Unfinished Business in Rwanda


My colleague in Nairobi, Sudarsan Raghavan of the Washington Post, has an engaging piece about the ongoing search for justice in Rwanda. The small central African nation observed the 20th anniversary of the genocide this week, in which at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus (many put the figure well over a million) were killed in short order, often by friends and neighbors.

“In our lifetime we shall continue to pursue them, and those who come after us will continue to pursue them,” Jean Bosco Mutangana, a Rwandan prosecutor and head of the Genocide Fugitive Tracking Unit told Raghavan. “You cannot have reconciliation without real, true justice being done.”

The unit works out of adjacent homes in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Reading about their work – and Rwandan society’s halting efforts to come to terms with the genocide – reminded me so much of Germany in the 1960s. The equivalent of the Genocide Fugitive Tracking Unit, the Central Office in Ludwigsburg, was founded at the end of 1958. A small, dedicated team of prosecutors and police hunted perpetrators but ran into resistance from society at large, as well as colleagues with ties to the National Socialists.

Rwanda is grappling with some of the same questions of how a nation comes to terms with such an unfathomable catastrophe and the presence of countless perpetrators plowing the fields or working at the corner store. As the Allies learned after World War II, it’s impossible to lock up half a country. People would starve. It took Germany decades to come to terms with their collective guilt and begin to actively commemorate and vigorously prosecute. With Tutsis in top leadership positions from President Paul Kagame down that hasn’t been the issue in Rwanda.

There are plenty of other differences as well. For lower-level offenders, even those who committed multiple murders, local tribunals known as gacaca courts have been used that are closer to truth and reconciliation tribunals than criminal prosecutions. Many killers live side-by-side with their victims. Some have become friends – AP’s Jason Straziuo movingly describes a woman who became friends with a man who cut off her hand with a machete – but many more live unhappily and uneasily beside the people who killed their families.

For those who haven’t been, Rwanda is a small country of verdant terraced hills. It’s a bit like if you photoshopped and filtered Tuscany until you made it so beautiful it verged on otherworldly. It is clean and orderly – Kigali has none of the chaos and congestion of Nairobi – but there’s an underlying tension. People fear losing control.

The government is betting that, again like Germany, its own economic miracle will keep a lid on tensions, as I reported earlier this month. So far it’s worked. Rising living standards help but few people want to see a return to the dark days of April 1994.

Photo courtesy of Rachel B. Doyle

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