Rwanda: Gacaca Courts Close but Genocide Wounds Still Open

This week President Kagame officially closed the Gacaca tribunals. While Rwandan authorities celebrate the virtue of these community courts intended to bring genocide criminals to justice, unresolved feelings plague the survivors – both those whose loved ones were killed and those whose loved ones were convicted.

Regret weighs heavy on Madeleine Umuhoza. "I still don't know where my husband's body was dumped," says the 45-year old woman from Gatsata. "Our house was attacked at the start of the genocide by a group of young people armed with bows and arrows. We all ran in different directions. I survived by hiding in a swamp, together with other Tutsi escapees. I haven't seen my husband ever since."

Among genocide survivors, her story is unfortunately not unique. "I blame myself for not saying goodbye," she says, on the verge of tears.

When they were introduced in 2001, Gacaca courts nourished a hope that survivors would finally be able to bury their lost relatives with dignity. The community justice system relied on the confessions of genocide culprits in exchange for a substantial reduction of their sentences. The perpetrators were expected to admit to their crimes, name their accomplices and point to where they left their victims. But many chose to remain silent.

That silence has been denounced by Donatilla Mukantaganzwa, former secretary-general of the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, from the very start of the process. In fact, she believes it was one of the main obstacles tribunals from which the country expected "the truth to come out".

Left with little

One survivor who managed to find the bodies of her parents and two brothers before the Gacacas system was introduced is Léonilla Nyiransabimana. Although her father owned a house and a car – enough to be counted among the wealthy in Kigali during the genocide – she now lives in poverty.

"The house was ransacked and the doors, windows glasses and roof were all stolen. The car is nowhere to be found," she explains. "Thanks to aid from the government, I managed to rebuild a shelter on the ruins of the house. But I am almost starving to death in there."

This home that Nyiransabimana describes is one she must share with many other genocide survivors. She says: "The people found guilty of destroying my family's property have nothing to offer but repentance. What will become of me?"

The implementation of restitution or compensation provided in Gacaca law is further complicated by the fact that the perpetrators are themselves poor. What's worse, the organic law covering the courts, despite numerous amendments, had no provisions for the compensation of physical and emotional damages.


The grassroots justice system has also been criticized by the accused and their families. Although 40 percent of the one million people tried in Gacaca courts were acquitted, for the families of the convicts, the tribunals only festered existing grudges.

Cyrille, an engineering student, is among those who believe the Gacaca system has left Rwanda more divided than ever.

"I wish the Gacacas never existed," he says. "My father was accused by jealous people, Hutus and Tutsis alike, because he had just been promoted to an important position in government. That was at the beginning of the trial. I warned him, but he replied that he had the right to seek the position."

A woman who wishes to remain unnamed echoes the regret. "My husband faced all sorts of charges: organization of strategy meetings, murder and looting. But everyone in this village knows he is innocent, including the criminals who claimed he was their leader and the survivors who bought off these false witnesses. Their goal was to have our possessions auctioned and they are happy today," she says.

Clutching her rosary beads tightly, she adds: "But God is great!"


Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both close observers of the Gacaca process, often reported procedural irregularities, threats, corruption and government interference.

In a joint press release, issued right before the official closing ceremony, two British NGOs, Redress and Survivors Fund (SURF), also identified similar irregularities. "Many survivors in Rwanda fear that…their right to reparation will be ignored forever," the London-based NGOs wrote.

With the closing of the community courts, the two organizations have recommended establishment of a task force on reparations. SURF's project coordinator stated: "While it is impossible to fully compensate for crimes such as genocide, awarding reparation payments can help to restore the dignity of survivors by acknowledging the suffering that they have been subjected to."



President Kagame has officially closed the Gacaca tribunals which sought to bring genocide criminals to justice

But unresolved feelings plague the survivors – both those whose loved ones were killed and those whose loved ones were convicted.