Frontline World

RWANDA - After the Genocide, December 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
7/3/03 7/7/03 7/11/03 7/15/03 7/19/03 7/19/03 7/20/03 7/23/03
7/15/03 A Roadside Trial pacifique mukeshima Domina Nyirandayambaje Aloys Habimana
a prisoner hugging his mother
Leonard Kagabo receives a hug from his mother after his trial at a gacaca in Kigali.
The good news is that I saw a gacaca on Sunday. It was one of the more fascinating things I've witnessed in my life. It took place right here in Kigali city, about a 20-minute walk from where I'm staying.

People stretched canvas tarps over a few rough-hewn poles and did the whole meeting right next to a main road. The breeze blew in smells of the sewer, guys washed their motorcycles with water from a stream nearby and trucks buzzed by the whole time.

A crowd slowly gathered and took seats on benches in the shade while 18 judges sat on chairs in the front. At about 10 a.m., an open-backed truck pulled in with 10 prisoners -- seven men and three women. They were dressed in the usual pink prison uniforms and guarded by two guys with AK-47s.

the gacaca tent
The roadside gacaca in Kigali.
More than four hours passed as the gacaca struggled to reveal what crimes one prisoner might have committed during the genocide. He was a minor official in a cell (the smallest neighborhood-sized unit of government, which would be about 2,000 to 2,500 people in Kigali).

The testimony indicated that during the genocide, the leader of this prisoner's cell had given a speech saying that its members were not "working" (a euphemism for killing) hard enough. The prisoner on trial was charged with leading two pickup trucks full of murderers to a house full of hiding Tutsis.

My translator and I were allowed to take notes on the whole thing, even though this is supposedly forbidden. It was a relief to get it down on paper.

The prisoner, Leonard Kagabo, began by making a speech asserting his innocence. He said that he was a victim too. He claimed that he'd been scared witless by the militia, which was why he hadn't done all he could to save people. "As a man, I feel guilty of cowardice. I didn't intervene because of fear," he told the court.

Rwanda's Neighborhood
United Nations Involvement
Root of Hutu/Tutsi Tension
Rwandan Civil War, 1990-1994
Rwanda's 1994 Genocide
Rwandan Patriotic Front
Paul Kagame
An old woman, Adrienne Mukamuaenge, rose to denounce him. She said that her husband had been hiding in the house when Kagabo and others arrived. She'd seen the prisoner in the trucks with the militia. Standing just a few feet away from him, she pointed a long, bony finger at Kagabo while he rested his chin on his hand and looked away.

When the woman had finished, Kagabo stood up to say that none of it was true -- the woman had her stories all mixed up. He argued that first she'd said that her husband was in the house, but then she'd said that he was hiding outside, so her testimony was just not credible.

The gacaca rolled along, with more people coming to the front to ask questions and give their opinions. As it turned out, Kagabo's wife is a Tutsi. Her relatives (mostly women) had been in the house too when Mukamuaenge's husband was killed, but they had been spared. One man who escaped from the house was the prisoner's brother-in-law. The prisoner was accused, then, of having told the killers to lay off his wife's family.

After four hours of accusations and counteraccusations (the old woman being the only person claiming to have directly witnessed anything), the judges decided that more witnesses need to be called and postponed further proceedings. This experience at a single gacaca makes you realize how ambitious the whole process is. Rwandans are trying to dig out the truth of what happened under chaotic circumstances nine years ago, then to try, as individuals, all the people now in prison while also opening up the whole process to a large proportion of the population.

My fixer and I head out tomorrow to the border near Congo to observe more gacacas there. I should get a chance to interview some survivors and released prisoners as well.

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