On August 1st, I attended a Gacaca traditional court hearing—an experience few foreigners get to have because the application process for a visitor’s pass is lengthy and purposefully discouraging. One of the lessons I learned early on in Africa is that personal connections are everything. Incidentally, the friendly pastor who had accompanied us to the community organization project in Mumeya the previous day, was also the president of gacaca in the Eastern sector of Rwanda close to Rusumo. So I bypassed the bureaucratic humdig and asked the pastor point-blank if I could attend gacaca with him the following day. To my delight, he said yes, and we arranged to meet at 7:45 a.m. at km marker 113 where he would take me up the dirt road to Rukira on his motorcycle. I needed a translator, and Maria kindly agreed to accompany me.
We woke at 6:30, took our breakfast of coffee and eggs, and walked down the road to the taxi stand. The taxi to Rusumo had just left, so we climbed in the next one and began the agonizing wait until the taxi was completely full (20 people) before we could depart. Because the pastor was doing me a special favor, I felt a strong need to be punctual, but I’ve learned that life in Africa rarely follows schedule and sure enough, we didn’t pull out of Kibungo until 8:20. The pastor and his friend were waiting patiently for us at the turn-off and after profuse and heart-felt apologies, we jumped on the backs of their motorcycles and vroomed up the mountain side.
I should have predicted that we would first go to his home and take African tea and food together. We pulled over at a compound where I soon found my right arm grasped enthusiastically by the pastor’s wife in the traditional Rwandan greeting, my head bowed in prayer, and my plate heaped with steaming ibitoki and beans. That we’d purposefully eaten enough breakfast to tide us over till dinner was irrelevant, and Maria and I exchanged sympathetic smiles as we dutifully praised the meal and accepted second helpings. The pastor’s house was designed similarly to many Rwandan households I’ve been received in and as we sat sharing stories and sipping tea, the likenesses of President Kagame and the pastor’s first-born son shared in our merry-making from their positions on the walls of the sitting room. After eating, we climbed back on the bikes and motored up to the gacaca hearings.
Gacaca is a weekly traditional court that is held in every district in the country and all Rwandans over the age of 19 are encouraged to attend. While the masterminds and planners of the genocide are tried in long, expensive hearings at the UN tribunal in Arusha, the lay people who carried out the killing orders are given the chance to give a full disclosure of their actions and seek forgiveness in gacaca courts that are based upon the African principle of ubunto or humanity. Following the genocide, Rwanda’s legal system was in shambles and its prisons were horribly overcrowded. With such an urgent need to foster peace and reconciliation, these traditional courts were set up and respected community members were elected and trained to serve as functional judges. Once a week, shops close, work stops, and for a few tumultuous hours, Rwandans come together to seek truth and forgiveness regarding their painful past.
A few hundred people were gathered at the site when we arrived, and I felt a little like Moses as the sea of colorful kitenge parted before me. Five courts were being held—two dealing with reparations to the families of victims and three concerning accused killers. All but one of the courts were held in the fields—judges seated on wooden benches under the shade of a tree while the accused stood before them and spectators sat in the grass behind. Maria and I watched as the line of judges passed by—their blue, green, and yellow sashes labeling them as leaders, respected ones. The pastor invited us to observe the indoor court were he presided. As we climbed through the window into a cement room with no proper floor, he apologized, explaining that the builder had walked out mid-construction and had taken the door keys with him. Maria and I sat on a low bench against the wall as others climbed in. An older woman in a green kitenge greeted us respectfully and sat down beside me. Though the bench was not yet full, she sat pressed against my side. Most spectators remained outside—heads darkening the pane-less windows.
After the six judges had entered the room, the pastor reminded the crowd of the gacaca rules (for instance, anyone may ask a question provided that they are respectful and request permission). He then led us in a prayer and a moment of silence for the victims of the genocide. Next, a female judge read out the charges of the accused and I was shocked when the woman next to me in the green kitenge rose and joined two other male prisoners standing before the judges.
