Friday, March 23, 2007

Rwanda - Gacaca

Rwanda's community level justice system dubbed Gacaca is designed to deliver justice to tens of thousands of persons implicated in the genocide of 1994. Over a hundred Gacaca courts are obligated to hear the "less severe" cases of persons who may not have killed, but who were otherwise involved in the slaughters. Initially, part of the idea of Gacaca was to relieve the regular court system of the burden of dealing with tens of thousands of genocide cases, as well as to reduce the number of people imprisoned. The regular courts would deal with about 10,000 category 1 individuals and Gacaca courts with about 75,000 other cases. But beware of what you wish for. Rather than reduce the number of cases, opening the Gacaca process to community accusations has dramatically increased the number of cases. Currently more than 800,000 cases are registered and the number of prisoners has rebounded.

Rwandan authorities are just beginning to think about how to resolve this intense, and unexpected, overload. Clearly mechanisms must be found to winnow down the numbers, but key to Gacaca justice - in principle - is local rather than central control. At the current scale Gacaca has serious economic, social and political implications. Economic because so many people are tied up in judicial proceedings and unable to farm or work or otherwise get on with their lives. Furthermore at the 800,000 level about one of every five adults is charged. A huge prison population costs money. Socially constant recrimination and airing of wounds creates new animosities and thus hinders reconciliation. Additionally, abuses of Gacaca to settle non-genocide scores such as land disputes are being documented. Politically Gacaca stings the Hutu majority that views it as Tutsi mandated retribution and not even handed justice. Continuation of such ethnically charged emotion does not bode well for long term political stability.

What are the solutions? First, Gacaca is not going away. Some new legislation will probably be crafted to reduce the numbers of accused, perhaps via a statue of limitations for certain offenses, revised sentencing guidelines or more just plain clemency. Additionally, there will be internal regulations that contribute to dismissal of many cases. Beyond that Rwanda is going to have to find a way to grapple with the political implications. Clearly justice must be delivered, but the sense of political victimization ought to be mitigated.

Following is a story I wrote about Gacaca.

Best Served Cold

Under a bright blue sky the light breeze roiled the stalks of grass on the sun dappled hill. The idyllic scene, however, was the setting for a long running sequence of nasty, emotional, heart wrenching dramas that played out every few days. Five serious citizens, three men, two women sat behind a table arraigned under several massive eucalyptus trees. A crowd of several hundred spectators splayed out on school benches, their own chairs or on the ground around them. Gacaca court was in session.

A free lance stringer, I had come to Rwanda some ten years after its terrible genocide to see for myself – and to get a good story – of how justice was being delivered. My interpreter Emile explained that these community courts were designed to handle the less severe cases. “Less severe?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “Not so many murderers, but those who have confessed and those who supported or profited from genocide in other ways.”

Emile was from this region fifty miles southwest of the capital and had chosen this hillside to visit because he said the case against Evariste Nahimana was odd. He was both a killer and a savior. It promised to be an intense discussion.

I felt like a voyeur intruding upon this airing of local passions. What right did I, a foreigner, have to listen and to judge events that were unfathomable? Yet, I stayed screwed to my seat as the dialogue began.

With a nod from the presiding elder the defendant was ushered to a seat before the table. He was a haggard man, of indeterminate middle age, skinny with a gaunt face and sunken eyes. I supposed that ten years of prison would age a man. He was dressed conventionally in trousers and a fraying yellow shirt. Appropriately deferential to the court and the community, he sat patiently as instructed. The president read the committal document from the Ministry of Justice as well as the brief confession Nahimana signed in prison. Next he turned to an old woman – not one of the court members - who being bent at the waist from years of agricultural toil, slowly rose. She identified Nahimana and recited his linage on the hillside. Without doubt this court had jurisdiction.

Emile gave me the gist of the confession. Nahimana had joined the killing bands late, only because he was coerced to do so by agents of the burgomaster. He was assigned to help hunt down Tutsis who had fled from their homesteads and hidden in the papyrus swamps. He said he did participate in searches and was compelled by his companions to chop two boys – teenagers he did not know - found that first day. Thus bloodied, Evariste was included in the evening feast of roasted goat meat – an animal seized and slaughtered by other marauders that day. Thereafter, Nahimana confessed, he went to do the ‘work’ required of him by his band. He witnessed several more killings, but stated he did no more chopping himself. He added that he went with heavy heart and thrashed about in the swamps without truly searching. Once, however, he spotted two women, Agnes and Felicia, hiding, cringing in fear with only their mouths poked above the murky water. He motioned to them not to fear and directed nearby hunters to move along.

The task before the Gacaca court was to hear testimony about Nahimana in order to prove or disprove his statement.

A survivor spoke, reciting the known facts that several hundred Tutsi from this hillside had been massacred. He called their family names. Some died when the interahamwe attacked the mission church nearby, others in their homes, more at roadblocks mounted by the burgomaster’s militia, and still more were chopped or bludgeoned to death after being dragged from the swamps. While the leaders were well known, few lived to identify the killers. Outraged, the victim shook his finger at the assembly stating, “We demand justice. End impunity. Don’t let those who killed and their families conspire to silence.” He concluded that Evariste was a self-confessed killer, his allegation of mercy probably invented, and that he deserved his fate.

