Documentary spotlights Rwanda

By Bianca Sepulveda

After a week of examining the effects of postwar truth commissions, the Justice and/or Reconciliation film series ended Sunday evening with a showing of the documentary Gacaca, Living Together Again in Rwanda? and a lecture by Mirna Adjami, an Equal Justice Works fellow with the Midwest Immigration and Human Rights Center.

The series, sponsored by the Human Rights Program, the Humanities Division, and the Film Studies Center, also featured films about truth commissions in Vietnam, Chile, Palestine, and South Africa.

The final installment of the series focused on Rwanda, which was devastated by the 1994 genocide of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by the radical, Hutu-led government. The country is attempting to rebuild its physical and administrative infrastructure through the citizen-based justice system of the Gacaca courts, one of the boldest experiments toward implementing reconciliation.

Almost 130,000 people were accused of taking part in the killings. They were put into provisional prisons, where thousands are still detained today. The country decided that those guilty must be held accountable for their crimes. Because of this, it will grant no blanket amnesty in an effort to facilitate justice, eradicate the culture of impunity, and reinforce respect for the new law.

The documentary—the only one to date that covers Rwanda’s post-genocide transitional justice conditions—sketches the first steps of the Gacaca Tribunals. They were implemented in 2002 after the nation decided this system of participatory justice would serve the country’s needs better than the truth commissions that had previously been in place.

“The Gacaca is an innovative way of addressing this situation,” Adjami said. “It transforms a traditional, community-based, conflict resolution mechanism into a state-sponsored community court that brings individuals to justice.”

The nature of the Gacaca courts, however, allows for the possibility of false or forced testimony and confession, witness perjury, lack of verifiable evidence, and inappropriate criminal sentencing. Alleged criminals are charged with planning the genocide, voluntary homicide, committing violent acts without intent to kill, or committing crimes against property. Community members are then called upon to testify for or against the accused. The 19 community-elected judges in each local court—most with little or no legal training—decide the appropriate punishment.

Adjami described the tremendous task the court must undertake to foster reconciliation between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, the two warring ethnic groups in the country.

“It is absolutely necessary that the Rwandan government seek an alternative mechanism for bringing to justice the 100,000 accused genocide suspects who have been detained awaiting trial for several years,” Adjami said.

She also noted that the lack of active popular participation in the Gacaca courts demonstrates that they will not be the mechanism through which the Rwandan people will heal.

One Tutsi victim interviewed in the documentary admitted, “I can’t stop thinking about it. How can they forgive him and release him just because he confessed? How can I forget him after he killed my six children as well as my brothers and sisters?”

Another victim in the movie took comfort in the idea that at least something has sparked the process of justice and reconciliation. “Maybe one day security and unity will prevail again in Rwanda.”