Grassroots Justice? Gacaca and the Trauma of Memory in Rwanda

By Dechen Albero

Photo: Pers-Anders Pettersson

Rwandan Genocide in Brief

Around 8:30 in the evening on 6 April 1994, a French plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi crashed after being shot down by a rocket-propelled missile while on final approach for landing in Kigali.  In less than an hour roadblocks were erected throughout the capital as soldiers and local militias mobilized to defend a nation many perceived as under attack from an internal menace.  As peacekeepers mandated by the United Nations passively watched, the Hutu ethnic majority embarked on a systematic campaign of extermination against the Tutsi minority.  Every social bond was severed in the wake of a totalizing terror where friends, neighbors and family members turned against each other.   Churches, hospitals and schools became sites of spectacular violence as priests condemned entire congregations to slaughter, doctors murdered their patients, and teachers hacked students to death with machetes.   In the span of only one hundred days, approximately 800,000 individuals were annihilated before the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), an émigré Tutsi rebel faction from southern Uganda, finally won a four year civil war after seizing Kigali and forcing the genocidaires to seek refuge in then Zaire.

This paper is concerned with what happened in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.  It aims to understand how the Rwandan genocide is incorporated into the collective memory of the nation and whether Rwandans have been able to overcome the trauma they experienced in the wake of the genocidal Hutu Power movement.  The first section provides a theoretical exposition on memory and trauma in an endeavor to understand the relationship between these processes.  I also aim to clarify the minimum requirements for working through trauma as they have been identified within the therapeutic setting.   I then apply these to Rwanda through conducting a case study of gacaca, the novel process government officials instituted as a means of promoting reconciliation and establishing the truth of what happened during the genocide.  Ultimately, I argue rather than serving as a force to help Rwandans pass through their trauma and reconcile with family, friends and neighbors, gacaca is actually serving to retraumatize the populace and foment conflict in the community.

Memory and Trauma

Maurice Halbwachs, a French philosopher, advanced the thesis that memory is a social phenomenon that develops through individual engagement with others in society.  Although recollections arise in the mind, they are not possessed by individuals and do not inhabit the body, but rather “grow into us from outside.”1 As Halbwachs writes, “Since there is only an individual, and his memory cannot follow from his body, we must conclude that there is something outside his body yet nevertheless within the individual that can explain the recurrence of memories.”2 For Halbwachs, language is the chief mechanism that links the outer and inner worlds and serves as a condition of possibility for memory.  Language functions as the basis on which social conventions are established and these in turn order internal life by mediating consciousness and linking the individual with the social world.  Halbwachs claims the history of these social frameworks comprise a type of collective memory.  Moreover, just as collective memory evolves over time, is individual memory grows from the collective. In this way, Halbwachs argues social thought is embodied in individuals and groups and realized in the symbols, meanings and traditions they devise to recognize it.

Taking Halbwachs’ work as a point of departure, Jan Assmann has attempted to extend this line of thinking by positing the idea of cultural memory.  According to Assman, remembering necessarily entails making distinctions by highlighting certain things that stand out against a background at the expense of others.   At the collective level, that which stands out frequently possesses a unifying force capable of bonding individuals together and forging a common point of view.  As Assmann writes, “When collectives ‘remember,’ they thereby secure a unifying, ‘connective’ semantics that ‘holds them inwardly together’ and reintegrates their individual ‘members’ so that they possess  a common point of view.”3 Focusing on the role history plays as a bonding element, Assmann distinguishes between ‘hot’ societies that internalize history and ‘cold’ societies which seek to erase its effects.  He argues that conflicts involving religious and ethnic groups derive emotional force from the different ways in which they conceive the past in their collective memories and utilize it as a means of politicization.  Yet the horizon of collective memory is short and it is thereby subject to shifts and reinterpretations with each generation.  Assmann suggests a more comprehensive history exists in what he terms cultural memory where the horizon can potentially extend for thousands of years.  He describes cultural memory as akin to an archive containing “the age-old, out-of-the-way, and discarded… the noninstrumentalizable, heretical, subversive, and disowned.”4 In contrast to collective memory that bonds individuals together under a shared identity, cultural memory eschews simplicity and unanimity.  Complex, pluralistic and vast, cultural memory is a depository that contains previous iterations of group identity and reveals the tensions and contradictions inherent to these varying forms.  In short, cultural memory contains the raw material for writing the historiography of a nation.

