The international community ignored the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when nearly one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were macheted to death, many by their own friends and neighbors, and it was almost entirely absent on the most momentous day in Rwanda since the genocide. Two Western media agencies, BBC Radio and the Canadian television network CTV, together provided a total of three and a half minutes’ coverage when, on May 5, 2003, more than twenty thousand confessed genocide perpetrators were provisionally released into their hometowns, after spending nearly a decade in prison. I had expected to fight my way through hordes of journalists to talk to the detainees before they boarded buses, returning to the same communities where they committed their crimes. Instead, I walked unimpeded into the Kinyinya “solidarity camp” on the outskirts of Kigali, one of eighteen civic education centers around Rwanda, where, for three months between leaving prison and being released into the community, around a thousand confessed génocidaires received instruction from government officials on how to be good citizens in the post-genocide society.
The Rwandan government struggled for a decade to solve the problem of prisons massively overcrowded with genocide suspects. In 1994, the Tutsi-led rebel force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which halted the genocide and currently constitutes the ruling party in Rwanda, rounded up nearly 120,000 Hutu suspects and piled them into prisons built to hold only 40,000 detainees. Most suspects, never formally charged with any crime, were forced to live in hellish conditions: underfed, drinking dirty water, crammed into tiny rooms where they slept on top of one another in latticework formations. To help process the enormous backlog of cases, which would take a conventional court system around two hundred years, the government announced that it would provisionally release selected suspects who had already confessed to their crimes. Back in their home communities, these suspects would now face justice at communal courts known as gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-cha and derived from the Kinyarwanda word meaning “on the grass,” referring to the outdoor setting in which the hearings take place). With courts established in around nine thousand towns and villages, each overseen by nine locally elected judges, gacaca is a traditional Rwandan institution of participatory conflict resolution that has been controversially revived and reformed to deal with genocide cases. Gacaca is founded on the principle that the community should reintegrate the individuals whom it punishes. Under gacaca’s plea-bargaining scheme, some convicted perpetrators who confess early enough will receive reduced sentences or be able to commute part of their sentences to community service. In April 2005, after three years of gathering evidence, gacaca courts convicted and sentenced the first wave of génocidaires, many to new prison ter...
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