Thursday, June 28, 2007

Tribunal Observation #1

I had the most wonderful evening with Bishop John Shumbusho and his family last night. A friend of my mother, Egide Karuranga, who is a professor at Virginia State University and who survived the Rwandan genocide by taking refuge in the Mille Colligne (Hotel Rwanda) with his family, put me in touch with Bishop John, who is a close friend of his from Rwanda.

I called Bishop John on my second day in Arusha and he graciously came to pick me up from the Naaz Hotel and take me to the tribunal. After checking my camera and passport at the gate, I was admitted inside and he showed me around to the three court chambers that were in session. Bishop John heads up the interpretation and translation division for the Kinyarwanda language. From what I gather, the court is conducted in three main languages--English, French, and Kinyarwanda. There are three judges in a given case, who sit at the center of the chamber wearing red, black, and white silk robes. The defendants and their army of UN-appointed attorneys sit to the left of the judges and the prosecution sits to the right. A few of the attorneys wear powdered wigs, which I think is hilarious. There is a line of transcribers up front and interpreters in small rooms on the flanks. The witness sits before the judges, front and center. All the proceedings are behind a thick, sound-proof wall of glass. The general public is permitted to sit in front of the glass and tune into the language of their choosing on a wireless headset.

After I was situated, Bishop John left after inviting me to dinner that evening. All three courts were in recess when I arrived, so I had to wait about 45 minutes. It was plenty of time to read up on the particular cases I would be observing. The tribunal has been in operation since 1997, but it has only passed verdict on 33 of the 70 persons on trial so far. Many of the individual cases take 5 or so years and 18 of the indicted persons are still at large--either dead or evading arrest. The tribunal is scheduled to wrap up by 2009 and those persons not yet apprehended will be transferred to national jurisdictions.

I'm not sure what I expected, but what I actually observed was a lot of technical stand-still and bureaucratic congestion. In the first court room, after a 15-minute break dragged into an hour, the court returned to an hour-and-a-half long debate about the French translation of a witnesses testimony. The defense thought the word choice of the translation between the minutes of 13:42 and 14:50 were unfairly biased against the defendant and wanted them stricken from the record...or something. Between yawns, I watched in amusement as the translator was brought before the court to explain every nuance of his interpretation.

This "Butare" trial has been going on since 2001. It is particularly interesting as the massacres in Butare started later than those in the rest of the country. According to the indictments, Butare served as a haven for refugees fleeing from the massacres in their own regions. Those seeking refuge in Butare thought they would be safe for several reasons. Historically, the substantial Tutsi minority population had lived in harmony with the local Hutu population. Also, the MRND party played a lesser role in Butare and as a result, the interahamwe organizational structure was less extensive and its membership was smaller. Further, the prefet of Butare was the only prefet of Tutsi descent in the country and he openly opposed the massacres in his prefecture. As Rwandas military and civilian leaders became aware of the situation, Prefet Habyalimana was removed from office and killed, and the massacres in Butare started shortly after the swearing in of the new prefet. The "Butare" case is a joint trial of six accused. All allegedly incited ethnic hatred and violence, trained and distributed weapons, set up roadblocks, abducted Tutsi refugees, and organized and ordered rapes and massacres in the Butare prefecture. Although nothing was unfolding before me in the case, it was a very chilling sensation to be sitting across the glass from such merciless men (and one woman) and to feel them returning my stare.

After waiting though the translation dispute in the hopes that the witness's testimony would resume, I was disappointed when the judge adjourned the session for a two-hour lunch break. I cannot imagine how much this tribunal is costing in legal fees!

Bishop John picked me up at 7:30 that evening from the Naaz Hotel. He is wealthy by any standard and had a lovely, gated home. Both he and his wife are ministers at a large Pentecostal church in Arusha that he showed me on our way over. They have five children and also host a woman named Claudine and her two adorable daughters. Another man they call 'uncle' but who is not related was present. I was very touched by the warmth and generosity they showed me. We sat down to an incredible spread of African dishes and enjoyed a lengthy meal with lively conversation and belly-aching bouts of laughter. I sat between Bishop John and his nineteen-year-old daughter who attends high school in the states. She is just starting her college search and I told her all about Washington and Lee and urged her to apply. I was very impressed with the language knowledge of the family. They are very well-educated and all can speak Kinyarwanda, English, French, and Swahili. Even the two-and-a-half year old was multi-lingual! After dinner, we took a lot of pictures together and Bishop John and his wife drove me home.

Meeting the Shumbushos further confirms my deep respect for African hospitality. It seems everyone I meet goes out of their way to accommodate me and has made quite an impression. Of course, this does not apply to the street where beggars and cat-callers are everywhere and VERY invasive. I met a young woman hiking on Kilimanjaro who had her backpack cut off her back in broad daylight in Arusha. A mob of children had approached her, each seizing a strap and slicing it off her. She was cut pretty badly in four places and had to get stitches. It was a very sobering story and as a woman travelling alone, I've learned to reign in my facial expressions and curtly say "no". Even so, I am followed pretty much everywhere I go by a hoard of begging children and venders.

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