Belying the comprehensive record of cultural memory and the archive, trauma resists such assimilation.  Traumatic events are real, but they are not localizable and refuse to adhere to norms of causation, time and order. Cathy Caruth writes that trauma “is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on.” Likening it to “a wound that cries out,” Caruth argues trauma endeavors to reveal a kind of truth about experience that is at the same time both known and unknown.5 Although rooted in individual lived experience, trauma remains unknown to the extent that it continually returns with a force that demands recognition, which is precisely what was denied in the first instance.  Trauma derives its impact from the fact of its belatedness and a refusal to be confined to any particular moment or place.  The sudden onset of trauma and continual re-experiencing of the event create a sense of crisis for the subject that may be further exacerbated by movement away from the traumatic site.  This has led Caruth to posit that trauma is a “double telling” or oscillation between crises of death and life that reveals the “unbearable”—both the event and survival.6

Yet the relationship between trauma and memory is more mysterious. “It is only in and through its inherent forgetting,” Caruth notes, that trauma “is first experienced at all.”7 To the extent that trauma constitutes a mental illness or disorder, Caruth suggests the symptoms are derived from history rather than from the unconscious.  In her view, individuals afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder suffer from “an impossible history” that they can never totally possess or assimilate.8 This history is marked by the repeated return and reliving of the event that seems to occur no matter how much the subject wills against it. However, it is also ‘impossible’ in the sense that the event is never completed and the ending is consistently deferred, foreclosing opportunities to move beyond it.  The event thereby continues into the present and the survivor seems doomed to repeat it unless she can understand what lies at the core of the experience.

Gaining such understanding is often the aim of those who recount their trauma to others. While this can be cathartic especially in a therapeutic setting, Dori Laub notes that the act of retelling can also be traumatizing if it leads to the individual reliving the event. As he writes, “[T]he telling might itself be lived as a return of the trauma—a reexperiencing of the event itself.”9 Research shows the chances of such a regression are especially high in one-session debriefings like psychoanalysis that involve short and intensive exposure to traumatic events.  Karen Broneus suggests witnessing and testifying in settings like a courtroom or truth and reconciliation commissions, which mimic the model of one-session debriefing, may yield similar results or even exacerbate trauma due to their lack of an empathic listener who can affirm the subject’s story.10 As Laub states, “For the testimonial process to take place, there needs to be a bonding, the intimate and total presence of an other—in the position of one who hears.  Testimonies are not monologues; they cannot take place in solitude.  The witnesses are talking to somebody:  to somebody they have been waiting for a long time.”11 However, the witnessing other cannot simply take in the tale being told.  She must be an active listener and endeavor to interpret the silence as much as the actual words being spoken.  Silences in testimony are pregnant with meaning and may communicate more about the trauma than words.  The observer who witnesses the survivor giving testimony of trauma must thereby be absorbed in the tale and it may be difficult for them to remain uncompromised as a result of their witnessing.

Through the act of giving testimony, a survivor is able to reconstitute her position as a witness.  She provides a narrative that bolsters her claim to memory by declaring that she was there, imploring observers to believe her and challenging them to seek confirmation from others.  Yet these mechanics fail to totally encapsulate the experience of testifying for witnesses in cases like genocide. Laub claims testifying in these situations plays an important role in determining who the subject will become and how she will live her life.  Testimony aims to establish the truth of what happened, which has been lost, but it also forces individuals to confront the loss and pass through it.  In doing so, survivors testify to an inhumanity that is seemingly beyond human understanding.  Yet their tales of misery and abject horror cannot be understood by those who were not exposed to the event.  Moreover, the participation of survivors in the horror as victims further divorces them from the realm of shared meaning. They have a lack of distance from the events and endeavor to communicate across a void with those who were not similarly involved. The result of such limit testimony is what Paul Ricoeur describes as “a judgment on the fly, a judgment without mediation, absolute blame.”12 Those witnessing the survivors’ testimony simply accept it as true without subjecting it to proper verification.  Even in the case of obvious anomalies, such as the Holocaust victim who recollects destroying four crematoria when only one was decimated,13 they are simply explained away by making recourse to more general sentiments of resistance.

