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Finding justice in Rwanda's hidden horrors


At the International Criminal Court in Tanzania, Rwanda's genocide masterminds are brought to justice. Photo by Andrea Lynett. 

By Andrea Lynett

“In our home, we would rise and kill Tutsis before we got on the truck,” says an anonymous witness about the lorry he rode to find their next victims during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. “And please, do not be surprised, even when we came back from church, we killed people.”

Disturbing testimony from a killer about the 100 days where innocent civilians lost their lives over Rwanda’s deeply imbedded ethnic tensions has been all too common since the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal (ICTR) began in 1995. 

The trials serve as an attempt by the international community to bring the masterminds and their accomplices to justice and provide victims with a sense of closure to a horrific past.

During the genocide, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutu’s lost their lives. As Richard Dowden, a British correspondent wrote, “Rwanda’s horrors made a mockery of the media clichés of death and destruction.”

“Let me warn you please, you will not be able to pick up my file, it is too heavy,” says the accused, referring to the crimes he committed. “I have no interest to hide anything. I am ready to pour everything out of my heart and admit all that I did.” 

The case is known as the Ndahimena trial. At the centre of the case is a once-popular businessman who has been accused of being the ringleader behind the deaths of over 2000 Tutsis’s who sought refuge at a church compound in Kivumu district, Ruhengeri, on an April morning in 1994.

Looking sharp in a freshly pressed blue pin stripped suit, the accused sat attentively behind his lead lawyer during the anonymous witness’s testimony, smirk on his face.

“I blundered, I killed, I destroyed. I had the right to do all that,” he says. “There were people who considered me an accomplice and if you killed anyone, you were free of suspicion.”

And so the killings continued.

In order to bring majority of the genocidal architects to justice, one would need years and sufficient manpower. Recognizing the difficulties this particular situation poses, the UN gained the assistance of a different type of justice system designed to hold those accountable for their crimes.

In 2001, the Rwandan government set up open-air community trials, called the Gacaca courts, to judge those responsible for crimes during the genocide. As of 2009, the traditional justice system had tried about 1.5 million cases, with about 4000 still pending when they closed in June of last year.

Critics feel the traditional courts strip an accused of a fair trial under international law, since they do not follow the same procedures and consequently put survivors and at times, an accused, at risk of retribution. According to UN news, a genocide survivor whose parents died in 1994 was killed under suspicious circumstances shortly after testifying at one of the trials.

Similarly, the ICTR has faced its own set of challenges over the years, with an exorbitant amount of cases, lengthy trial proceedings—one trial started in 2003 and spanned 404 trial days—and budgetary constraints.

However, both may serve as a warning to those muddling over committing atrocities, and hopefully these trials will assist in preventing future genocide.

“Each year Rwanda is marking genocide day, so embassies and the UN organize events to remember those who died,” explains Kapana, a Tanzanian reporter I befriended at the trials. “We take as an example as what [we should do] to make sure genocide does not ever happen in our country."

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