human rights groups criticize gacaca as a cheap, fast method of justice that gives short shrift to due process by allowing a traumatized, divided population to judge its own genocide cases and by banning lawyers from all hearings. But these arguments miss the point: gacaca was never designed to function like a conventional courtroom. In a country with such an immense backlog of cases, where the genocide destroyed any semblance of a functioning judiciary, gacaca offers what is perhaps the only legal solution. And it represents more than a convenient option; there are distinct virtues to involving the population so intimately in the trial process. For the first time, Rwandans are drawn together to discuss their problems, to confront them head-on, to publicly engage and debate with one another, and to build for the future.

Most human rights critics also ignore the fact that gacaca is concerned with much more than legalities. It gives people a chance to talk about their emotional experiences and for the community to acknowledge their pain and suffering. At a hearing under a giant eucalyptus tree, an hour south of Kigali, several women brought wood-framed photographs of loved ones who died during the genocide. They clutched these photographs tightly throughout the hearing and pointed to them when they stood and gave evidence. When these women sat down again, many of them cried and hugged each other. Older women moved from the fringes of the gathering to comfort them. The women holding the photographs appeared to gain solace and strength from those who showed their concern, sitting up more confidently and soon participating again in deliberations. Though they were reluctant afterward to discuss why they had brought the pictures, it seemed that they wanted to give faces to the otherwise disembodied names that the judges recorded in their notebooks. For these women, gacaca provided a memorial to their loved ones and perhaps some sense of healing.

The government should be praised for taking an immense risk in establishing gacaca. Handing the key processes of justice and reconciliation to a wounded population is a huge gamble. Paradoxically, however, the government is at the same time the biggest stumbling block to gacaca. Its policies in other areas undermine the people’s confidence in an institution that depends on the community’s trust and active participation. The government’s failure to adequately prepare the population for the release of detainees allowed misinformation and fear to spread across the country. More crucially, the government has attempted to quash all forms of dissent by banning MDR—the lone, and generally moderate, official voice of the Hutu majority—only weeks after the release of detainees. Dissident human rights activists and journalists face constant persecution. These policies undermine the message emanating from gacaca that the population must be free to discuss openly all aspects of the post-genocide society.

Some survivors and members of the broader Hutu population told me that their fear of reprisals for speaking out at gacaca, both from the government and from their neighbors, kept them from attending hearings. Low turnout rates are a major problem for gacaca in many communities. Further exacerbating the situation, the government recently passed legislation banning the public use of the labels “Hutu” and “Tutsi.” Although it is a laudable attempt to protect against hate speech, this law also has the effect of stifling discussion of ethnicity and its role in inspiring hatred and violence. If Rwandans cannot freely discuss the ways in which leaders throughout the twentieth century manipulated ethnic labels to violent ends, they will fail to address the root causes of their conflicts, rendering reconciliation little more than a pipe dream. Eleven years after the genocide, Rwanda is at a crossroads. Against immense odds, the government has avoided mass violence, sometimes using heavy-handed tactics. Beneath the peaceful veneer, though, the old antagonisms fester, and the release of detainees has only magnified these tensions.

Boys in Rwanda.jpg
A group of boys in Kigali. This picture was taken in November 1993, just a few months before the genocide started. It’s anyone’s guess how many, if any, of them are still allive today.

Gacaca represents a risky but necessary circuit breaker to the fear, distrust, and violence of the past, a rare chance for the population to confront the legacies of the genocide. If gacaca fails, justice and reconciliation in Rwanda will take a severe battering. In many communities, where Hutu and Tutsi are already engaging with one another in new ways, it will probably succeed, and these successes should be celebrated. The celebrations must be muted, however, until communities across the whole country reap the same benefits. Upon leaving Rwanda, I reflected on what the detainee Karisa had told me as the bus of released prisoners headed out to the countryside. His expressions of quiet optimism but overriding uncertainty seemed to speak for an entire nation: “We have a new life now. Everything is new. But what will happen to us now? None of us can know.”

Author – Phil Clarke
Photography – Phil Clark and Lee Ridley
Copywrite – Dissent Magazine

Phil Clark is a Research Fellow at the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster. 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
The first part of this article can be seen here.

  11 comments for “Rwanda – When The Killers Go Home (pt2)

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *