Casual Chats With A Murderer

November 18

Before the genocide, there were approximately 8 million people living in Rwanda. After, the conditions were strikingly different. One million corpses. Four million people in exile. One million murderers. Rwanda was dead. It is absolutely incredible to look at the conditions immediately after the genocide (90% of Rwanda’s budget depended on the generosity of foreign aid, for example) and compare them today (45% is now comprised of foreign aid, not even two decades later). Rwanda has done an astonishing job of rebuilding, its accomplishments due in no small part to its strong governmental leadership. Though President Paul Kagame’s political strategies have recently been criticized in the international community, this country has advanced to a point of incredible development in spite of its tender age of 16 years (if you count only the peaceful years…and they do).

It was 1994, and Rwanda was in tatters. Paul Kagame, the new leader of this broken nation, was faced with astounding challenges – healthcare, education, infrastructure, proper burial of the dead, and prosecution of genocidaires were only a few of his problems, and each one was the MOST urgent issue. One of the most pressing issues was manifested in the country’s need to take murderers off its streets to the safety and satisfaction of the surviving public. Where would a country roughly the size of New Jersey incarcerate one eighth of its population? And where would the country go from there? The United Nations’ program, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was formed to help prosecute the organizers and leaders of the genocide. (About damn time, UN! Food for thought: was the United Nations’ eagerness to participate in prosecution of genocide crimes too little, too late for Rwanda, or was it right for them to step in when they neglected to before? Form your own opinions on that one…and if you’re curious, there are several books from various viewpoints which assess the effectiveness of the UN on matters of genocide and other crimes against humanity. It‘s fascinating, frustrating, messy stuff, but well worth looking at.) The downside (one of several) was that Rwanda was left with everyone else. This included murderers, looters, rapists, and vandals – anyone who did not happen to be a mastermind fell to the jurisdiction of Rwanda’s local governments. It was obvious that if every perpetrator were tried formally, it would take well over one hundred years to finally finish the process. In the meantime, families of victims would be receiving no justice, the country would be allowed no peace, and the genocidaires may never even see legal consequences to their crimes. It was a system too inefficient and small for a catastrophe of such magnitude, and it left the country divided once again. Kagame’s solution? An old Rwandan fallback method of working out disputes which allowed the entire community to participate, give input, and see justice served to a restorative end (in lieu of retribution): Gacaca.

Gacaca, pronounced “Gah-cha-cha,” is a kind of grass which grows under trees. When there was ever a problem or dispute between members of a particular village or community, the entire group affected would meet under the tree to mediate, be honest, and resolve the situation to the satisfaction of all who observed. This is how the fate of the perpetrators of genocide would be decided. Imagine this: The court is held outside. A few men and women sit at a table in a row. They wear sashes that designate their authority as Gacaca Court justices. They have earned this title simply by being able to read and write, and by being “honorable citizens” approved by the rest of the community. A few men (and sometimes but less commonly women) are seated in a row wearing pink jumpsuits and handcuffs. Often an entire village will be seated on the ground, including survivors, family members of victims, and witnesses. At these trials, the defendants in pink will have an opportunity to speak to their innocence or to confess their crimes, and anyone in the community who wishes to speak either way – witnesses, family members, anyone who knows anything – is allowed time in front of the court. They will stand amidst the sitting crowd and speak what they know to be the truth. This is an effective trial strategy for a society whose entire frame of reference is one which is communal, as well as cathartic for victims and witnesses to be able to have a hand in justice for those people who have hurt them so badly. The judges find perpetrators innocent or guilty and sentence them with more leniency if they tell the truth of what they did. In exchange for information about where bodies are buried, details of murders, exposition of other names of genocidaires, and a request for forgiveness, genocidaires may receive a number of different types of leniency, including a sentence to a work camp called TIG.

Pronounced “teej,” this organization works exclusively with genocidaires who have admitted to their own guilt in the perpetuation of genocide. I visited these guys the other day with my fellow genocide nerds and we had the opportunity to ask these guys some questions.

We hiked a little ways down a mountain to where some men and women were working. They work all day every day doing some old-school rock breaking with sledgehammers and fire pits. It is definitely backbreaking stuff. At first, I didn’t feel bad for these guys at all. They killed people. Brutally. Ten or twenty years of this is a cakewalk, a handout. I found myself actively hoping that they suffered under the hot equatorial sun, that every time they got splinters of rock in their eyes they would remember why they were there, experiencing such bad conditions. I found even less pity for the women – it takes some crazy groupthink give-in to kill people in the street with machetes as the men did, but it takes a special kind of irreverence for human life to participate in what these women did. When I found out what they had done, why they were here 16 years later, I had only rage for them. In my mind, someone who takes Tutsi children and suffocates them by throwing them into latrines and holding them under until they suffocated in shit, or who takes Tutsi babies and swings them by their feet against trees and the walls of church buildings deserves a heck of a lot more than ten years of pounding rocks for gravel in a place where there’s sweet-smelling trees and a nice breeze to tickle your face. After seeing Murambi (see post: “Genocide: Everybody Loses”) and the fruits of such labor, it was incredibly hard for me to see these people are human beings instead of soul-less, evil killing machines.

