Preserving the Gacaca Archive – An Essential Challenge

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By Aline Umugwaneza, Gacaca Archivist 

In 2013, Aegis Trust partnered with Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG) to conduct a feasibility study about the future of genocide archives in Rwanda and how best to preserve them for generations to come. The aim was to secure and make them accessible for research, education and historical clarity. Since that time, I have worked with a small local and international team of archivists to assess the archives and work out what can be done to preserve this very important historical legacy.

One of these archives is that of the Gacaca Courts. When I first entered the building hosting these court archives, I realised that there was a tremendous amount of work to be done. There were huge stacks of unorganised cardboard boxes. Documents were mixed up, making it difficult to find all the records that form a case file. The physical condition was also not optimal. Handwritten documents with ink pen or even pencil were fading due to heat, water damage and numerous relocations. In the middle of that huge hall, full of deteriorating but essential documents, I wondered, “Where are we going to start?”

From there, we conducted regular visits to the team responsible for handling requests to access information in the archive. Talking to these people, we realised that the situation was even more urgent than we first thought. The retrieval of simple data was time consuming and exhausting for the staff. I asked myself, “What happens when there is a urgent request from the Ministry of Justice? How could the team possibly find the case file in time?”

It was a stressful situation. To find one document, staff had to abandon other activities and support their colleagues. Sometimes the request from the Ministry was so urgent that the staff failed to find the requested documents on time. I felt sorry for them. I truly understood how their work would be made so much easier if the archives were better preserved and organised.

One day, I heard the story of man who had been tried for genocide and found guilty. During his prison sentence he appealed the verdict, but the case could not proceed immediately because it took time to find his case file among the millions of others. He had to wait until his judgment copy was found. I imagined the frustration of someone who found themselves in this situation because of the state of the archive.

The exhausted staff and impact on justice gave me the motivation to dedicate my time, energy and care to the Gacaca Archive. I understood that we needed to act urgently to save these records. I knew that I could be part of the solution by helping to digitise, preserve and improve access to the archives.

Fortunately, I was not the only one to understand the emergency status of the Gacaca Archive. The Government of Rwanda, through CNLG, has made the preservation of the archive a national priority. Aegis Trust works as an implementing partner. The change is tangible: from three people in 2013, we are now 30 and soon we expect 70 more staff to join us.

Some of the main activities undertaken so far include:

  • Digital and physical preservation of the archive
  • Installing 11km of shelving to host the physical Gacaca records
  • Barcoding almost 18,000 archive boxes
  • Acquiring world-class, high-speed scanning machines
  • Training staff in digitisation and organising files
  • Improving the retrieval processes to ensure easy and quick access

With a business as usual approach, it would take more than 70 years to digitise the Gacaca Courts documents – 19,363 boxes with more than 63 million pages! That’s why we are increasing the digitisation infrastructure by adding more machines, more staff, and expanding the archive space to meet this challenge. With these efforts, we aim to digitise the archive and preserve the files over the course of the next few years.

The Gacaca Archive is essential, not only for ongoing justice, but for the education of future generations in Rwanda, across African and beyond. By working together with our partners, my hope for a future with a functioning digital repository will be a reality. With this in place, information retrieval will be easy and requests will be handled quickly which will serve both education and justice.

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