Justice On The Grass: Restorative Justice In Rwanda
Today, for the first time since arriving in Rwanda, I saw a truckload of genocide perpetrators being taken back to prison after a day of roadwork. How do I know that they were genocide perpetrators, you ask? Easily: imprisoned genocide perpetrators must wear pink jumpsuits to distinguish themselves from the other prisoners, who are clad in orange.
It was a rainy day, and I was heading to a local cafe to do work on a social performance audit for Hekima Microfinance, one of Kiva’s partners in the DRC. I hopped off the bus and was waiting to cross the street when the prison truck drove by, and I saw them: about 20 perfectly normal-looking, approximately middle-aged prisoners piled onto the truckbed, wearing their signature pink jumpsuits. Being a fairly experienced traveler, I thought I had mastered the art of ‘playing it cool’ when faced with something out of the ordinary. Not this time; I couldn’t help but stare. I had never seen a truckbed full of mass murderers before.
It’s not that I expected genocide perpetrators to look like anything but normal people, but I don’t think that anything could have really prepared me for the fact that this is exactly what they looked like; normal people. Like you and me. Except unlike you and me, these people clad in pink helped hack thousands of their neighbors to death with machetes for 100 days in 1994. And yet here they are, out every day amongst the people whose family and friends were killed in the atrocities that they helped to commit. As I look around at the people of Kigali who are going on about their day while the perpetrators are being carted through the downtown area, I wonder; how does Rwanda move on after experiencing something so unspeakably awful?
The perpetrators in pink jumpsuits are actually part of this process of moving on. While some of the worst offenders are spending their lives in prison, the Rwandan government came to the conclusion that giving harsh life sentences to all those involved in the genocide of 1994 would only deepen the grudge that caused the Hutus to take up arms against the Tutsis in the first place. To help encourage restorative justice in Rwanda, the Rwandan Government established a system of Gacaca courts, based on the traditional court system. Gacaca literally means “justice on the grass”, and in these village courts, perpetrators are cross-examined by the very communities in which they committed their crimes. Both perpetrators and victims are involved here, and the process is meant to simultaneously encourage repentance from perpetrators, and forgiveness from survivors. In this system, perpetrators are often encouraged to come forward and admit their crimes for a lesser sentence. Which brings us back to our prisoners in pink.
Perpetrators who are considered to be minor genocidaires are allowed to serve minimal sentences and be re-integrated into society, but must wear their signature pink jumpsuits during the re-integration process. This is symbolic of Rwanda’s approach to moving on; in order to live after a genocide, a nation must move upward and onward without forgetting the atrocities of the past. Living and working in a country where there has been a genocide in my lifetime has been an incredibly complex experience, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully comprehend the atrocities that happened in this beautiful country 16 years ago. All I can hope to do is continue to learn about the 800,000 victims of the 1994 genocide, and by doing so, do my small part to keep their memory alive.
I learned much of the information in this post through the Kigali Memorial Centre, founded by Aegis Trust. They’ve really done a great job educating the public about the atrocities of 1994: http://www.kigalimemorialcentre.org/old/index.html
Caitlin Ross is a member of KF13, working with Amasezerano Community Bank in Kigali, Rwanda