From January 2005, the traditional village courts of Rwanda – known as Gacaca – will try genocide suspects all over the country.
Gacaca courts were given this job to help reduce the burden on Rwanda ‘s legal system, yet officials now predict the number of suspects will probably rise, as witnesses reveal more about who did what, in 1994.
So, trying to make Rwanda ‘s legal process more manageable may actually result in an even bigger challenge for Gacaca. That’s because sixty three thousand genocide suspects are already awaiting trial under Gacaca. But some officials expect as many as seven hundred and fifty thousand suspects in total – that’s almost ten per cent of the country’s population.
“It’s hardly surprising, if you think about how the genocide was implemented, it’s almost impossible that only one hundred and twenty thousand people could have killed over a million people in just three months”, says Anastase Balinda the Gacaca Courts Commissioner.
Gacaca trials were intended not only to dispense justice, but to help foster peace and reconciliation at local level, through the difficult but essential process of telling the truth in public.
However, the trials have been delayed due to revisions in the law, training for judges, and the sheer logistical difficulties of embarking on such a massive legal project.
With such a possible sharp rise in the number of suspects, many wonder if the cases may not be more than the Gacaca courts can handle.
“No matter how many suspects Gacaca produces, we can handle it. We have enough courts. There might be problems later, if we have to send lots of people to prison. But any society must manage its problems. As we find out the truth about genocide and the exact number of people involved, we’ll find ways to cope with that” says Mr Balinda
One such problem might be strained relations between families of suspects, and families of witnesses.
Rwanda’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission is already working to alleviate such tensions, and hopes Gacaca trials will make things better, not worse.
“ I think Rwandans should instead be happy that the truth is going to come out and that suspicion among families will be over. Those who committed crimes will be punished. Even those who have been hiding will be freed by the truth” says Fatuma Ndangiza the Executive Secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission.
Some prisoners, who already confessed to their crimes, say that doing so has brought a new sense of freedom. They are not worried about the number of suspects increasing. They say this will help the truth come out
“I am looking forward to Gacaca. I think it will help me. I will have the opportunity to expose the truth, particularly to people in my home village and those whom I wronged. I will have a chance to ask for forgiveness”, says Nyabyenda Jean Marie, a prisoner who confessed to his crimes.
However, not everyone agrees. Some fear Gacaca might mean new revelations about their crimes, and bring them extra punishment. So, they believe the less people talk, the better.
“After confessing I was very happy because I felt my heart relieved. But later, I was harassed by some of my colleagues in prison, with whom I had committed the crime”, says Nyabyenda J. Marie.
It’s not just in prisons that witnesses are being harassed, nor is it just verbal intimidation. In Gikongoro and Butare provinces in the south of Rwanda , five witnesses were killed. Some with machetes, others beaten to death. One was tied to a log and thrown into a river. Their families were effectively silenced for fear of further reprisals.
Kankindi Anastazia’s 21 year-old daughter was killed when a gang attacked their home at night.
She says when Gacaca trials begin, it may get worse. “ The weak ones like me will die! I am telling you the truth”, she exclaims “This is just the start! I used to live in peace with my neighbours down there in the valley where I grew sorghum and other crops. I was alone, I didn’t need any protection. But now people harass me, because of my testimony against them. All these problems have arisen because of Gacaca”, concludes Kankindi.
Early this year when two witnesses were murdered in Kaduha district, in southern Rwanda , the internal security ministry intensified night patrols and said it will work with the police and the locals to curb any more occurrences. But more cases occurred. So does this mean Rwanda cannot protect witnesses?
General Commissioner of Police, Frank Mugambage says on the contrary, the situation is under control. “I personally think that if those efforts had not been made, maybe we could have seen more as had been feared before. But that is not the case. Of course the other effort clearly demonstrated is the fact that even those who got involved were quickly apprehended. This is a very important thing”, says General Mugambage.
