Rwanda has a duty to preserve and digitise the Gacaca Archives

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By Dr Jean-Damascène Gasanabo – Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide

On the 11th December 2014 an important conference took place at the Lemigo Hotel in Kigali. Delegates from Rwanda, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and diplomatic corps, hosted by the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG), discussed an issue that impacts heavily on the future for all Rwandans: the Preservation & Digitisation of the Gacaca Archives.

At the moment, the Gacaca Archives consist of some 18,000 boxes containing over 60 million handwritten pages of unique documentation. Alongside this wealth of information can be found video recordings and audio testimonies on DVDs, magnetic tapes, cassettes and CDs. Together, these materials document the worst tragedy of the late twentieth century and the process that brought justice to Rwanda. They are also a historical source without parallel in the world, allowing an unprecedented and unrivalled insight into the darkest days of Rwanda’s past. They must not be allowed to be lost.

Gacaca proceedings were a home-grown solution based on ancient Rwandan justice traditions. The courts, set up in 2001, brought transitional justice to the villages and communities that had been destroyed by the Genocide against the Tutsi and eased pressures on the national justice system, which could not cope with the caseload. Local, elected judges presided over trials where suspected perpetrators could answer accusations levelled against them and be examined by their neighbours and family. All processes were recorded for posterity and testimonies often shed light on previously unknown events of the Genocide against the Tutsi. The documentation was held at the National Service for Gacaca Jurisdictions until 2010, when they were transferred to their current home with the CNLG. The CNLG is responsible for conserving this vital source of information for future generations.

At time of writing, the Gacaca Archive is in dire straits. It has been noticed that documents are becoming badly damaged or that the ink is fading away. In addition, there is little order to the archives and documents are often difficult to find, if they have not been misplaced in transit or lost completely. The staff working with the archives do not have access to modern research tools or search aids, so rely on painstaking sorting and shifting in order to respond to demands for documentation from outside. This is a slow process, even with current CNLG attempts to force a modicum of order on the archive by arranging the boxes by place. What is more problematic is that the archives are incomplete – some documents are kept separate – and, more worrying still, there are no back up protocols in case of disaster.

As matters stand, the archives are not being utilised to the height of their potential. What could be a shining beacon of knowledge and inspiration is instead a guttering flame at risk of being extinguished for ever. We repeat that this must not be allowed to happen. The archives tell the stories of all Rwandans during the Genocide against the Tutsi, they must be preserved to maintain the dignity of survivors and remember those who were lost. This is even more important as time passes and newer generations lose the direct memorial link to the places and events of 1994. The voices of Rwanda’s ancestors, be they written or recorded audio-visually, must keep telling their tales.

For these reasons, the preservation and digitisation of the Gacaca archives has become a necessity. Working with partners from across the world, the CNLG would preserve this vital source of important information, cultural memory and Rwandan history. Digitalization would also open the door to new avenues of research as scholars from across the globe could access the information quickly and easily. Lawyers and jurists would not have to wait months before essential information relating to their case was found, and judicial proceedings would speed up considerably. Families would be able to search for the stories of their loved ones and would have a response in minutes thanks to modern search technologies and information pathways.

Rwandan workers would gain valuable skills in IT and technology from the process, and Rwanda would host one of the world’s largest databases of this kind. The information would no longer be at risk of being lost – either through disaster or degradation – and would stay safe for generations to come.

Rwanda has a duty to remember and the digitisation of the Gacaca Archives will preserve the memory of the Genocide against the Tutsi for many generations to come.

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