Clearly testimony and witnessing are important functions for those attempting to overcome trauma or understand mass atrocity. But they are not without risks.  For the subject, testimony offers the possibility to bear witness to ‘truth’ while passing through trauma and finding a new subjectivity. However, it is just as likely to devolve into a reliving of the trauma especially in a courtroom setting that mimics the one-session debriefing of psychoanalysis.  In order for the subject to overcome trauma, she needs a sympathetic observer to witness her retelling of the story, listen to her narrative and the silences within it, and attempt to understand. This poses a significant challenge for the observer when the event—genocide—is so horrifying that it defies understanding. The nature of the experience being told affects the listening observer in such a way that she must forego objectivity and any real understanding.

In what follows, this singular account will be challenged by the case of the Rwandan genocide.  What happens when trauma is experienced on a collective level and how is this experience incorporated in the collective or cultural memory?  How do trauma survivors fare when they testify before a witness already intimately familiar with the details of their story?  Can individual testimony and witnessing “cure” a traumatized society?  These are the questions addressed below in the case study of gacaca.

Analyzing Gacaca14
The practice of gacaca, or “justice on the grass,”15 dates from pre-colonial times when it served as the first stage in the broader judicial system of the mwami, the Rwandan Tutsi king.16 Gacaca functioned as a form of conflict resolution whereby families aimed to settle disputes regarding property, inheritance rights, loans, vandalism and other small claims.17 Rather than simply resolving the dispute, the chief goal of gacaca concerned restoring social harmony and reintegrating those accused into the community.18 The inyangamugayo (judges, lit. ‘honest person’) were wise men from the community who possessed significant knowledge of local laws, community rules and right forms of conduct.  Viewed by their peers as professionals, members of the inyangamugayo convened gacaca whenever it was needed and crafted sessions in ways most conducive to resolving the issues at stake.  Since disputes were believed to affect the entire community, the inyangamugayo not only listened to the warring parties but actively sought the opinions and testimony of other male members before deliberating on punishment.19 Given the belief in collective responsibility, great care was taken in crafting penalties since they applied to every member of the offender’s family even if the fault lay solely with an individual.  The overriding goal of reconciliation also served to restrain the inyangamugayo from imposing excessively harsh penalties, though schisms did sometimes emerge between families as a result of the process, especially in cases of divorce.20

Despite successive waves of colonization by Germany and Belgium and the installation of an ethnic Hutu government following independence,21 gacaca continued to be practiced in local communities and it thereby served as a viable option in the post-genocide period for trying the vast number of accused genocidaires.  Over 120,000 Rwandans were imprisoned on charges related to the genocide in a country where the judicial system was ravaged, with only twenty judges having survived extermination.22 Officials estimated it would take up to 200 years to prosecute all criminals in proper Western-style courts.23 Nevertheless, the government did not waver in its determination to prosecute every individual accused given its belief that a culture of impunity dating from the Hutu revolution was primarily responsible for the genocide.24 Gacaca emerged as the only viable option for processing offenders and a bill authorizing trial in gacaca courts was passed in January 2001.  Ten months later over 90% of eligible voters participated in national elections to select over 250,000 ‘persons of integrity’ to serve as inyangamugayo in approximately 11,000 gacaca courts.25 These courts were tasked with processing category 2, 3, and 4 offenders of the 1996 Organic Law on the Organization of the Prosecution of Offences Constituting Crimes Against Humanity—individuals charged with murder and accomplices to murder, those who committed murder without the intent to kill, and those who damaged property.  Category 1 offenders who included leaders of the genocide, renowned killers, rapists and those who committed acts of sexual torture were only to be tried by official courts.  Moreover, the government limited the mandate of gacaca courts to offenses committed under the genocidal regime thereby prohibiting them from dealing with the alleged crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi dominated rebel army that ultimately liberated Rwanda and assumed power in July 1994.

While the use of gacaca to process those accused of committing crimes during the genocide represents a revival of traditional practice, it has assumed definitively non-traditional forms and goals.  Gacaca remains a local event and is even more open and participatory than in pre-colonial times given that women are involved at all levels including serving as inyangamugayo.  The criteria used in the selection of judges have not changed, and meetings are held in many of the same locales. Gacaca continues to aim primarily at reconciling communities by bringing together perpetrators and victims and promoting unity. However, much greater emphasis is placed on establishing the truth of what happened.  To this end, gacaca has assumed a codified form including written records and precise stages in trial proceedings. Gacaca tribunals begin by composing a list of all the individuals who resided in the community prior to the genocide and a secondary list of victims.  Prisoners are then pressured to confess while the ‘population’ (Hutus who witnessed the genocide) is commanded “to reveal all that they saw so that the truth [will] be known.”26 Those who confess must make an appeal to ‘survivors’ who are encouraged to offer forgiveness formally. The inyangamugayo thenpunish the offenders for their crime, often sentencing them to work programs as a means of reintegration into the community.

