So, almost 18 years after the genocide, how do the fifteen survivors featured in The Men Who Killed Me: Rwandan Survivors of Sexual Violence, the book we co-edited in 2009, feel about gacaca?
Significantly, most of the survivors featured in the book were not among the claimants involved in the 7,000 cases of sexual violence dealt with between 2008 and 2009 in gacaca. The reasons for this vary:
► A few survivors’ cases had been dealt with before 2008.
► Several survivors did not know who had raped them, including survivors of rape perpetrated by French soldiers stationed in southern Rwanda.
► Many perpetrators had died or escaped the country by the time the gacaca proceedings began.
► Victims of sexual violence had also passed away (some from an AIDS-related illness or other rape-related trauma, as well as from other experiences in the genocide, as was the case for Françoise and Immaculée, both featured in our book).
► And some survivors simply chose not to participate, because they felt it would be too difficult to testify and were concerned that community members would find out they had been raped, even with special procedures for cases involving sexual violence in place.
For many of these reasons, only a small proportion of cases involving sexual violence have made it to trial, compared to the estimated number of women and men who survived sexual violence during the genocide.
Of the seventeen persons featured in The Men Who Killed Me, only two women testified against (some of) their rapists between 2008 and 2009 in gacaca, in closed session – and their experiences varied.
► For one woman, the gacaca proceedings, while not easy, allowed her to “free her heart” by speaking about what had happened to her. Participating and testifying in gacaca also brought her a sense of justice and reconciliation: she felt that the gacaca procedure had been effective, that the men who raped her were given the right sentence – life imprisonment – and that she was now able to reconcile with her attackers. (February 2012 photo of survivors, by Anne-Marie de Brouwer)
► For another woman, gacaca gave her a sense of justice because it brought her respect: people accepted her testimony and the perpetrators were given life imprisonment. But she did not reconcile with the men who raped her, in part because they had infected her with HIV. She was also unsatisfied with the procedure in gacaca. Although she had testified in closed session, she noted that people from the community were able to listen and make disparaging remarks to her from the courtroom windows, which the entire panel of Hutu judges did nothing to address.
In spite of this potential for stigma and isolation, a number of survivors told us that had the individuals who raped them been identifiable, alive or in Rwanda, they would have wanted to testify against them in court. What was also apparent from our interviews with the survivors was that irrespective of whether they had testified about their own experiences of sexual violence, they had participated in and testified about other crimes, so were able to evaluate gacaca from this perspective.
Participation and testifying in gacaca was traumatizing, healing and empowering
Overall, all survivors felt that recounting and reliving what had happened to them or hearing what had happened to their loved ones in gacaca was very traumatizing.
Many broke down in the process, but – when testifying – continued speaking after judges gave them time to regain their composure. In spite of how difficult it was to participate and testify in gacaca, many also felt that doing so had unburdened their hearts, healed and empowered them.
But for one person, all survivors said that they felt that participating and testifying in gacaca had been very important to them, for a diversity of reasons:
► Some felt that it was an opportunity for the truth to be uncovered, including learning how their families were murdered and where their remains lay;
► Some felt it brought them emotional relief and enabled them to forgive;
► Some felt a sense of recognition for the harms they experienced because they had an audience before gacaca;
► One survivor felt that some perpetrators sincerely apologized and asked for forgiveness;
► Some learned that the genocide’s perpetrators also had the capacity to help Tutsi survive during the genocide and that there were Hutu who testified against fellow Hutu who had committed crimes during the genocide;
► Some felt they were able to better understand why fellow Rwandans committed the crimes they did during the genocide;
► Some were relieved to see perpetrators sentenced; and
► Several felt they were able to face perpetrators and to live together with them again.
Most survivors felt that participating and testifying in gacaca provided them – and Rwandans generally – justice and reconciliation.
Their understanding of these terms varied from being able to judge and punish the genocide’s perpetrators and exposing “the truth” (justice) to “coming together again”, and being asked for forgiveness by, and forgiving, those who had harmed them (reconciliation).
Survivors told us that they felt that the gacaca proceedings were conducted in a fair way overall, and that it had reconciled Rwandans so they were able to live together again. Before gacaca was introduced, the survivors said that Hutu and Tutsi could not even greet each other on the streets without feelings of anger, but now they could greet one another again, come to each other’s rescue in times of need, attend the same meetings and even intermarry. Notably, several survivors mentioned that, initially, they did not feel safe testifying in gacaca, but over time and with better security put in place by Rwandan authorities, most could return to their old homes without being afraid of the former genocidaires who still live there.
What struck us as most remarkable was the survivors’ ability to forgive.
Most survivors told us that they had forgiven those who had attacked them and their families, some even when perpetrators had not admitted their crimes or asked for forgiveness. As one woman told us:
'Those that killed our people can never bring them back to life. For us to have a relationship with them is to forgive them. I have to forgive them, because they cannot bring back our people.'And another:
'I just forgave them, so that I would feel relief in my heart, because there is nothing else I can do.'One person said she had forgiven the unknown perpetrators who had attacked her and her family because the crimes they committed were spurred by policies implemented by the regime at the time. For many, forgiving those who harmed them was the first step to enable them to continue with their lives.
(Tomorrow's post: As end of gacaca nears, looking toward more attention to post-genocide trauma from sexual violence)