Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Gacaca - or The Road to Forgiveness

This week the genocide has been much in the news in Rwanda and elsewhere since about 9000 genocide convicts are being released during the course of the week. On a trip to the countryside today I asked my driver how people felt about this. He said that people knew that they had to move on and that they had to forgive the murders for what they had done - otherwise the country would never develop. That is some tough approach to take for the relatives of the victims. Whereas in Germany after the war almost new Jews were left to face the murderers of their relatives, in Rwanda they will face them every day. The point of the gacaca is that the courts would otherwise have been completely overwhelmed after the genocide. Each village has two trained mediators who I think play a pivotal role. There's a jury (limited in number? I don't know), and I am not sure if there is a judge as well (there are large posters about gacaca everywhere).

At the same time, the gacaca (pronounced gachacha) courts are continuing. These are community courts where the community tries and judges people accused of genocide acts. As we drove into Butare, my driver found it very quiet and said 'I think there is a gacaca going on'. And indeed this was the case. We could not see it, but we heard about it from other people. All shops were closed because the whole community judges (they vote on it).

On the way back we passed right through another gacaca court, in a village, where the prisoners in their pink uniforms and some of the crowd were on one side of the road, and the rest of the crowd were on the other side, listening.

I am told that it is illegal in Rwanda to talk about race, and also about the genocide (in a particular way, presumably, since the word otherwise peppers every second conversation); it's also not appreciated to criticize the president. Having said that, it seems that the president, still a very lean fellow compared to other African presidents, is a very decent guy. For example, when he came to power, some of his relatives came to power, too, in different jobs. But when they abused this, he fired them. Then there are all those stories involving selling off of unnecessary government property such as those cars and those fancy lakeside homes. Someone described it as a benign dictatorship, and maybe that's what the country needs.

There is a secret service everywhere, down to village level, who checks whether people talk about these sorts of things.