We approached one of the men who was working on this hulkish rock, pummeling it into smaller chunks that would be used to gravel or cobblestones for the roads. We watched as he swung the giant hammer over his head and let gravity take it down. It is difficult not to think of how these very people used tools in the same way 16 years ago, save for the fact that instead of a rock beneath the force of the hammer there would be a human being. That’s not fair, and I realize that…but the mind sometimes associates what it wants. He stopped his work and came over to us at the beckoning of another man who had been chatting with my advisor. The man’s eyes were averted to the ground until he came face to face with us. When he lifted them, I saw exactly what I thought I would never find at this camp: sadness. There are defiant eyes, there are dark, angry eyes, there are emotion-less eyes…and, apparently, there are sad eyes. This man’s despair was obviously profound, in spite of the fact that he was actually to be released forever that very day. He was not excited to be going back home to his family, and he was not confident that his community would accept him, but it was the reality of his situation and he was going to accept that. We asked him several things – how many people did he kill, has he been forgiven by his family and by the families of his victims, why did he do it, has he forgiven himself? His answers were honest and candid, and he accepted responsibility for his actions, which is not as common as one would like to think. “The radio made me do it!” and “The government pressured me!” are not acceptable defenses for this behavior in my book, but they are the most commonly used. In a way, they are somewhat valid. The masterminds of the genocide knew that Rwandese people are extraordinarily obedient, and they capitalized on that as well as the attitudes fostered by the Belgians about the oppression of the Hutu.

As this man spoke, he showed an immense amount of shame and remorse for what he had done. He said that he had made peace with God for his actions, but that he still experienced guilt. He gave a faint smile at the mention of his release, and I was struck by the fact that this guy was nervous to see these people. Yes, he should be, and he should feel remorse and regret and all of those lovely things that go along with mass murder, but this guy was just pitiful. He was swept up (by choice, we must remember) into this serial-killers-r-us effort, and he must live with that for the rest of his life. He has a wife and children and those people, the people that many of us depend on for our love and acceptance, will always see him as a man who killed several people out of hatred. He missed his children’s childhood. He missed out on his own younger years. He took away entire lives. Now, having realized the gravity of what he has done, he must live with this reality for the rest of his existence. It really was pitiful to watch this man speak of his shame and guilt and the fact that he would have to face these people today. I found myself caught between hatred and love for this guy, and I realized that the President had put these guys in this camp because he knew that abiding in hatred was not going to unite or heal his country. He put these people to work to rebuild the country they had worked so hard to destroy, and sought to reintegrate these people into their home villages.

The survivors of this genocide have been faced with the hardest decision a human being must make: They must live side by side with these killers. Do they forgive them and love them and show them the mercy they could not show their victims, or do they give them the hatred and the ill-wishes that they have earned? Forgiveness means different things to different people, but it seems that Rwanda has chosen forgiveness in its varying degrees over a life of hatred. They have said “enough is enough” to the cycle of disgust and violence that began so many years ago, and now they seek a united front in which they can work together for the good of their nation and their children. So many of these people know that if they are to survive and see their grandchildren live in peace, they must stop the hatred here. They have shown mercy, and so far, have not been disappointed. I envy them that ability. I don’t know if I could love these guys, and I wasn’t even here to see the results of their efforts. It had nothing to do with myself or my family, and I don’t know if I can get there. But after seeing the way people forgive, I can promise to try.

We might just take a lesson from these merciful, compassionate, loving human beings. If they can forgive their neighbor for killing their child, and if they can hold no ill will for the people who made their families suffer in this red dirt, then what are we doing holding grudges against one another for small offenses, for political disagreements, for differences in perspective? This world will continue to be built on love and destroyed by hate. If both forces are at work at all times, then our contributions surely must make a difference. Which side will we support as human beings with one shot at this life? This choice is one which we must make constantly, and as we choose we fulfill our responsibility as members of this amazing human race to take care of one another. When we forgive, we live lives of grace and allow one another to do the same. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”


Posted by on November 18, 2010 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “Casual Chats With A Murderer

  1. Imenagitero

    November 18, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    At least the author of this article had time to investigate issues in Rwanda. I do commend him for being objective. May be this article can one time be refered to on various researches about Rwanda.

  2. Carol

    December 9, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    I smiled to see that the comment before mine assumes you are male. Ah, male chauvenism lives. I myself, knowing you, am amazed sometimes at the depth of your maturing this last semester. To forgive is perhaps one of the most challenging of all the charges we are given. Trying to translate that into our lives as a mind-set is past most of our doing. I wish you well in the attempt, dear one.