The first time I experienced the Gacaca courts, Rwanda’s answer to prosecuting more than 120,000 genocide perpetrators, was not through a court trial as most of Rwanda experienced it. I learned about it through an invitation to attend a burial service from a friend who had lost most of his family during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
Until 2010, my friend did not know what had happened to his mother. She was separated from the rest of the family by perpetrators who probably wanted to rape and then kill her. Even after the Rwanda Patriotic Front ended the genocide by pushing the genocide government into Zaire, the man could not find out what happened to his Mother. He was able to locate the bodies of most of his family around his family’s house, which is now occupied by a new family.
It would take him a decade and a half to discover that his mother had been killed not too long after the family had been separated and to find the location of her remains. As with so many survivors who lost family during the genocide, my friend wanted to re-bury his Mother’s bones properly. He learned of what happened to his mother by the perpetrator who murdered her, during one of the local sessions of the Gacaca. The perpetrator, seeking forgiveness, told the story of how he killed the mother and he showed my friend where the bones were buried. He even helped dig the bones out and handed them to the son.
I know many reading this article will ask: “What are the Gacaca courts?” Gacaca was established in 2001 and lasted until 2012, to bring Rwandans who were accused of committing acts of genocide to the attention of the public. Village members were responsible for filling the courts, so that everyone could know the truth of what occurred in their village during the genocide. More specifically, they were required to attend hearings in order to be either witnesses or to provide physical evidence that could either convict or free a defendant. Usually, a few prisoners were brought from the local prisons to be tried at each hearing.
Each case started off with one defendant standing up before the judges of the court, consisting of nine village elders in total, and reading off the charges against them. The accused was given a chance to admit their guilt and ask for forgiveness from the people they had wronged or from members of the community. If they confessed, they received a lesser punishment than if they were found guilty. Having guilty individuals admit their crime and try to reconcile with the people who they had wronged was the key goal for Gacaca. The community embraced former perpetrators who admitted their guilt. However, if the accused decided not to admit their guilt and they continually proclaimed their innocence, the judges would turn to the community to ask if anyone could confirm or deny the charges. This is when the victims spoke out and told their sometimes-graphic testimonies of what the accused party did to them or their families. People also testified in defense of the accused.
If, ultimately, the defendant was found guilty, they would be sentenced up to thirty years in jail. When released from prison the community would consider them dishonorable, because they had refused to admit their guilt when given the opportunity. If a defendant admitted guilt, then there was hope for reconciliation. A person found guilty or who stated their guilt could face different punishments. They could either be sentenced to a period of time in prison, or be required to perform community service until they were deemed to have paid their debt back to society. When traveling around Rwanda today, one can still see prisoners wearing pink or white shirts, and cleaning or building roads, building schools, cleaning memorials, harvesting food – anything the community needs. It would be remiss of me not to mention that there are scholarly debates on the success of the Gacaca courts and whether it violated individual liberties and access to fair trials.
For most who study Gacaca, it is seen as a fascinating and unusual mechanism of transitional justice in a post-genocide society. However, my curiosity of Gacaca stems from a comment by my late Grandfather. After my first trip to Rwanda in 2008, I explained to him the procedure, mechanism and desired outcome of Gacaca. He had one reaction. The reaction was one of mournful surprise that Gacaca gave victim’s families some closure in informing them how their brother, sister, mother, father, aunt, uncle or etc had died and where their bodies lay, as had happened to my previously mentioned friend. I was curious why this aspect interested my Grandfather more than the social reconstruction of society, which I had expected to incite his greater interest. His mournfulness was not specifically one of sympathy for Rwandan genocide survivors, but was instead one of underlying envy. My family had lost over a dozen members during the Holocaust.
My Grandfather joined the US military during World War Two in order to try to find our missing family who resided in Austria. However, he was not allowed by the US military, because they saw a conflict of interest; they instead sent him to fight against the Japanese. The most he knew about his relatives’ remaining years was that they had been sent to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. None of us have records of when they were killed or where their bodies are now. We cannot even speculate. This was the envy in my Grandfather’s eyes. He quietly wished that a form of Gacaca could have occurred after World War Two enabling him to learn where the remains of our family lay in former Nazi-occupied Europe. The closure that Gacaca brought many in Rwanda was absent for my Grandfather.