02 January 2013 :
Preface to the 2012 Report by Sergio d'Elia, Secreatry of Hands off Cain
In the Land of a Thousand Hills, as Rwanda is known, the capital city of Kigali is representative of the entire country with its roller-coaster ride of streets that put engines and brakes to the test. The well-lit streets, the perfectly aligned rows of palm trees, the well-groomed gardens without a single blade of grass out of place, are a testimony to the civil and economic rebirth of a Nation that has become, in just a few years, one of the safest, cleanest and most orderly countries in all of Africa.
The greatest masterpiece of civility and efficiency was realized by its justice system, a true miracle in a Nation, which in 1994 had the contemporary version of the terrible story of Cain and Abel played out. The envy of the Hutu towards the Tutsi seemed to have the same origins of the Biblical story. Like Abel, the Tutsi are herdsmen, like Cain, the Hutu are field-workers.
Truth be told, the Hutu and Tutsi shared the same land peacefully for centuries until 1916, when Belgian colonizers arrived with their gallows and their prejudices. They found the Tutsi taller and more attractive than the Hutu and concluded, therefore, that they were also stronger and more intelligent. When they left the Rwanda a half a century later, they left a country divided by race and hatred. The hatred towards the keepers of livestock and power culminated in the massacres of the Tutsi in 1959, 1963 and 1992. The 1994 massacre seemed to be intended to be the final solution. In the face of the indifference and silence of the international community, in only a hundred days, a million Tutsi, one-fifth of Rwanda’s population, was murdered by the Hutu, the country’s majority. They dragged them away, house by house, and hunted them down for days and days in fields of beans, tea, coffee and sugarcane, and in the forests, where they lay in hiding. They killed them, raped them and mutilated them with machetes. They burned them alive in their homes, their schools and even in the churches where they sought refuge.
If such rightful critics of crime and punishment in other countries knew what Rwanda did after such genocide, they would cease with their false and offensive comparative rhetoric, wrongfully rattling off nonchalantly that their justice system was “worse than Rwanda’s”.
Rwanda’s miracle of justice is called Gacaca (pronounced gachacha), which literally means “lawn” or “grass”, a reference to the open spaces where people of a village would gather to resolve controversies both large and small.
The massacre of ‘94 did not spare judges, prosecutors and court clerks: the first group was reduced from 748 to 244, the second from 70 to 12 and the third from 631 to 137. Rwanda’s regular courts began to hear cases connected with the genocide in 1996; after five years they were only able to decide 6,000 of these cases. In the same period, the International Criminal Court, established by the U.N. in Arusha (Tanzania) to judge the crimes committed in Rwanda, heard only six cases. At that rate, it would have taken more than a hundred years to decide the fate of the 120,000 detainees that were still awaiting trial in 2001, incarcerated in awful prisons, where, since 1994, 10,000 detainees had died.
In 2002, in order to resolve the difficult situation of pending trials and overcrowded prisons, which threatened to undo Rwanda, the traditional system of justice and reconciliation of the Gacaca courts was renewed, reformed and codified. In 2001, more than 250,000 judges, mostly Hutu, were elected by their communities in approximately 11,000 jurisdictions. The first trial hearings of these courts were held in March of 2005 and, a year later, took place throughout the Nation. The typical scene is of nine judges seated at a long wooden table in front of the village’s inhabitants. Between them, at the centre of the lawn is the accused, who tells his version of the facts. Then survivors of the massacre, family members of the dead and eyewitnesses are given an opportunity to speak. In one week, the judges must decide what crimes the defendant is guilty of and the proper punishment. The accused has the right to appeal to a higher-level Gacaca and the possibility of judicial review.
On 18 June 2012, after ten years of activity, the Gacaca courts concluded their mission and the Minister of Justice, Tharcisse Karugarama, submitted the final report to the President of the Republic, Paul Kagame, in a solemn ceremony held at the Chamber of Deputies. Hands Off Cain was invited to the ceremony, having given President Kagame the award of “Abolitionist of the Year” in 2007. The fundamental choice, also in the sense that it is a choice that lays foundations of society, to build on the basis of courts and trials, was in itself a decision of primary legal value for the Gacaca system. The choice to exclude the death penalty was of extraordinary symbolic value, allowing Rwanda to break the perpetual cycle of hate and vengeance, moving beyond the aberrant logic of the machete and the gallows.
The outcomes of the Gacaca courts are unprecedented: in seven years they heard almost two million cases, the majority of which related to property damage, while 640,000 cases involved homicides and mutilations carried out during the genocide. The vast majority of the accused were absolved or condemned to alternative punishments rather than imprisonment and, in the end, even the United Nations recognized that the trials of the Gacaca were “far from being” a form of summary mob justice, as was initially declared by some legal “purists”.
“Gacaca had its imperfections. It received criticism both from within and outside Rwanda, yet the critics offered no viable alternatives that could deliver the results we needed,” said President Kagame at the closing ceremony of the Gacaca courts, whose activities – Kagame pointed out – differed from those of the International Criminal Court, which, in 18 years, heard about 90 cases at a cost of 1.7 billion dollars, while the Gacaca courts heard almost 2 million cases in ten years at a cost of a little more than 48 million dollars. The Gacaca system – continued the President – “challenged every Rwandan into introspection and soul-searching that resulted in truth-telling, national healing, reconciliation and justice.”
