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Reconciliation in Rwanda

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A ‘gacaca’ trial in progress.

The reconciliation process in Rwanda has been widely criticised, but amid its faults and weaknesses, the country has made remarkable progress and incredible stories of forgiveness and hope have emerged.

Rwanda tragically became known to the world during the genocide in 1994 in which almost a million people died in three short months. Simultaneous to the genocide, a civil war was raging between the army and Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a movement of Rwandan refugees in Uganda, seeking to return to their homeland. As the RPF brought the genocide to an end, millions fled into the eastern DRC, creating a refugee crisis that resulted in another two million deaths.

In a country where almost every one of the seven million citizens was either a perpetrator or victim of violence (or, in some cases, both) and where resources had been completely devastated by war, post-conflict recovery was a near-impossible task. While aid assistance was pouring into the refugee camps in the eastern DRC, the new Rwandan government was faced with overcrowded jails, a non-existent judicial system and millions of displaced and wounded people.

Remarkably quickly, shops and schools were reopened, houses rebuilt and an attempt was made to create a functioning judicial system. But no formal judicial system would be able to try the millions of accused perpetrators. Instead, through extensive consultation with experts from around the world and drawing on Rwandan indigenous practices, gacaca was established. Gacaca was originally a traditional dispute resolution mechanism that involved the participation of the whole community in order to restore perpetrators to their communities.

The modern-day gacaca, which ran from 2002 until 2012, although roughly based on the traditional mechanism, incorporated several western legal practices (largely under pressure from international legal experts). In this article I discuss gacaca at length, arguing that although the modern version has lost some of the restorative aspects of the traditional mechanism, it has nevertheless played an important role in allowing communities to talk about what happened during the genocide, thus creating an historical record of events and a degree of closure.

The Rwandan government also established a reconciliation commission, a permanent body tasked with facilitating national reconciliation. The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission is perhaps the most coordinated body that has ever existed to ensure reconciliation takes place across a country.

The Commission has been criticised for taking an overly autocratic approach to reconciliation by insisting communities and organizations fall in line with their approach and agenda. The reconciliation process in Rwanda has further been criticised for being one-sided and ideologically loaded, excluding a majority of Rwandans from the process (read more about this here). However, the country has made remarkable progress in terms of development and there has been an absence of direct violence since the genocide.

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Jean Paul Samputu uses his music for reconciliation.

Apart from government intervention, individuals and communities have incredible stories of healing and forgiveness to tell. Several remarkable books have emerged, written by survivors of the genocide who have forgiven those who massacred their families. In some communities perpetrators and survivors have had to live side by side; many have found ways of living together peacefully and, in some cases, have reached out to one another in the beginnings of a healing process.

Although widely criticised, Rwanda’s reconciliation process is likely to become just as much a model as South Africa’s because the country has walked a unique path, drawing on its own, indigenous dispute resolution mechanisms. Where other countries (such as Sierra Leone and potentially Burundi) have been strongly influenced by donor countries, Rwanda has worked out its own way forward. This makes the reconciliation process in Rwanda an important one to follow.

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