Gacaca has been transformed from an informal community intervention based in customary law to a state-led, formalized, quasi-legal proceeding designed to establish truth and ascertain guilt.   As Bert Ingelaere notes, “The relation between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Gacaca is not one of identity and not even of gradual continuity.  There is a difference in kind.  An essential change marks the installation of the Gacaca courts after genocide.”27 While government officials do not pretend gacaca strictly adheres to its indigenous form and argue the changes were necessary in order to render it a suitable forum for genocide trials, they nevertheless proclaim it as a distinctly traditional Rwandan response.  Indeed, gacaca has assumed an almost mythical status28 within Rwandan society where it is believed “capable of making all Rwandan problems disappear.”29 In a meeting prior to the start of gacaca tribunals in Gikongoro District, the mayor stated,

Rwanda has great confidence in gacaca because it will solve our problems and bring us reconciliation.  It is you, the population, who has to do it.  It is you who must participate.  In the first place, you must come here and tell the truth about what happened back in 1994.  If you lie, hate will remain, but if the truth is spoken, we will have reconciliation.  In the second place, those who participated in the genocide must be punished… Rwandans are very capable of solving their problems themselves.30

The mayor’s emphasis on truth telling, punishment, and the importance of Rwandans resolving their own problems echo the government line. Gacaca is no longer an autonomous process by which communities settle disputes and restore social harmony, but rather a government program tasked with reconciling a broken nation.

Central to the practice of gacaca is the confession.  Not only do confessions enable prisoners to be more expeditiously adjudicated but are also an important contribution to the written record of the genocide and ostensibly play a role in initiating the process of healing and reconciliation. The government has encouraged prisoners to admit their guilt and promise those who make sincere and truthful confessions will be granted reduced sentences and reintegration into their communities upon release.31 The confessions must provide as many details as possible regarding the offenses committed and prisoners are required to apologize to the survivors for the pain they have caused.  Given the fact that the majority of killings occurred at the hands of groups or militias, the government also demands that all confessions reveal the names of their co-conspirators.  This has proven especially problematic as prisoners are pressured to accuse innocent individuals while prisons become even more overcrowded.  While approximately half of all prisoners have confessed, statistics reveal 818,564 people have been accused and only 5% of these individuals admit their guilt in gacaca courts.32 Even more problematic is that confessions tend to minimize personal responsibility at the expense of others. The majority confesses to being members of the interahamwe, but claim to have refrained from killing and virtually no one admits to engaging in acts of sexual violence despite reports of over 250,000 rapes.  Moreover, the tone prisoners use when reciting their confessions at gacaca has angered survivors, who rightly believe many are confessing solely for the benefits to be gained.  The promise of reduced sentences means many are immediately eligible for release given the number of years they have already languished in prison awaiting trial.  As a result, gacaca has generated significant unrest among survivors who believe it is akin to amnesty and does not sufficiently seek redress for their suffering.

Whereas prisoners are tasked with confessing their role in the genocide, the duty of survivors is to offer forgiveness.  Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led the RPF to victory in July 1994, firmly believes reconciliation is a project that must be engaged in by all members of society.  Social reconstruction can only be achieved if survivors are willing to meet prisoners halfway.  Yet this has proven especially challenging given the nature of confessions described above as well as lingering feelings of insecurity and an overriding belief that gacaca has become a state project. As two Rwandan peasants summarized in a recent interview:

Evariste:  All this reconciliation and the confessions—that’s the program of the state.  And when a killer comes and asks your pardon you can’t do anything else.  You pardon him, but you don’t really know if it comes from your heart, because you don’t really know about the killer—if he is asking forgiveness from his heart.33