But some people say the threat of attacks still hangs over them. Hitayezu Boniface lost his wife to genocide suspects who feared her testimony against them. He fears he might be next. “I am worried because my wife’s relatives are often attacked at night or in the evenings. Those who killed my wife can kill me too”, says Boniface.
In nearby Nyakizu District, lives Venant Sekabwa, who survived the genocide. He used to be a Gacaca court chairman, and says he always tried to be fair. But recently, his windows were broken by people throwing stones, and his son’s house was set on fire. He believes he knows the reason, and the culprit. “Maybe they did it because they think we’ll testify when Gacaca starts. I am not sure, it’s just my intuition. The mastermind of all this started long ago! He has never settled down” remarks Sekabwa.
So, who is behind such attacks on Gacaca witnesses? Many locals say they suspect a man named Thomas Murengerantwali. Why?
One reason is that when his neighbour’s house caught fire, Murengerantwali allegedly did not help other local people to fight the blaze. He was duly arrested, to explain himself. The Police allowed us to interview him. Is he really guilty of organising attacks on witnesses, as some people claim?
“There is no way I can be involved in such bad actions! I bear no grudge against that family, and never have. Our parents had no problems either. I don’t consider ethnic divisions. I recently I gave them a bride! I am 69! I cannot be involved in such things”, explains Murengerantwali.
In another incident, eight suspects have been detained on suspicion of having murdered Jean Bosco Nyemazi. They include his wife Anne Marie Mukashema who has already admitted her involvement.
Jean Bosco Nyemazi was a witness against Colonel Aloys Simba, who is on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha , Tanzania .
Colonel Simba is accused of genocide, complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity (murder and extermination) in the provinces of Butare and Gikongoro, in 1994.
Needless to say, events like the murder of Jean Bosco Nyemazi often weaken the resolve of some witnesses, who say they feel abandoned, and sometimes wonder if Gacaca will bring peace.
“If Gacaca is not revised, it will achieve nothing. Gacaca called us to testify. We did, but so far Gacaca has done nothing. This is why such crimes continue”, says Hitayezu Boniface a Gacaca witness whose wife was murdered.
Gacaca officials agree that the problem of witness intimidation requires more attention and can only be prevented through closer cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Security, the Ministry of Local Government, and the prosecution authorities.
“Security of witnesses should be maintained. We believe that if the Gacaca courts, the prosecution, the police or other security bodies learn that somebody is behaving in a way that threatens witnesses, because they have testified against him or others, that person should be arrested and detained”, says Anastase Balinda, Gacaca Courts Commissioner.
The Prosecutor General promises that such cases of intimidation will be tried and judged promptly.
At the same time, he urges witnesses not to be scared into silence. “We are speeding up the cases of those accused of murdering witnesses. Very soon their cases will be over. I would like to encourage witnesses to take heart. We are doing something about intimidation”, says Jean de Dieu Mucyo, Rwanda ‘s Prosecutor General.
Gacaca officials say people can also help prevent intimidation and attacks, by blowing the whistle on local bullies. “ We urge the public to help us, by telling us about bullies, so that we can move fast. If we got information in good time, then we would take preventive measures”, says the Prosecutor General.
The National Police believes and hopes that security will stabilize, as soon as people start to participate in the Gacaca trials. “ When people start to understand what Gacaca is all about, security will be better. That new awareness, along with programs from government and relevant institutions, will certainly ensure security. Not just for survivors, but in general. Everybody knows it’s good for the country”, says Frank Mugambage, Commissioner General of Police.
But what about people who know Gacaca may accuse them? Will they embrace justice, peace and reconciliation for the good of Rwanda ?
Or will they to continue to intimidate witnesses, to ensure their own freedom?
Anastasia Kankindi supports Gacaca, but says it is taking too long. She fears intimidation, or worse.
“When will my tears dry? When will I have a rest?” she asks with tears in her eyes.