A woman, a neighbor of Nahimana’s, stated her conviction that Evariste was fundamentally a good man from a known family. Sadly, like many in the commune, he had succumbed to the madness of the moment. She believed his reluctance to participate in events and his sparing of the Tutsi women.

A Gacaca judge asked if Agnes or Felicia survived? After some murmuring, someone responded that she had heard that Agnes did live, but that she was in Kigali and had never returned to the colline. The judge queried if anyone could substantiate the delivery of mercy to the two women. No one responded.

A man who lived near the swamp acknowledged that he had seen Evariste among the band that prowled the edges of the swamp and probed its depths. He said he was told by others from the band that Evariste chopped the two boys. He added that their bodies probably still lay un-recovered, sunken into the dark vegetation-choked water.

With little else to be said, the judges deliberated among themselves. After a half hour or so, the president delivered their verdict. Nahimana’s act of mercy could not be substantiated, but his act of murder was affirmed. He was to be returned to prison to serve another five years.

On the drive back to Kigali, Emile expressed satisfaction with the verdict. He confided that if not for my presence; that is, a white foreigner critically observing the proceedings, Nahimana would probably have gotten off easier. He added that Evariste’s act of mercy had really occurred. His cousin Agnes had confirmed it to him. “But,” I remonstrated, “you made no acknowledgement. You should have spoken out.”

“No,” Emile replied, “the two he killed were my brothers.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Kenya - Moon Rocket

I see it now in my mind’s eye – from my house in Songhor - wind blown tufts of light green sugar cane surging like a great sea on Kenya’s Kanu Plains to wash gently against the thousand foot heights of the Nandi Escarpment. Some thirty miles distant, Lake Victoria Nyanza glimmered in the late afternoon sun. The image is clear, yet complicated by the rush of other images, faces, smells, sounds - by the sheer exuberance of memories that so indelibly marked this time in my life.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central Nyanza charged with supervising the construction of a rural water system designed to pipe potable water to 1200 farms on three government sponsored Settlement Sugar Schemes. I worked most closely with a group of eight men whom I trained in the skilled work of the project. When resting we kibitzed and talked. They had many questions.

Maurice almost always began. With a twinkle in his eye, he probed for the amazing differences he reckoned inherent between whites and blacks. He questioned me incessantly about why I had come to Kenya. I’m not sure he ever really understood my response. Maybe, presuming that I myself knew the answer, I couldn’t articulate it well. Altruism was beyond Maurice’s comprehension, but a thirst for adventure seemed to be a satisfactory motive. Another exchange went like this.

“Robert,” Maurice asked, “Is it true that Mzungus (Europeans) eat frogs?”

I pondered. “Yes,” I replied. “Some Mzungus eat frogs, but only the legs. When fried up they taste a bit like chicken.”

Maurice looked skeptical. “Really,” he frowned. “Frogs.” He concluded, “Mzungus are very weird.”

Inspired, I noted, “You know, Europeans think that eating termites is very strange.”

Maurice absorbed this information, then shot back with a surprised query. “Why?” he asked, “termites are good.”

A more telling exchange occurred in July 1969. Americans had just landed on the moon. The guys were very interested in this news - more intently than I would have expected.

“So Robert,” Maurice began, “Is it true that Americans have landed on the moon?”

“Yes,” I responded pointing to the wisp of a moon still visible in the morning sky. “They are up there now.”

This confirmation engendered discussion of rocket ships and airplanes, which demonstrated these poorly schooled rural men’s lack of appreciation for the science and the technological accomplishment of the moon trip. Francis who was more cynical than his colleagues observed, “If Americans can build airplanes then certainly they can build a rocket.” He was puzzled however, by the fact that it had taken so long to get to the moon. “After all,” he noted pointing again to the moon, “You can see it right there!” This again raised the question as to whether the landing had really happened.

Ligolo, older, taller and stronger with his front teeth knocked out in the traditional Luo style, and who rarely participated in these exchanges, cleared his throat. The men craned anxiously in his direction when he asked the crucial question. “So Robert,” he paused, “What color is God?”

I was stunned. I had no context for the question. Yet obviously it lay at the heart of their concern. James, the most worldly of the crew who sported sunglasses and who shed his family name Oyier in favor of Bondi in honor of agent 007, saw my consternation and came to my aid.

“Robert,” he said, “We Luo people believe that God takes several forms and that he lives, at times at least, on the moon. The issue goes to the nature of God. If God is good, he is black like Africans. However, if he is evil, he is red.” James continued, “Ligolo’s question is fair. If Americans have gone to the moon like you say, they must have seen God. So, what color is he?”

I admitted it was a good question, and with further discussion I learned more about Luo beliefs, but I had no answer. However, we agreed to look for the answer. I brought international editions of Time and Newsweek back from Kisumu the next week and we scrutinized the stories and pictures for evidence, but – of course – found none.

I realized afterwards that this was one of those quintessential moments when each of my friends took one more step into the modern world and away from tribal traditions. The trappings of old beliefs diminished against the onslaught of new reality.

Before too long the issue of God on the moon faded away. Soon Luo owned and operated sugar trucks and buses, perhaps subconsciously reflecting this religious heritage, soon started bearing names like “Moon Rocket” or “Apollo 12.”

In the years since, I have subsequently reflected with some sadness how man’s crowning technological achievement of the 20th Century unintentionally undermined beliefs that had sustained Luo people for generations.