Gacaca courts, or “community justice,” are Rwanda’s way of dealing with and prosecuting genocide crimes humanely. Emily Holland, in-house producer for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), recently traveled to Rwanda with co-chairman of the IRC Overseers and NBC newsman Tom Brokaw. There, they spoke with 20 Rwandan citizens about the effectiveness of gacaca courts. Among those participating were imprisoned perpetrators of the genocide and genocide survivors—many of whom knew each other when the horrors occurred but had not met again until that point.
Training my camera on Mukagatira, a 43-year-old Hutu mother of three imprisoned for her role in Rwanda’s genocide, I took a deep breath, grateful I wasn’t asking the questions.
“Do you know these survivors personally?” Tom Brokaw asked.
“Yes, we were neighbors,” she responded. “We knew each other.”
“What do you want to say to them?”
“I hope that they have an understanding and an enduring attitude. What happened happened, but this should not be the end of life.”
“Some people worry that genocide could happen again,” Tom said. “Do you believe that’s possible?”
Mukagatira hesitated: “Given what happened, I hope it never does.”
It had been eight years since I’d worked in Rwanda, on a summer fellowship to monitor genocide orphans placed in foster homes and help jump-start the country’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. Nineteen years old and chasing concepts I barely understood—humanistic mediation, truth commissions—I knew enough to know that conversations between perpetrators and survivors of the genocide weren’t happening.
“Dialogue will never work,” I remember a cabdriver laughing harshly. “The dead never die. I will tell my son and he will tell his and together we will make sure the genocide is not forgotten.”
I wasn’t prepared to disagree. Genocide’s aftermath—broken families, bulletin boards of orphaned children’s photographs, chain gangs of prisoners marched down blasted roads—was daunting. Worst of all: grisly memorials like Nyamata Church, site of one of the ghastliest massacres in Rwandan history.
Nyamata Church is a 19th-century bush chapel founded by Dutch settlers. The Tutsi fled there in ‘94 in hopes they’d escape the Hutu Interhamwe. “They had done so before and been protected,” my boss told me. “They had no reason to think it wouldn’t work again.”
In the space of five days 2,500 Tutsi were killed. Bludgeoned to death as their own priest looked on—survivors say the priest led the killers to the church himself … consigned his own parishioners to their doom.
We visited Nyamata on my first day. “Brace yourself,” my boss said as we prepared to enter. I rested my hand on the doorframe, being careful not to touch the bullets lodged there nor the dried blood. “Welcome to Nyamata” is the last thing I remember hearing as I walked in a trance past pews heaped high with human skulls and bones.
“What specific crimes were you charged with?” Tom asked Mukagatira.
“What do you think would be justice for your crimes?”
“I feel I’m not guilty. I think I should receive justice for my crimes.”
“Do you understand that survivors and their families might have a different understanding of justice than you have?” Tom asked.
Mukagatira stood clutching her elbows, barely looking up, and spoke so softly that although I was wearing sensitive headphones, I strained to hear her. It was a beautiful setting—birds were singing, sunlight streamed through a covering of pine trees overhead—but Mukagatira seemed to see none of it. Twelve years behind bars had obviously taken their toll. A virtual prison now encased her.
“Yes, I think so,” she swallowed.
Kibuye offers its own harrowing genocide memorial: a place called Bisesero. Tom and I ascended its long, steep staircase, which culminates in a massive burial site overlooking a sweeping vista. At the bottom is a shed filled wall to wall with tables of bones. Thirty thousand Rwandans perished there. The air inside is motionless.
I wondered if Mukagatira had ever seen it. Or if it was the present, not the past, that haunted her, as was the case with our next interviewee, Jean-Baptiste. He’s a former primary-school teacher, a father of three, and a genocide perpetrator. His family had been forced to relocate for fear they’d be killed in revenge.
“You’ve been in prison for 12 years,” Tom said. “You’ve had a great deal of time to think about what has happened. Have you been able to explain your actions to yourself?”
“As prisoners, we take certain moments to convene and try to view what we did as a way of confessing and also see how this should never happen again,” Jean-Baptiste responded.
“Do you think Rwanda can move forward as one country without the divisions that brought on the days of darkness?” Tom asked.
“Yes, I believe that is possible so long as people come together. Rwanda is in a position to go forward.”
From a development standpoint, Rwanda’s picture is certainly encouraging. I didn’t recognize Kigali’s manicured lawns. Tall buildings stand where I remember street children’s flimsy card tables. A stock exchange will soon open. Construction of another international airport is being considered.