At the end of the Gacaca courts, there were 37,000 inmates in prison for crimes related to the genocide, and it was not rare to run into inmates awaiting judgement, identified by their pink uniforms, inmates who had received their final judgments in orange uniforms and those sentenced to public service in blue uniforms, all carrying out routine maintenance jobs on the streets of Kigali.
The archives of the Gacaca courts are an important heritage of humanity to be preserved and passed down, full of stories of immense pain, but also of renewed unity, trust and reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi. Such was the story told at the ceremony in Kigali by Alice Mukarurinda, a survivor of the genocide of ‘94, and her aggressor, Emmanuel Ndayisaba.
Eighteen years later, the memories of Alice are still vivid. On the 11 of April, Hutu soldiers and men of the Interahamwe (meaning “those who fight together”) militia, trained in fighting with machetes and guns, attacked the city of Nyamata setting fire to the great church, where the Tutsi sought refuge. Alice was initially able to flee along with her husband and nine-month old daughter Fanny, while her mother and two sisters burned alive along with five thousand others. First, they hid in the fields adjoining the Akagera River amongst the bean plants and banana trees. When the Hutu set fire to the field, they snuck away through the swamps. Her husband escaped in one direction and she in another. The Interahamwe found her on the 29 of April and tore her child from her arms, cutting the baby in half with one blow from a machete. Then they turned themselves on her. They cut one of her hands, struck a spear into her shoulder and hit her in the head with a bat filled with nails. “They left me, thinking I was dead.” After five days between life and death, she woke up in the middle of the swamp surrounded by corpses eaten by dogs. Her husband found her there. They threw him in a well, but he survived. The first thing she asked was “Where is my baby?”. He answered “We have to bury her.” But with the on-going massacres, there was no proper place to do so, and they simply covered her. To this day, Alice suffers over not having properly burying her, but she simply cannot return to the swamp.
Before the genocide, Emmanuel Ndayisaba was a metal worker and sang in the Adventist church chorus. He was recruited by Hutu soldiers and went with them to the houses where the Tutsi were in hiding. They surrounded them and Emmanuel entered armed with a machete. There were fourteen people huddled on the floor. He killed all of them, including a woman holding her child. He also killed a man he knew well, a neighbour. “I did it because I wanted a cow, I did not think I would ever have one in my whole life,” explained Emmanuel, evidence of the banality of evil. After killing the fourteen people, Emmanuel was fearless and, the day after, he went out once more to pursue Tutsi house by house. He found a man and killed him. The third day, in another location, he killed another mother and her child. The fourth day, he went to hunt Tutsi in the swamps of Nyiragongo and that is where he saw Alice for the first time. He cut her hand and scarred her face. Alice was the last person he attacked with a machete, and then Emmanuel stopped killing and maiming. “I was tortured by the screams and the faces of the people I massacred.” Some of them had even watched him as he sang in the Adventist church choir once upon a time. “How could I have killed the same people that I once sang for?”
After the Rwandan Patriotic Front ended the genocide, forming a new government, Emmanuel went before a judge in 1996 and confessed his crimes. He was put in prison, along with his father, in a cell where the inmates were piled on top of each other like bags of beans. Emmanuel got out after seven years because he confessed. His father, who chose not to collaborate with judges, died in prison from disease.
The second time that Emmanuel saw Alice was in 2003, when he joined an association called Ukuri Kuganze (The Truth First), comprised of survivors and perpetrators of the genocide. Together, the group bought a piece of land and farmed it, raising livestock and building houses for orphans of the genocide. Alice did not remember his face. In contrast, Emmanuel had the face of Alice etched into his mind, but he had no idea how to approach her. “I was afraid, every time our eyes met, I wanted to run away.”
One day, Emmanuel brought millet beer and sweet potatoes to the camp. He cooked the potatoes on the grill and gave the biggest one to Alice. He gathered up his courage and took her aside, asking her if he could talk with her. “I have a big problem,” he said repeatedly without saying what it was. At first, Alice thought that he was sick or was in trouble and needed help. But after a long time, he got on his knees and begged her forgiveness. “What should I forgive you for?” asked Alice, but he went on saying, “Please forgive me, please forgive me.” Finally, he broke down in tears and told the truth, “I was the one who cut your hand and your face,” and he told exactly where and when. Alice left him there on his knees and ran away. After wandering aimlessly for a long time, she went back home and told her family what had happened. At first, her husband reproached her because she had chosen to join such an association, along with murderers. But then he reminded her that she had promised God that she would pardon her aggressors if she ever met them. “Now you’ve found one...why are you hesitating?” Alice reflected and prayed for a month, and then she went back to work, found Emmanuel and said, “I forgive you... God will forgive you, if He wants.” When Emmanuel was brought before the Gacaca courts, Alice did all she could to ensure that he did not receive a harsh sentence.
Alice and Emmanuel are great friends now. At the closing ceremony of the Gacaca courts, they never left each other’s side. They arrived together, they sat together, they ate together and they left together.
The Gacaca courts were not only the way of carrying out justice in a reasonable time for the victims of the infinite violence; these courts were also the proof – as President Kagame said – of the “liberating value of truth,” upon which Rwanda is building its future, in the Land of a Thousand Hills, inhabited not by Tutsi and Hutu, but only by Rwandans.