Rwanda genocide trials leave a mixed legacy

Issa Munyangaju is willing to tell his story, but he requires a beer. He sips a Primus in a dim concrete bar and talks about the houseboy he shot during the genocide.

They were friends, he says, until they came to a roadblock manned by Hutu militiamen. They gave Munyangaju, also Hutu, a gun. They told him he would be killed if he didn’t execute his friend, whose ethnic group, the Tutsis, had been targeted for extermination.

“I followed their orders,” Munyangaju, 44, says. He put a bullet in the young man’s stomach, and was within earshot when another shot finished him off.

While he was in prison, government officials visited to tout the benefits of confessing at a type of trial known as gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-cha), a radical experiment in community justice. Gacaca translates from the Kinyarwanda tongue as “justice on the grass,” and many such trials played out on fields, atop hills and under trees. There were no lawyers, and instead of professional judges, panels of elders determined guilt or innocence.

Munyangaju says his confession at his gacaca reduced his prison time from 30 years to 10 and helped ease the burden of his guilt. “Now I can go to heaven,” he says.


The ethnic massacres claimed more than 800,000 Tutsis and their perceived allies in 1994. When the trials began eight years later, Rwanda’s government argued that the gacaca process would not only relieve prisons bursting with genocide suspects, but would accelerate cases that might take decades to unfold in conventional courts hobbled by the slaughter of much of the trained judiciary.

Survivors would learn who killed their loved ones and where to find the bodies. Killers who confessed would receive reduced sentences and the chance to reenter society. Ultimately, it was hoped, there would be reconciliation.

But as the courts hear the last of more than 1 million cases, the trials’ legacy is sharply contested. In a recent report titled “Justice Compromised,” advocacy group Human Rights Watch contends that the process has been used to settle personal beefs, as well as to silence journalists, activists and outspoken officials.

The report says the courts have ignored widespread killings attributed to the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the party that halted the genocide and now runs the country.

The report also cites the lack of “fair trial rights” for the accused, such as access to lawyers, and decries poorly trained volunteer judges, unencumbered by evidentiary rules, who sometimes rely heavily on hearsay.

Munyangaju says that upon his release from prison, he found that his wife had been impregnated by another man, and in revenge he implicated the man in genocide-related attacks. Later, he says, he admitted that he had lied.

Now he sits on a plastic chair by the road and repairs shoes, earning barely enough to support his wife and two children. His house is crumbling. He tried to breed goats, but someone killed them, and now he is suspicious of his neighbors. Maybe someone from a survivor’s family did it; he can’t be sure.

“I don’t know who killed my goats,” he says. “That person can come kill me. I think everyone might be the one who killed my goats.”


The genocide began in April 1994, when Hutu extremists seized on the killing of Rwanda’s president to unleash soldiers, militias and the Hutu people against the minority Tutsis.

Radios blared orders to exterminate Tutsis like cockroaches; an estimated three-fourths of the Tutsi population was massacred. Yet it has been Hutus, the country’s majority ethnic group, who often sit in judgment of other Hutus in gacaca court.

“In the beginning, it was very difficult to understand how Hutu can judge other Hutu,” said Naphtal Ahishakiye, 37, who works for a survivors group. He lost both parents and four brothers, and escaped the militias by hiding in a river under the roots of a tree, his body submerged for weeks, until his skin turned white and sloughed off his arms. As he recovered, he hungered for revenge.

“Just after the genocide, as survivors, we thought killers should be killed also,” he said. “It was hard to think about any other kind of punishment.”

He said he came to appreciate the gacaca process, where he confronted some of his family’s killers, who happened to be neighbors and, before the genocide, friends. Some remain in prison; some are fulfilling their sentences in public service projects.

“There is no village for survivors [and another] village for Hutus,” he said. “We live together and there is nothing to do. You cannot take revenge.”

Because of the relatively light sentences many receive at gacaca trials, even some of the system’s supporters don’t hesitate to call it “half-amnesty.”

Among them is Reverien Interayamahanga, 39, a researcher at the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace in Kigali, who narrowly escaped death as a student in 1994.

“But for reconciliation purposes, I think the choice is justified,” Interayamahanga said. “How can you put one-fifth or one-tenth of the population in jail and expect their relatives to coexist with survivors?”

He considered a common scenario: a genocide orphan who sees his parents’ killers set free.

“From a classic justice perspective, it’s not fair,” he said. But “for me, gacaca was the least bad option.”

In contrast to the staggering volume of cases heard by Rwanda’s community courts, the United Nations tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania — designed to try the organizers of the Rwanda genocide — has moved glacially, handling just a few dozen cases.

Phil Clark, a professor of international politics at the University of London who has studied the gacaca courts, said the process has focused not just on punishment, but on encouraging face-to-face conversations between culprits and survivors.

“I think human rights groups failed to take that into account,” he said. “It’s never been clear to me what alternative to gacaca they propose.”

The system “has leant toward leniency,” with the aim of reintegrating the killers into society, though another explanation is that Hutu judges have been sympathetic to Hutu suspects, Clark said.

“The plea-bargaining system is quite generous,” he said. “The vast majority who have been found guilty in gacaca have not gone back to prison.”

In one case he studied, an imprisoned merchant who confessed to multiple murders won his release with a plea bargain. Angry survivors pummeled his house with stones. He found a new home alongside a woman whose three children he had killed, and they worked the same plot of corn.

“It’s a common situation,” Clark said. “There’s this kind of tense coexistence, and this pragmatism that underlies all of this.”


One of the last gacaca trials played out on a recent day in Kigali, where the accused, Frederic Bazimaziki, stood in pink prison clothes in a dim government hall.

He had been incarcerated for a year, having been tried and sentenced in absentia; he says he never received the summons to appear. Now he was appealing his 19-year prison term.

“I’m afraid,” he said, “because it is many years.”

Bazimaziki, a 44-year-old father of seven, would not confess in hope of winning leniency, however.

A neighbor, a carpenter named Charles Ngirunkunda, was giving testimony that could damn him.

No, the accuser never actually saw Bazimaziki kill anyone. But he insisted that he had seen him carrying a club, traveling with a marauding militia and wearing the uniform of the Coalition for the Defense of the Republic, known as CDR, a Hutu extremist party.

Standing alone before six volunteer judges, Bazimaziki denied all this, and said spite was motivating the charges: He was a well-off government worker, his accuser a simple carpenter who had stolen some of his furniture.

About 50 people had crowded into the hall. After two hours of testimony, the judges deliberated briefly and returned their verdict: not guilty.

The hall was silent. The judges removed their sashes, folded them carefully and put them in a wooden box. It was not a crime to carry a club or belong to a Hutu extremist group, one judge said afterward; no one saw the accused kill anyone, and there were no specific victims.

So another defendant will go home.

“Saying you’re in CDR is putting a heavy stone on you,” Bazimaziki said afterward, surrounded by family. “He was saying that, but it was not true.”

The chief judge in the case, Eric Mushimire, is a 44-year-old electrician who says he lost both parents and eight siblings in the genocide.

As a survivor, he attended a gacaca trial to watch his family’s killers confess and ask forgiveness, which he said allowed him to forgive them. As a judge, he has presided over more than 1,000 such cases. The government doesn’t pay him, not even a bottle of water, he said.

Asked whether the process was helping to heal the country, he replied, “It is, starting with myself.”