Mariane:  [Gacaca] is all theatre…  It doesn’t mean anything.  A killer is a killer, and you have to abandon them. I just can’t support it… If ever the occasion arose, if there was an opportunity, they would kill again. Because I think they’re all killers… Why didn’t they ask for forgiveness before gacaca?  It’s because of the President that they don’t kill. Forgiveness came from a Presidential order. He’s the one who pardoned them.34

Evariste and Mariane clearly illustrate the authoritarian nature of the Rwandan state, under which prisoners and survivors are rendered little more than actors playing scripted roles. Just as the previous regime capitalized on Rwanda’s culture of submission to authority by commanding Hutus to enact terror on the minority Tutsi community, so is the successor regime using the same framework from which to promote a policy of reconciliation. Former gacaca worker, Laurencie Nyirabeza, labels gacaca ‘an official thing’ and despite government rhetoric to the contrary, Rwandans are keenly aware of the divisions that remain in society.35 As a female peasant and Tutsi genocide survivor laments,

I don’t know what one ought to do to restore confidence between people, even on the radio they talk of unity and reconciliation, but I don’t see anything changing, the hearts of people have become like those of animals.36

Genuine forgiveness has proven illusive as survivors largely cannot accept the confessions offered at gacaca which offer horrible accounts of crimes without appropriate displays of remorse and shame. Yet they are not the only group that fears a return to the lawlessness of 1994.  Approximately 1000 prisoners who had been released voluntarily returned to prison fearing they would be attacked by neighbors if they tried to resume lives in their communities.37 Rather than healing communities and restoring social order, it seems gacaca might actually be exacerbating tensions and reinscribing an ‘us versus them’ dynamic that has characterized Rwanda since the Hutu Revolution.

This ethnic dynamic appears most vividly in the gacaca trials themselves.  Although the RPF government officially banned ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Hutu’ ethnic identifications shortly after seizing power in favor of the universal category ‘Rwandan,’ they live on in the gacaca classifications of ‘prisoner,’ ‘population,’ and ‘survivor.’  Despite the fact that many moderate Hutus were also targeted by the interahamwe militia, the category ‘survivor’ is reserved for ethnic Tutsis while Hutus who are not currently imprisoned are classified as the ‘population.’ Survivors and the population frequently assume polarized positions in gacaca trials when prisoners refuse to confess and testimony from witnesses is required. Prisoners often claim they are being unjustly persecuted by survivors who are seeking revenge for old family quarrels or simply lying to extract retribution. As one prisoner frankly stated, “The Tutsi want us to stay in prison for the rest of our lives.”38 Yet survivors likely feel pressure to accuse given that the population often refuses to testify to what they know despite openly discussing the genocide and sharing information with Tutsis in the period before gacaca. Survivors expected the population would support the tribunals’ quest for truth and are disappointed by their reluctance to engage in the process.  For their part, the population does not want to testify against family members or friends and fear possible reprisals including being accused themselves. Indeed, the population’s fear is sometimes so strong that they feel compelled to defend the accused by vociferously protesting their innocence. The government is aware of the possibility of violence and has promised protection for gacaca witnesses to little avail.

Gacaca has devolved from a forum for collective cleansing to an arena where Hutus and Tutsis, perhaps unwillingly, engage in battle.  During a pilot stage in Gikongoro province, Arthur Molenaar was surprised by the number of survivors and members of the population who claimed gacaca made them think more negatively of others.  As he writes,

Without gacaca the discontent about the other would probably be smoldering, but in gacaca it is offered a podium where it can be expressed and subsequently fuelled.39

A female Tutsi survivor held a similar view after attending a recent gacaca tribunal.  She states, “They talk about reconciliation. It’s the reverse. Every time I come to gacaca with an open mind, I just get more upset.”40 This discord is palpable given the communal nature of gacaca that forecloses any neutral space. Events occurring in the community and gacaca mutually impact each other suggesting the dissension and rancor experienced in the tribunals will not remain confined to this domain.

