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.”