“Well, President, I manage…”

In a speech today at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, President Paul Kagame spoke on “The Challenges of Nation-building in Africa.” He focused on Rwanda, and in so doing referred to the legacy of the genocide:

And so when faced with a huge and divisive problem of millions of genocide suspects and an equally large number of genocide survivors living in the same country, and in many cases, the same neighbourhoods, we referred to our culture and came up with a workable solution.

We chose a multi-dimensional view of the problem – justice, reconciliation, healing and forgiveness – and sought a system that would enable us to move forward. Through Gacaca courts, Rwandans were able to administer a difficult but necessary restorative justice in spite of opposition from many quarters.

Opposition to gacaca has been well chronicled, but as Philip Gourevitch wrote in his remarkable essay – “The Life After” – in The New Yorker to mark the 15th Anniversary of the genocide – though survivors do not speak well of gacaca, few consider there was a better option. As Gourevitch writes:

I never did meet a survivor who spoke well of gacaca. “It’s awful,” a friend of mine in Kigali said, a gentle family man of enormous quiet strength, who had served for a time as a minister in Kagame’s government, and now worked in the private sector. For nearly a year, he had had to go back again and again to the village where his mother had lived to attend the trials of her murderers. He was glad to learn the truth, but he said, “The arrogance of these guys-just standing there, telling how they killed my mother, where they threw her. It was nothing to them. So arrogant.” He found the confessions unbearable; others complained of the stonewalling, the denials and evasions. A woman who had just sat through the gacaca trial of a man accused of helping to kill one of her brothers told me, “They all say the same thing-‘I was sick during the genocide, I never left the house, I never looked out the window.’ It’s ridiculous. This man’s own brother was already convicted of killing my brother, and it’s this guilty brother of his who implicated him.” The woman told me that of her parents’ ten children six had been killed in 1994, and that those who survived had all been in Europe. “They talk about reconciliation. It’s the reverse. Every time I come to gacaca with an open mind, I just get more upset.”

But none of the survivors I spoke with thought that there was any better solution. Never mind reconciliation, Tutsis and Hutus had to coexist. Sagahutu expressed the sentiment most succinctly: “It’s our obligation, and it’s our only way to survive, and I do it every day, and I still can’t comprehend it.” When I repeated Sagahutu’s formulation to other survivors and to members of Kagame’s Cabinet, it was always met with recognition: Yes, that’s it. So what was required politically was emotionally incomprehensible, and the President’s idea of the common good hung in the balance.

“At the beginning, it is very fragile, but with time I think it holds,” Kagame told me. “People’s hearts and minds need some time to heal. A very long time indeed. They will probably need a whole generation, and the memories will keep lingering.” Then he told me a story. Every year, on April 7th, Kagame presides over a national genocide-commemoration ceremony at one of the major massacre sites that have been preserved as memorials to the victims. In 2005, the ceremony was at Murambi, where a young man in his mid-twenties got up to speak. “A survivor,” Kagame said. “Somebody who actually was killed, almost, and dumped in a mass grave of close to four thousand people. Our forces arrived after they had just been killed and brought out twelve people from the mass grave who lived, survived. They had been cut with machetes and were in very bad shape. They were treated and nursed, and over time this young person was there giving testimony of what happened.”

Kagame told me that when the young man got to the end of his account he said, “Recently, some of those people who killed our families and killed us have been released. . . . They are there in the village living normally.” It was Kagame, of course, who had issued the order granting the killers their reprieve, so after the ceremony he called the young man over. “And I asked him, How do you manage? When you meet them, what do they tell you or what do you tell them? What is your feeling? I want you to genuinely tell me how you feel. This young man looked me in the face and he said, ‘Well, President, I manage because you ask us to manage.’ “

Kagame repeated the man’s words in a tone of some astonishment-“This is what he told me. He said, ‘President, I manage because you ask us to manage’ “-as if he had only just heard in them the echo of the soul-molding power of his office. But there was a chastening twist at the end of the young survivor’s story.

It turned out that the released killers avoided him in his village. “They would rather take another route,” Kagame said. “When he passes them, they always look down. It was very revealing. You see, it’s like, We are managing because what else?”

In other words, I suggested, the young man wasn’t managing so well, after all.

“Yes,” Kagame said. “That’s really what he meant.”

Such was the hard bargain of Rwanda’s reconciliation project. The common presumption among Western critics of gacaca, who lodge their complaints in the language of international law and human rights, is that the system fails to offer the accused sufficient protection and consideration. But the shortcomings cut both ways. “Not the victims, not the perpetrators-nobody will tell you he is happy with the gacaca,” Kagame said, and he thought that was probably the best one could hope for. He didn’t want either side to be happy-“because whichever way we go we are left with nothing.” Gacaca, he said, “gives us something to build on,” and he understood that ultimately the system asked more of survivors than it does of génocidaires.

“That’s the dilemma,” Kagame said, and he added, “The heart of the matter is in these stories.” Then, after a moment, he said, “In April, when I’m talking to whatever part of the audience that I address on that commemoration day, I have a moment to spill out this anger. In politics or in diplomacy, you don’t spill out the anger sufficiently. And that’s why one time I said, I wish I had to fight another war, literally.” He went on, “The battlefield has a definition, it has very clear lines, and even though it relies on tactics and strategy and bravery and so on, it provides the way to vent your anger and get it out. But managing these fluid situations, and then the politics and the histories and the cultures-fighting this in the way we do in modern times consumes a lot of energy and drives somebody crazy.”

This does not lessen the problems for survivors resulting from gacaca, particularly well documented in the African Rights and Redress report, “Survivors and Post-Genocide Justice in Rwanda.” In a study just published by Dr Karen Brounus in the International Journal of Conflict Resolution, the risks to survivors of suffering trauma and depression from giving evidence at gacaca was markedly high.

Survivors Fund (SURF) continues to work to address the post-genocide issues of survivors. Gacaca served as a step towards restorative justice for survivors. However, there is still some way to go.

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