Among the participants most affected by the acrimonious atmosphere of gacaca are women whose testimony frequently results in a traumatic reliving of the event.  Karen Broneus interviewed sixteen women who testified at gacaca and found that all experienced “intense psychological suffering.”41 As she writes, “Several re-experienced their traumas of the genocide so strongly that they felt as though it was happening again.  They saw the machetes, heard the noises, smelled the smells. [N]one of the women considered giving testimony a healing experience.”42 Broneus argues experiences of trauma were heightened given the public setting in which women were forced to recount their story in front of the accused and their families.  Moreover, the formulaic nature of giving testimony at gacaca demands witnesses edit their lived experiences to the most intense moments of suffering and the life challenges that have emerged as a result.  As one woman stated, “When I gave testimony, I had a psychological crisis….  When you give testimony surrounded by people who have killed your family… you feel ill; you feel insane….  Now, they do not let me speak at the gacaca.  They say I am insane.” 43 Given that inyangamugayo have no training in providing psychological support, women who experience trauma during testimony frequently must recover in isolation.  None of the women Broneus interviewed reported receiving friends or neighbors in the days following their testimony.  On the contrary, many were subjected to harassment and threats or had their property and crops destroyed by vandals.  One woman stated,

Before giving testimony, things were better.  I tried to forget the past… to live with these horrible experiences but continue with life. But, after gacaca everything has changed, because they even dare destroy my house, break my windows.  I reported this to the council member of the sector, but he has some family members who participated in the genocide, so consequently he did not give much weight to my complaint.44

Indeed, despite guarantees of protection by the government, gacaca witnesses become targets for attack in their communities.  In Gikongoro district, a series of killings utilizing the same methods that were employed in the genocide preceded the opening of gacaca tribunals in 2005 and have since escalated.45

Survivors report being physically assaulted, verbally threatened, and having their homes burned down before they testify. Others are stalked and taunted in their communities with threats that interahamwe will visit their homes during the night. Those who succeed in giving testimony at gacaca are often interrupted and ridiculed while witnessing and targeted by the population for retribution.  As one survivor states,

I am not safe because the people who hurt me have been released from prison.  They often pass by my house.  I think they have bad intentions….  I was afraid when I gave testimony because the people were yelling….  Afterwards, they came; they broke my windows.  I was afraid.  I thought I would be killed….  I do not go to gacaca any longer.  I am scared to be attacked or killed.  My sister was killed in February after she had given testimony.46

While women survivors experience particularly heightened instances of trauma at gacaca, it has also become a source of insecurity for prisoners and the population.  Prisoners fear having to implicate family members and friends in their confessions and possible reprisals from survivors upon being released.  59% of prisoners believe they will be subject to retaliation in their communities and 61% of these individuals confess primarily from fear of gacaca.47 The population is similarly anxious about being implicated in crimes, shunned should they choose to testify, and imprisoned if they willfully withhold information.  Anne Kubai writes,

When one has to testify against a family member, one risks being ostracized by the family and even the community, but one risks prosecution by the state for declining to testify or withholding evidence, as the law clearly states ‘that testifying on what happened is the obligation of every Rwandan patriotic citizen and nobody is allowed to refrain from such an obligation whatever reasons it may be.’48

Further compounding the decision to testify are reports that written records of those who provide testimony are altered to include things that they have not witnessed or done.  Information is also sometimes provided secretly to the inyangamugayo in an attempt to discredit or accuse witnesses. These actions are particularly devastating for the prisoners and population, who are wounded by shame and memories of the genocide and seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Prisoners have trouble accepting their actions and lament what they identify as a loss of ‘human nature’ that rendered them animals.49


Much like survivors, the prisoners and population continue to be marked by the horrors of the genocide. The deployment of gacaca in Rwanda to simultaneously process hundreds of thousands of accused genocidaires, document the truth of the genocide and reconcile a ravaged nation is admirable; however, the effort has clearly fallen short.  Despite being revamped from its classical form as a conflict mediation tool to a model of retributive justice, gacaca has proven more adept at initiating trauma and fomenting conflict than healing the wounds caused by genocide.

Though there are many problems with gacaca, the setting in which the trials take place and the lack of a sympathetic listener or neutral observer stands out. Too much emphasis is placed on determining an individual’s culpability and establishing a written record of what happened to properly attend to the needs of survivors and the population.  The fact that survivors are forced to recount their harrowing tale in front of the very individuals who perpetrated the actst and the community that sanctioned them infuses gacaca with confrontation. Rather than receiving support from a empathic listener, witnesses are frequently heckled and verbally abused by the population until they are unable to continue testimony. The inyangamugayo has proven woefully unprepared and ill-equipped to perform their duties let alone the additional role of sympathetic listener. And despite promises to the contrary, security apparatuses have not been provided in sufficient numbers to safeguard witnesses before and after they testify.  This has resulted in a climate where fear seems nearly universal and societal divisions are becoming even more deeply inscribed.

