- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

KIGALI, Rwanda — This country’s tradition-based attempt to bring closure to those who survived the ethnic massacres that killed upwards of 800,000 Rwandans from April through July 1994 has reached a key point. No longer a tentative experiment, the traditional courts — known as gacacas — will soon involve the entire country, and the magnitude of the task has become apparent.The Rwandan government decided about four years ago to revive gacacas and elected judges in 2001 to adjudicate cases associated with the 1994 genocide, in which majority Hutus slaughtered many of the minority Tutsis as well as some Hutus who wouldn’t join in the bloodletting.Since precolonial times, such village-level courts have dealt with minor crimes, such as livestock theft, and other local matters. Now, people like Evanice Mukamusoni preside over gacaca hearings in which those accused of participating in the genocide will be judged by their neighbors, because the formal court system can’t handle the enormous number of cases.With a disciplinarian’s scowl, Mrs. Mukamusoni, a Tutsi who lost her husband in the genocide, lectured her neighbors at a recent gacaca about their moral and legal obligation to tell the truth.”There is a difference between seeing and doing,” Mrs. Mukamusoni, 39, told listeners, assuring them that people will not be accused of crimes they only observed. “The truth is what matters.”The crowd, about 100 people on wooden benches, or sitting on the ground, stayed quiet. People stared into the sky and nursed babies or chatted quietly, but offered no information about the killings that took place nine years ago in their community.Taking a sterner tack, Mrs. Mukamusoni read to the crowd from the Rwandan penal code, explaining that it punishes the uncooperative.Then an older man with salt-and-pepper hair jumped to his feet and shook his finger furiously at the crowd while telling of a nearby mass grave containing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bodies.”If you know the truth, you have to say it,” shouted John Paul Gasore, 55, another Tutsi.Frustrated, Mrs. Mukamusoni consulted the other judges and then adjourned the meeting. Moments later, the heavens opened up and poured rain on the participants as they fled to shelter.”As gacaca was constructed, it is very good,” she said after the meeting broke up. “But the people who don’t give information, they are the ones who make gacaca bad.”Rwandans are sorting through crimes associated with the genocide in gacaca courts in a small portion of the country’s 9,170 cells — administrative units that include as few as 200 people. As early as next month, the other cells will join them as they draw up lists of the accused.Gacaca courts will handle trials for charges ranging from theft of a Tutsi’s cow to homicide. Genocide ringleaders and those accused of sex crimes will go to modern courtrooms.Though many courts appear to be moving forward, others, like Mrs. Mukamusoni’s, are finding that justice demands far more time and effort than the crime, and that not every problem can be traced to noncooperation.In October 2001, Rwanda, which has 8 million people, elected 258,208 judges to run the gacaca courts. To show the magnitude of the undertaking: If the United States took on a proportionate exercise, it would have to elect about 7.6 million judges to get the job done.In Rwanda, one of the poorest countries on earth, the need for justice does not obviate the fact that most of its people are subsistence farmers who tend their corn, bean, banana and manioc fields each day. Thus, absenteeism plagues the system.”However often you tell people they have to attend, they still say they have to eat,” said Geraldine Umugwaneza, a senior counselor in the high court office that oversees gacacas.A political bump in the road for gacacas came at the beginning of the year, when President Paul Kagame announced that 40,000 confessed genocide participants — most of them elderly, very young or who have already served time commensurate to their crimes — would be provisionally released.One motive was financial: Keeping 100,000 people locked up, as Rwanda has since 1994, is a drain on resources. Another reason, observers say, was political. Mr. Kagame, a Tutsi, faces Rwanda’s first post-genocide election later this year, and the prisoners have families who will vote.Genocide survivors — who, like Mrs. Mukamusoni, are the most active gacaca participants — criticized the prisoner release.”How do you expect gacaca to move on smoothly if all these people are let free?” Francois Xavier Ngarambe, secretary-general of Ibuka, a survivors’ organization, asked after the announcement. “They will intimidate survivors into silence.”However, gacaca supporters also hope that other prisoners, eager to get out, will provide valuable information about how the genocide unfolded in individual communities. If residents won’t talk, the prisoners will, suggested Miss Umugwaneza, the high court counselor.Tutsi survivors are not the only ones with complaints.As the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebel movement commanded by Mr. Kagame in 1994, halted the genocide when it invaded the country, its soldiers killed thousands of Hutus who had no part in the genocide, human rights groups say. Members of these victims’ families frequently highlight these slayings in gacaca proceedings.Rwandan officials, however, say that gacaca courts will try only cases related to the genocide against the Tutsis, with normal courts handling other charges.Human rights activists charge that the government has been loath to prosecute former Tutsi rebels, who now form the backbone of the Rwandan army.”The government doesn’t want to hear about other crimes, and that hurts gacaca’s credibility,” said Klaas De Jonge, director of Penal Reform International, a group that is monitoring the system’s progress.Even so, gacacas meet every day in Rwanda. Some make progress and dispose of cases, while others experience setbacks and advance haltingly.Down the road from Mrs. Mukamusoni, Celestin Murangira, 48, a farmer, leads a court that is deep into its work, despite having started in November, the same time as Mrs. Mukamusoni’s gacaca. Prisoners who committed crimes in his area are already writing letters confessing their crimes and asking for forgiveness.”People are participating sufficiently,” Mr. Murangira said. “There’s no problem.”In Mrs. Mukamusoni’s gacaca, things loosened up at the next week’s meeting.Several people admitted that they, too, had seen a 75-foot-deep mass grave filled with bodies. Three of the slain people were identified. One person said he saw another hole with bodies.But one man, who lived a stone’s throw away from the first pit, insisted that he had seen nothing, and stared at the ground. Survivors made jeering comments, and after two hours, the session ended.”I try to be strong,” Mrs. Mukamusoni said. “But sometimes, the people who refuse to participate are stronger.”

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