Putting together the pieces, continued
Human rights observers have raised possible problems with the system, including intimidation of witnesses, lack of due process for defendants who are not represented by counsel and the fact that accusations against soldiers of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front that now controls the government are being overlooked.
"Observers have understandably raised critical questions about the gacaca courts," said Professor Henry Steiner '55, director of the HLS Human Rights Program, "but the courts also open up possibilities for seeking justice after genocide or other mass atrocities."
Umugwaneza knows the system has its flaws. But right now she believes it's her country's best hope. After a genocide, only so much truth can be known, she says. But the gacaca process, she believes, is getting at a lot of it.
She is all too familiar with the brutality of that truth. The gacaca courts are meant to facilitate reconciliation. But forgiveness, she said, is something that has to be talked about on an individual basis: "Most of us are finding it very, very difficult--almost impossible--to forgive and reconcile."
Last year gacaca had not yet begun in the area where Umugwaneza's mother and siblings had lived with her grandmother (her father had died of illness in 1990). But when Umugwaneza returned there last April, members of the community helped her identify villagers they believed had killed her family. Some of the suspects were already in prison. Some denied the allegations. But she heard how her mother and grandmother had been buried alive. How a killer chopped off her sister's arms and left her to suffer before she was hacked to death. How her brother was burned. How her youngest sister sought refuge with a cousin whose husband gave the 8-year-old up to be killed.
"They were not strangers," she said. "They were not strangers."
By then she'd known for years that her family had been murdered, but that couldn't prepare her for what she found when neighbors pointed to where the bodies were buried: "I wasn't ready to see my mother again."
Yet she did what was needed and dug where she was told.
Although she's reburied her family's remains in the village cemetery, the memories stay with her. Without her faith in God, Umugwaneza says, she could never move toward healing. As for forgiving the people who slaughtered her family: "I have kind of forgiven. But having forgiven--kind of--that doesn't mean that I don't want these people to be prosecuted."
Rwandan authorities say that over the past three and a half years, 75 percent of prisoners have admitted to crimes with the hope of receiving reduced sentences. Many survivors find this hard to accept. But at least, says Umugwaneza, now there is accountability.
"People may forgive, and eventually may be reconciled, but people are going to be punished. And that is also an achievement, to hold people accountable."
When Umugwaneza returns home, she'll work again in public service. Steiner, who supervised her paper on the gacaca courts, called her "an extraordinary woman, with extremely valuable perceptions about ideas like reconciliation and forgiveness." Umugwaneza says her year in Cambridge was a gift--not just to her but to her society.
The girl who was a refugee in Uganda has grown up to claim her national identity and the complicated legacy that it brings.
"We destroyed our country. It was in pieces," she said. "What we are trying to do through gacaca, through the reconciliation programs, is to pick up the pieces of our country and put them together and once again build a nation."
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