Hutu and Tutsi identities may have been abolished by government fiat, but they continue to live on in the gacaca categories of survivor, prisoner and population.  These categories belie government efforts to shape a new collective memory rooted in ‘Rwandaness.’  Indeed, rather than experiencing a collective rebirth, the country seems to be in a traumatized state whereby the genocidal acts of 1994 are being relived and acted out in exactly the same ways albeit presently on a much smaller scale.  If the country is to avoid future hostilities, it must find a better way to work through the trauma and deal with the ethnic tensions.  As Assman writes regarding similar ethnic conflicts, “The only solution is to acknowledge other people’s memories and to negotiate a common past in which the sufferings of the other side and one’s own share of the guilt have their proper place.”50 Clearly this is a project all Rwandans must engage in together.


Assmann, Jan.  Religion and Cultural Memory.  Trans. Rodney Livingstone.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Borland, Rosilyne M.  “The Gacaca Tribunals and Rwanda after Genocide:  Effective Restorative Community Justice or Further Abuse of Human Rights?”  A Journal of International Affairs 13.2 (2002).  19 May 2009  <>.

Broneus, Karen.  “Truth-Telling as Talking Cure?  Insecurity and Retraumatization in the Rwandan Gacaca Courts.”  Security Dialogue.  39.1 (2008):  55-76.

Caruth, Cathy.  Trauma:  Explorations in Memory.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

—————–.  Unclaimed Experience:  Trauma, Narrative and History.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Eramian, Laura.  “Representing Suffering:  Testimony at Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts.”  InTensions Journal 1 (Spring 2008): 1-24.

Gourevitch, Philip.  “The Life After.”  The New Yorker 4 May 2009:  37-49

Halbwachs, Maurice.  On Collective Memory.  Trans. Lewis A. Coser.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Ingelaere, Bert.  ‘Does the Truth Pass Across the Fire Without Burning?’ Transitional Justice and Its Discontents in Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts.  Antwerp:  Institute of Development Policy and Management, November 2007.  19 May 2009 <>.

Kubai, Anne N.  “Between Justice and Reconciliation:  The Survivors of Rwanda.”
African Security Review 16.1 (2007):  53-66.

Laub, Dori.  “Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening.”  Testimony:  Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History.  Eds. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub.  New York:  Routledge, 1992) 57-74.

Molenaar, Arthur.  Gacaca:  Grassroots Justice After Genocide.  Leiden:  African Studies Centre, 2006.

Ricoeur, Paul.  Memory, History, Forgetting.  Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Tiemessen, Alana Erin.  “After Arusha:  Gacaca Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda.”  African Studies Quarterly 8.1 (2004): 57-76.

Assmann, 2005: 1

Halbwachs, 1992: 169-70

Assmann, 2005: 11

ibid 27

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience:  Trauma, Narrative and History, (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) 4.

ibid 7

Cathy Caruth, Trauma:  Explorations in Memory, (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995) 8.

Ibid 5

Dori Laub, “Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening,” Testimony:  Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, Eds. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (New York:  Routledge, 1992) 67.  (original emphasis)

Karen Broneus, “Truth-Telling as Talking Cure?  Insecurity and Retraumatization in the Rwandan Gacaca Courts,” Security Dialogue 39.1. (2008):  60.

Laub 70-1.  (original emphasis)

Paul Ricoeur, Memory History, Forgetting, Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2006) 176.

Laub 62.

Information in this section was gathered primarily from studies documenting the pilot phase of gacaca courts in 2002 and subsequent studies performed in 2005-6.   It is supplemented with more recent journalistic accounts.

Gacaca was so named since hearings were held on grass plots in the villages with the aim of reaching a just solution for both parties.

Disputes not settled in gacaca would proceed to higher institutions in the king’s court called the abiru or “guardians of tradition.”

Gacaca was the formal procedure for virtually all forms of community disputes.  The exception was any dispute involving cows as it was believed that the mwami possessed sole ownership of cows in Rwanda.  The extent to which gacaca was used in more serious conflicts like theft and murder is unclear.  Historical investigations suggest that it may have been employed in these cases in some communities, but the vast majority dealt only with small claims.  (Arthur Molenaar, Gacaca:  Grassroots Justice After Genocide, (Leiden:  African Studies Centre, 2006) 15.

