Fear Hinders Rwanda’s Quest for Justice

Times Staff Writer

The sight of a mob murdering his father has given Naphtal Ahishakiye no peace these last 11 years. It was May 28, 1994, one crime among millions during Rwanda’s genocide. Helpless and hidden in a tree, he watched the mob stuff his father headfirst down a latrine.

But the long wait for justice has ended in disappointment. At a recent community hearing, witnesses identified the killers as militia members who had fled Rwanda after the genocide and were beyond the reach of the law.

Ahishakiye identified villagers who still lived in Rwanda, but no one would come forward to back up his story.

“You know someone, you know what he did, you know what he said and what his companions said. But they do not admit it,” he said. “It’s very disappointing. When you see all that, you develop a kind of hatred for the person who did not come forward ... even more than the person who did it.”


In 2002, facing the prospect of putting at least 761,000 people -- and perhaps more than a million -- on trial for genocide, Rwanda introduced a form of traditional community justice called gacaca. The government has promoted the approach as the only way to achieve reconciliation.

But its objectives are sometimes contradictory: The government seeks to find the truth, give justice to survivors and help them recover bodies of loved ones. It also wants to empty the jails and cut spiraling prison costs.

Rwanda’s efforts to deal with the genocide are a key step on a continent where war crimes often go unpunished, but problems with the trials eat away at public confidence.

In theory, Rwandans should stand up and make accusations, and killers should make public confessions. However, a code of silence in the villages puts justice out of reach for survivors such as Ahishakiye, an unemployed man in his mid-20s.

About 700 of the thousands of elected gacaca judges have been implicated in the genocide. Many of the judges, regardless of their record, are poorly trained. Defendants don’t have lawyers, and there is no efficient alternative to the community trials.

In 1994, the government and militias exhorted Rwandan Hutus to slaughter Tutsis -- members of the nation’s other primary ethnic group -- and anyone who tried to protect them.

Inflammatory radio broadcasts described Tutsis as “cockroaches,” and the popular euphemism for killing was “going to work.” The exact number of dead in the 100 days of killing is not known, but Rwandan authorities have put it at more than a million.

Genocide survivor groups have expressed disappointment with the judicial process.


Human Rights Watch has criticized Rwanda’s process as below international legal standards, but officials in the group have also said there is probably no perfect way to deal with so many cases.

The U.N. tribunal based in neighboring Tanzania has been slow, handing down only 21 convictions and three acquittals since it began work in 1995. Likewise, Rwanda’s criminal courts have no hope of dealing with the huge number of the accused.

Domitilla Mukantagazwa, executive secretary of the gacaca courts, brushed aside the criticism, arguing that the process would provide a model for the rest of the world in dealing with war crimes such as genocide.

In Rwanda, gacaca was initially a political solution to the problem of feeding 120,000 prisoners.


“When they go back to their families, they are working and cultivating the land,” Mukantagazwa said. “We think the aim of gacaca is not only justice, but reconciliation and reconstruction of the social fabric of society. The law says that it is the duty of every Rwandan to tell the truth.”

With jails overcrowded, officials decided to free thousands of suspects on condition that they cooperate in the hearings, admit their crimes and express remorse.

Many had already spent close to a decade in jail by the time they were freed, she said. About 45,000 were freed. Those accused of rape, leadership in the genocide or multiple murders are not eligible for release.

Local courts have been gathering evidence and finalizing charges against suspects since the process began, and in some areas Rwandans have begun to hold trials. In the first 10 days of March, 192 people were convicted and only one was acquitted, Mukantagazwa said.


Several prominent people, such as Ruhengari province Gov. Boniface Rucagu, are among those facing trial, she added.

But there are reports that secretive groups called Ceceka (Be Quiet) have formed in some areas to protect the perpetrators. Survivor groups complain that in regions that lost almost all their Tutsis, it is very difficult to mount successful prosecutions.

The inmate releases have also undermined the process in some areas, with witnesses in tight-knit rural communities afraid to testify for fear of retribution.

Emmanuel Twagirayezu, 27, has moved to Kigali, the capital, instead of remaining in his home village.


In 1994 he watched from the bushes as his mother was forced to jump off a cliff and his father was attacked by machete when he refused to leap. He says that he saw three men, including a villager named Jerome Nsabimana, take his sister away and that she was raped and tortured for a week before being killed.

Twagirayezu was shocked when he met Nsabimana in Kigali recently.

“I was surprised that he was released,” the survivor said. “The circumstances are a mystery. He must have bribed his way out, because when I asked the officials what happened, they said his file got lost so he had to be released.”

When Twagirayezu returned to his village, it was difficult to find people willing to testify about what happened, he said. The community had closed up to protect its members.


“They believe that if they pin down a family member” for participating in the genocide, “they’ll be outcasts from the family when that person is released,” he said.

Chantal Niyonsenga, 26, a former government office worker, said that, in the years right after the slaughter, several Hutus in her villages had identified the killers of her parents and family.

In recent years, however, the witnesses have clammed up, she added, while other Hutus have said all the killers have fled the country.

“I lost hope, because the informers told me, ‘We’re being harassed, so we’ll never say anything,’ ” she said. “They say there is no way they can create enmity with a relative or a friend, so they just keep quiet.”


She said she was afraid to go to the gacaca hearings in her village because relatives of the killers were among the judges. Like Twagirayezu, she was chilled when she met a man, walking free in Kigali, who she had been told was a ringleader in the genocide.

Niyonsenga said that she confronted him and demanded an apology but that he told her he had been set free like many other prisoners.

Benoit Kaboyi, executive secretary of the Ibuka survivor organization, said prisoners were willing to confess to one murder in order to qualify for release but not to multiple killings or rape that would keep them behind bars.

“Gacaca cannot tell us everything. It’s impossible,” he said. “Do you think it’s easy to say, ‘My mother killed a person?’ Or that a cousin or a friend killed? How can I say what my brother has done? If you go and say what happened, the society will push you outside.”


Niyonsenga said that for her, truth and reconciliation were just a distant hope.

“If the truth is never revealed, I don’t feel that people can live alongside each other peacefully and harmoniously,” she said.