Germany, Belgium, and China are buying Rwandan products at a brisk pace and American influence is certainly evident. Starbucks sells Rwandan “Blue Bourbon” coffee in its U.S. outlets, and Rwanda’s Ministry of Defense is known affectionately as “the Pentagon.”
“The little nation that could,” New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof called it recently and noted that Rwanda “is clean, safe, and enjoying economic growth more than twice as fast as the United States or Europe.”
I assume this excitement is largely lost on people like Mukagatira and Jean-Baptiste. I doubt it even reaches Uwamahora, 38, mother of four, genocide survivor, and the last person we interviewed that day:
“Have you met with genocidaires before?” Tom asked.
“This is my first time,” said Uwamahora in a hushed voice.
“What do you want them to say to you?”
“I hope that they feel sorry and confess to what they did.”
“Tell me what happened to your family.”
“I am the only survivor in my family. Ninety-two people in my family were killed.”
Uwamahora recognized some of the prisoners there that day. Asked if it was difficult to see them, she answered that she tried to be peaceful in her heart and that if any of the prisoners came to her and apologized, she would definitely forgive them.
Did she worry that genocide could happen again? Yes, she did sometimes. Did she think the country could move forward as one Rwanda without the rivalries that caused the past? She was hopeful.
Tom thanked Uwamahora. I picked up my tripod, and we proceeded toward a tent where she, Mukagatira, Jean-Baptiste, and 43 other Rwandans would continue to discuss what happened 12 years ago.
Sitting just outside the tent’s aperture, I listened to the melodic sound of Kinyarwanda being spoken. I barely remembered any words but didn’t need to: the body language of grief, incredulity, and weariness transcends them.
Rwanda now isn’t the Rwanda the West thought it knew when I first visited. World leaders then had glibly applied the 21st century’s most controversial geopolitical term to the mass killing, but it would be years before filmmakers captured a hotel-manager-turned-hero’s story and taught the world what genocide actually meant.
A sort of filmmaker myself these days, I thought of this while listening to the people for whom genocide isn’t a term or a movie or even a memory. It’s the nightmare that continues to define their lives.
I left the tent and spent my last few minutes at the gacaca ceremony gathering “establishing shots”: the mountains, the light, the trees. People often revert to sensory cues in their struggle to describe the emotions of an experience, but these cues can also serve to consecrate it. The light that filtered through those trees was muted, intimate, and—though I’m hesitant to use this word when describing experiences in Africa (it has complicated connotations)—holy.
I felt buoyed by what was happening in Rwanda: both the hard work that was being done by its people and the encouraging signs that public opinion wouldn’t let another Rwanda happen.
For me, returning to Rwanda was certainly a rite of passage. Like taking a pencil to a long-abandoned sketch. I had never properly emoted about Rwanda, communicating only the vaguely positive (and generally unrepresentative) experiences I’d had. For who back home could understand coming face to face with something like Nyamata or Bisesero?
But here I was: back and able to contextualize Rwanda and the genocide’s role in my life.
And, more importantly, in theirs.
Labels like perpetrator and survivor will persist always, but there are positive aspects to long memories of past horrors: it may prevent their recurrence.
I had seen not just the physical but the real emotional aftermath of genocide: the horror show Rwandans had either carried out or survived but all lived with … the getting past and getting on.
We left after a midday meal: perpetrators and survivors sat down together to eat and reflect. We left them in the pine-tree forest. An appropriate metaphor, I thought—Rwanda isn’t through the woods but there are signs it’s doing better.
Driving back, I smelled Rwanda’s cooking fires and negotiated its cinnamon-colored dirt roads, not as set pieces of a sinister backdrop but scenes from a country in recovery. Plantain plants swayed in the breeze where bodies had once fallen, but now, somewhere in the woods, perpetrators and survivors were speaking.
They were talking about what had happened at places like Nyamata and Bisesero, and why, and why they shouldn’t again. They were realizing what each could and couldn’t do. For it’s this last reckoning—with each other and also with themselves—that takes the longest.
Perhaps there will be another movie. Everyone knows Rwanda now and everyone knows what genocide is. They see it as the killing only, but genocide is also about the aftermath. Of course, it’s up to us—humanitarian workers, Hollywood producers, and readers who don’t skip past the Africa opinion pieces in the New York Times—to keep the spotlight on Rwanda and help its citizens surmount the rivalries that caused the days of darkness.