KIGALI – In May 2003 thousands of prisoners who had confessed to genocide were released and returned home. A year since their release some have begun to take an active role in the preparation for the Gacaca trials expected to begin late this year.
However, many mixed feelings about the process remain. In a prison in Gisovu in Kibuye, Western Rwanda, some of those who confessed to their crimes remain in prison. Each prison has its own Gacaca awareness section led by a prisoner who has confessed to his crimes. The man who holds that post in the Gisovu prison refuses to tell us his name; he says he has spent his years in prison encouraging others to confess to their crimes. But when time came for others to be released, he and some of those he had taught were left behind.
He claims that he and others confessed long before the presidential decree to release prisoners came, but that when it came, it is those who confessed hastily in order to gain freedom that benefited.
“There are many tears here. When we confessed we had no other interests. We did not know we would be released. We were not saying, ‘if I confess the decree will free me.’ I was the first to confess in this prison, and to teach others to do the same. But I have been left behind. Together with many that I taught. Those who have gone home are those who confessed after the decree,” he laments.
Internews asked him what he thought of the prisoners’ role in the Gacaca process now that he remained in jail while others have been freed.
“When problems become too many, you can only laugh. I am in the government’s hands; there is nothing I can do. Whether I live or whether I die, I am at the mercy of the state. I will accept whatever they do, but I will not stop believing in the truth that I have been teaching,” he says philosophically.
But prisoners are far from being the only people disappointed at the way the Gacaca process is working out. Stanislas Ruhamiliza survived the Bisesero massacres. He was very reluctant to talk to us, and when he did, it was with bitterness.
“They killed us, completely finished us. Some of them were arrested and imprisoned, but recently they were released despite the fact that they killed us. So for us, we don’t understand Gacaca. We really don’t understand how it will work.”
Standing close to Ruhamiliza is Ammon Nyakairo. They were together through the whole month in which they tried to rebuff attacks by the Interahamwe. Nyakairo too lost many relatives. He is disappointed with the release of the prisoners.
“If they were to tell the truth during the sessions, to say what they did in broad daylight and which all of us know, if they make such a confession, then Gacaca can work, and we would not be able to reject reconciliation. But what we see is not that. They have been released but they are keeping quiet and not telling the truth. Some of them seem to harbor some bad feelings towards us. They insist no one killed and the prisons should be emptied, they do not speak the truth and this Gacaca does not seem to start or end,” he complains.
His colleague Ruhamiliza is more forthright. As far as he is concerned, the whole justice process has little to offer the survivors.
“The people who killed us are being released. Those who are not being released, we hear they will be imprisoned for life. There they eat; they live alright and grow old like normal people. We don’t see the benefits for us in that process. If it’s possible, the only thing that can make us happy is for them to die the way they killed us. It’s the only thing that can really satisfy us,” he states.
Reconciling two groups of people who have such wounds and look to the justice system to resolve their conflicts is not an easy thing. Alphonse Bakusi is the acting director general of the Unity and Reconciliation commission. We asked him how Rwandans can reconcile with each other in the midst of such feelings of bitterness and disappointment.
“This is a challenging question because it is not easy to live with someone who killed your family. But there are ways to do it. One is to teach people to tolerate each other and learn to share their well being. The next is to put in place strict laws which penalize individuals who try to aggravate the situation, either by trying to harm the survivors or harm those who have been released from prison. That is the work we are doing now, but we know it is not easy to live with someone who has killed your family but at the same time, those who died cannot come back,” he says.
Disappointments with the releases are one thing, but for prisoners in Rilima such as Anastasie Nyirakanani the problem is not whether or not people should be released. The problem is that under the current laws, they are closed out of the process. Nyirakanani was tried by national courts in 1998 for the murder of two people. After the Gacaca law came into effect, two prisoners confessed to the same crimes for which she was convicted.
“They sentenced me to ten years. Yet I did not kill those people and I know nothing about those who killed them. There are people who have confessed to killing those people and they are free. Yet the Gacaca does not deal with those already sentenced. This is my question. What will happen to those of us who were sentenced for crimes that people have confessed to? Who shall we talk to, what shall happen to us? Don’t you find it unfair, that I am in jail, I did not kill, and those who confessed to the killings are at home?” Nyirakanani demands.
Sylvestre Gasherankwanzi is the prisoner in charge of Gacaca awareness raising in the Rilima prison. He says her case is not unique.
“There are many people with similar cases. What I ask of the Gacaca justice system is to bring those who have confessed together with their victims so that they know exactly what happened. That will reduce incorrect accusations and bring justice to all of us, by setting those who are innocent free while those who actually committed the crime are punished or ask for forgiveness,” he reckons.
At the time of the releases we spoke to the then Rwanda’s prosecutor general, Gerald Gahima. He told Internews that although such cases exist, those who confessed have not yet been tried and the law can only help those already sentenced after Gacaca courts have rendered their decision.
“Their confessions will be tested during the trials in the Gacaca courts. If the courts decide that these crimes were committed by the people who confessed them and not those who had previously been convicted there are legal ways to overturn the conviction. But I dare say these are extremely rare and exceptional cases. We do not have any indication that they are a large number of this nature.”
This means that people like Nyirakanani will probably have served their sentences by the time the law finds they were convicted for crimes to which others have confessed. We asked Gahima whether there was any provision for legal redress and compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
“No. Such cases have yet to be brought to the courts,” he asserts.
Despite the problems and challenges, Gacaca remains one of the important instruments through which Rwandans can reach reconciliation. According to Benoit Kabuye who is in charge of justice issues in the association of genocide survivors Ibuka, Gacaca offers the only way through which survivors can find out the whole truth about what happened to their families. However, he says certain things need to be corrected before the process is effective enough.
“In some places survivors and potential witnesses have been shouted down when they speak; there are also intimidations and threats to witnesses. In some areas there is need for the judges to receive more training because they sometimes don’t seem to know what to do. These things need to be corrected so that we can have an effective process,” Kabuye says.
Prisoners and survivors alike look to the justice system to provide the basis for reconciliation. With so many people waiting for the trials to solve their problems, will Gacaca be able to meet all their expectations?
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