For three hours, the judges heard testimony and called witnesses. Every prisoner is given three chances in gacaca court. For two of the accused, it was their second time on trial, and for one, it was his third and final time. The three cases were not linked, and all had requested appeals for one reason or another. The two men had been members of killing squads during the genocide and had been given a fifteen year jail sentence. They both had previously denied all charges but one had requested an appeal in order to confess. He was being charged with killing two older women, and I watched as an ancient man was carried through the window. As black as night with a face like the bark of a tree, he was the brother to one of the deceased. His frail voice cracked with age as he spoke—explaining that he couldn’t rest peacefully until he knew who had killed his younger sister and how she had died. His nephew, the son of the woman was also present. The prisoner described how the two women had been found hiding in a latrine by members of his squad. They were brought before him and he had killed them with a machete. As Maria whispered translations, I watched the sad eyes of the brother and son as they listened. Their stoic composure in the presence of the killer amazed me.
I’ve read much about the African principal of ubuntu, but I never really understood the true meaning or power of the word from scholarly journals or articles. By observing the people of Rukira, I finally began to comprehend that incredible African quality of human compassion and understanding one’s self in terms of one’s relationships with others. The victims were actually listening to the explanations of the accused. Outside on breaks, people from the community brought food to the prisoners—greeting them with heart-felt though solemn arm grasps. Because the prisoner had not given a full confession at his first trial, gacaca rules stated that his sentence could not be reduced, yet he still came forward to confess to his actions and disclose what happened to the two women.
Though I was moved by the actions of the people, I felt a heightened frustration with the simplicity of the court proceedings. While a summer’s internship at a Charlottesville law firm left me feeling that the American legal system was robotic and devoid of humanity, I felt that precisely the opposite was the fault of the gacaca proceedings. Mere hearsay became evidence, numerous witnesses gave conflicting testimony and there was no capacity to check into the legitimacy of their claims. Witnesses mingled freely with each other and the spectators—perhaps collaborating stories. Although the judges and the spectators were both permitted to ask questions of the witnesses, no one seemed to be pursuing the obvious lines of questioning. The woman in green had been accused of revealing the hiding place of a group of tutsi children. She was denying the accusation and insisting that she had actually helped to save four of them from the killers. The judges listened to her and her daughter’s testimony of how she had hidden the children under her kitenge when the killers entered her compound but they never questioned how this had been accomplished. A little exasperated, I stood up and addressed the court—asking if the woman could demonstrate how she had managed to hide four children under her skirt. The woman described how she, her two daughters, and the four children had been sitting outside of her house within the walls of the compound when the killing squad came. They had shoved the children behind them and spread their kitenge on top. I asked how she thought the killers hadn’t observed the children, and she said that she surely thought they would all be killed and it was an act of God.
The gacaca proceedings were a complete novelty to me—both fascinating and positively perplexing. They system had obvious flaws in my eyes, but I came away with the impression that if the Rwandan people are indeed as resilient and compassionate as I believe them to be, then they will continue to heal, to forgive, and to live along-side each other in relative harmony.
By the time Maria and I returned to Kibungo, it was getting dark. The local youth center (next-door to LWF) was hosting an AIDS awareness evening and we were lured into joining the festivities by the sight and sound of African music videos being projected onto a huge screen. We spread our kitenge on the grass and watched a pack of eight year old boys freestyle dance to the music—their twig-like limbs twirling and stomping in a mix of African styles and Michael Jackson moves. Like my experience leaving the genocide museum in Kigali many weeks before, I felt refreshed by the carefree presence of the children. How long would they remain as such, I wondered? Would their eyes learn to stare in the persistent, unreadable manner of their elders or would they keep dancing throughout life? History has such a powerful tie to the future. What are these children being taught by their families about Rwanda’s history? Will they grow up to embrace the ubuntu philosophy or will they become more fiercely militant than the previous generation about the injustices of their past—both tutsi and hutu?