Rwanda heals wounds of genocide

Survivors of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and relatives of those jailed for their alleged role in the massacres hope that this week’s revival of traditional village courts will help ease the pain that lingers on eight years later.

Under the gacaca (pronounced “gachacha”) system that President Paul Kagame will inaugurate on Tuesday, more than a quarter of a million newly trained judges in 11 000 jurisdictions will hear evidence on the details of the genocide, in which up to a million people were killed over 100 days in 1994, while juries will try the cases of more than 100 000 currently behind bars for their alleged participation.

“We hope the gacacas will help throw light on the truth of the genocide and reconcile the people of Rwanda,” Danicelle Mukandoli, president of the Genocide Widows’ Association, told journalists.

“There are already encouraging signs that the gacaca system will succeed in its twin aims of delivering justice and repairing the social fabric of Rwanda,” she said.

“In the prisons, more and more detainees are confessing and asking forgiveness for their crimes,” she added.

Those detained on charges related to the genocide, especially those who have confessed, also welcome gacaca, because it offers them the possibility of winning their release, according to one human rights worker.

But others fear for their safety once they return to their villages. With gacaca based on public testimony being aired in the very places where killings occurred, some survivors are nervous. Although many people from Rwanda’s Hutu majority were killed, the genocide was an attempt to wipe out the minority Tutsis, and many survivors who lost all their relatives and now live alone surrounded by Tutsis are nervous about speaking out.

“On this hill, there are mostly just Hutus left.
All my brothers were massacred. Who will give me justice? What weight can a single Tutsi judge exert when most judges will be Hutus?” asked one survivor.

For many of the survivors, most of whom live in poverty, justice without compensation does not count as justice. No financial compensation has been paid since the genocide, although the government is currently drafting a law to set up an indemnity fund.

Other survivors are unhappy that gacaca might result in many of those involved in the genocide walking free. “They keep going on about community service as an alternative to imprisonment. So we will let them go home to their families, grant them amnesty,” complained an elderly woman who lost her husband and seven children in the genocide.

“That’s a travesty,” she said. Under gacaca, suspects who confess are liable to a reduction of their sentences, while jail terms can be cut by half if convicts agree to do community service.

A suspect who admits to killing one or two people, for example, and who admits to his crimes, can go home to do community service after six years in jail.

Since many people have already spent eight years behind bars on remand, many prisoners found guilty of murder will be freed after their gacaca trials.

“I am looking forward to the start of gacaca, which is the only way my jailed father will see his relatives again,” said a young college student in the capital, who insisted her father was innocent. - Sapa-AFP

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