Alana Erin Tiemessen, “After Arusha:  Gacaca Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” African Studies Quarterly 8.1 (2004):  61.

Women and children could not participate because of social norms that prohibited them from speaking publicly.  However, women did seek to influence gacaca tribunals behind the scenes and children were sometimes ordered to attend gacaca sessions as part of their education.

Laura Eramian, “representing Suffering:  Testimony at Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts,” InTensions Journal 1 (Spring 2008):  10.

Belgium gained control of Rwanda following the defeat of Germany in World War I.  In contrast to German rule, the Belgians actively sought to weaken traditional Rwandan structures by diluting the authority and legitimacy of the king and chiefs.   Whereas traditionally each territory had three chiefs who governed land, cattle and the army, the Belgians consolidated these responsibilities under one chief per territory.  They also imposed a traditional justice system based on written law and Western courts.  Following the Hutu revolution in 1959, gacaca was further discredited as a form of Tutsi domination and written law continued to be stressed.  Although gacaca was still practiced, it became an official process with formal rules and procedures managed by bureaucrats who assumed the role of judges.  Testimonies were written down and filed so that a formal court could resolve the dispute quickly if the gacaca process failed.  Nevertheless, gacaca remained popular among Rwandans given that 95% of the population lived in rural communities where traditions were still valued.  Moreover, the formal courts were never able to handle a significant volume of cases forcing the government to rely on gacaca.  See Molenaar 16-20.

Molenaar 2.  Questions abound regarding the legality of many arrests given that individuals were frequently imprisoned solely based on the verbal accusations of others.


The massacring of Tutsis was a national pastime in Rwanda inaugurated by the Hutu revolution in 1959.  Throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s sporadic pogroms seized the country and many Tutsis were forced to assume lives in exile.  These crimes were never prosecuted by the government and frequently had the sanction of President Gregoire Kayibanda’s regime.  When Gen. Juvenal Habyarimana gained power in a bloodless 1973 coup, the situation improved somewhat, but Tutsis still suffered from repression and strict quota laws. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which liberated the country from the genocidal regime in July 1994, was composed principally of children of the 1960s exiles who had fled to Uganda.

Rosilyne M. Borland, “The Gacaca Tribunals and Rwanda after Genocide:  Effective Restorative Community Justice or Further Abuse of Human Rights?,” A Journal of International Affairs 13.2 (2002), 19 May 2009 <>.  Those selected do not receive a salary, but the costs of their children’s education are paid.

Molenaar 67-8

Bert Ingelaere, ‘Does the Truth Pass Across the Fire without Burning?’ Transitional Justice and its Discontents in Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts, (Antwerp:  Institute of Development Policy and Management) November 2007, 19 May 2009 <>.

The government has undertaken a series of sensitization campaigns to generate enthusiasm for gacaca. It has been the subject of films, radio broadcasts, and cartoon strips that collectively stressed the importance of public participation.  The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission sponsored meetings in villages where government officials have shared their views on gacaca and tried to impart their vision on citizens. As one official frankly stated, “‘The goal is to make people have the same opinions.  It is very important that people in Rwanda think the same way because we need unity in this country.  What we hope to achieve is that after a meeting, 75% of the people leave with the same mindset.  Those people will also talk about what they have heard with other people, so that we reach almost the entire population.’”

Molenaar 52.

Ibid 52-3

Religious arguments and peer pressure are among the most useful techniques for obtaining confessions.  At Gikongoro Central Prison, twenty male and female prisoners have created a performance group that regularly sing and dance regarding the importance of confession, gacaca, and reconciliation.  See Molenaar 58.  Also influential were the ‘Arusha tapes’ which revealed the comparatively luxurious conditions where prisoners reside at the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.  See Tiemessen 62

Ingelaere 32

Quoted in Philip Gourevitch, “The Life After,” The New Yorker, 4 May 2009:  41



Quoted in Ingelaere 23

Anne N. Kubai, “Between  Justice and Reconciliation:  The Survivors of Rwanda,” African Security Review 16.1 (2007): 60

Molenaar 134

Ibid 135

Gourevitch 42

Broneus 71


Ibid 69

Ibid 66-7

Kubai 59

Broneus 67-8

Ingelaere 18

Kubai 60

Ibid 61

Assmann 21