Gacaca – Rebuilding Rwanda’s Social Fabric

Dr Karen and Dr William Froming

By Dr Karen Froming

In June 2005, I visited the University of Rwanda in Butare with a group of faculty and graduate students in Clinical Psychology from Palo Alto University. We came to teach about Trauma Responses and Trauma Self-Help treatment methods as well as share experiences about mental health treatment. Dr William Froming and I also taught our students about the Genocide against the Tutsi and the commonalities among genocides in the world. We discussed how each member of a society must be a watchdog for the warning signs of prejudice, stereotyping and dehumanisation.

While in Butare, we were honoured to receive an invitation to the Gacaca court that met in the town auditorium each Wednesday afternoon. We had wondered what could happen to bring perpetrators to justice. We knew the architects of the Genocide were being tried as part of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha. Surely it would be an impossible job in this small country to hear testimony of so many tens of thousands of perpetrators. My own psychology assessment work with individuals facing the death penalty in the United States gave me particular interest in this uniquely Rwandan restorative justice of ‘meeting on the grass’. Gacaca is the Kinyarwanda word for a patch of grass.

For Rwanda, it was the only way they could begin a healing process. Being a tradition-based, home-grown method of tackling community problems, Gacaca involved the community of survivors, accused, bystanders, and leaders of the community chosen by the community. My own impression was that involving everyone in the process had the possibility of re-building a group or community identity.

The social fabric of the country that was integral to Rwanda had been completely torn apart by the Genocide. I was so impressed by the struggle, hard work, pain and the ownership of the adjudicative process. While so clearly heart breaking and difficult to see survivors painfully retelling their stories, it was humbling to be able to observe the process.

Each member of my group had a student who translated what was being said as we stood in the back of the room. Member of the leadership and judicial committee took notes and managed the crowd of approximately 300 people. Every ear was focused on the proceedings. The sense of duty for Rwandans was evident. I wondered if this could work in our country. Were we courageous and disciplined enough to endure facing each other, killer and survivor, in such a way?

The accused stood while witnesses were called, identifying the perpetrator, describing the people who had been killed, the property that had been destroyed and naming others who had also witnessed the horrors. They showed the most strength I had ever seen. The judges asked questions and then followed up with other witnesses. At the end of four hours, testimony had not yet been completed so all would return the following week to continue. This was one case that was taking time and patience to carefully proceed. The survivors at the hearing demonstrated a determination and strength that I do not know if I have.

I can say without any hesitation that it was a painful and difficult demonstration of Rwandans’ hope for the future, dedication to the country’s rebuilding, and a courageous step forward. Recovery and justice are hard to come by and that was the first step. It is an ongoing process to work through such unspeakable horrors, but the will of the people is strong and that was clearly demonstrated through Gacaca.

In the aftermath of the Gacaca courts, with the rise of genocide denial, the Gacaca Archive is vitally important to preserve. As we have seen recently with the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the dwindling number of eyewitness survivors, archives and documentation are the everlasting proof of what happened.

Important initiatives have arisen out of the valuable work of organisations in Rwanda such as Aegis Trust, including the Gacaca Archives project. These initiatives will continue to prompt global responsibility to speak out and take action against genocide and mass atrocity.

I am privileged to be a witness to the process of recovery, a witness to the stories of survivors, and to be someone invested in ongoing mental health recovery in Rwanda.

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