Justice on a Hill: Genocide Trials in Rwanda

Justice on a Hill: Genocide Trials in Rwanda

On a ridge in southern Rwanda, a few miles from the Burundi border, lies the town of Butare. The National University is there, and for many years both the town and the province of the same name enjoyed a reputation for tolerance. In 1994, the proportion of Tutsis in Butare was far greater than anywhere else in Rwanda-there were 140,000 throughout the province-and in town Tutsis made up a full quarter of the population. The rate of intermarriage between Hutu and Tutsi was higher here than elsewhere, so high that Hutus in the north of Rwanda sometimes said that there were no real Hutus in Butare. In early April of 1994, when the rest of Rwanda was consumed with mass murder, Butare held out. Only after April 19, when the president of the interim government and other leading Hutu Power figures came to Butare and told its Hutu citizens to quit shirking their national duty, did the killings begin in earnest there. But once the genocide reached Butare, it accelerated at a frenzied pace, and by the end of April tens of thousands of Tutsis were dead. When the genocide was over, 75 percent of the province’s Tutsis, more than a hundred thousand people, had been eliminated.

Laurien Ntezimana, a Hutu theologian who distinguished himself in Butare in 1994 by working to feed and save Tutsis, told me, “Butare is the most dangerous place in Rwanda.” In fact, the province seems relatively peaceful today. What Ntezimana meant was that its history of interconnection, together with the scale of its slaughter, have left a pool of bitterness that is deep and toxic even by Rwandan standards. Eight years after the genocide, there is a great deal of talk about justice and reconciliation in Rwanda. I went to Butare because it seemed as tough a place as one could find to test the meaning of these words.

The road that winds south and west to Butare from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital in the center of the country, passes through a stunning landscape. Behind every green hill there’s another hill, with eucalyptus groves and banana trees and terraced fields of sweet potato and manioc and corn. The cottages nestled in the hills have terra-cotta tile roofs and little mullioned windows. Everything is on a miniature scale, hidden away, intensely settled, too much human imagination concentrated in too small a space (“the human head has many ideas,” a genocide suspect in Kigali Central prison said). As I drove, the hills and the cottages looked like the landscape of a fairy tale on which there had been laid a curse.

In the northern part of the province, the paved road passes through the ancient royal capital of Nyanza, seat of the regional court of appeals. On my way to Butare I made a stop at the court, a two-story colonial building on a hilltop, because I wanted to talk to the prosecutor-general about gacaca. The word (pronounced ga-CHA-cha) literally refers to the flattened grass where, in Rwandan tradition, elders ...

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