KIGALI: In an almost empty courtroom in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, Leon Mugesera stands trial, accused of whipping up a storm of violence against the ethnic Tutsi group two decades ago with hate speech including calls to exterminate ‘cockroaches’.
More than 800,000 people died over 100 days in a 1994 genocide that investigations have shown the country’s leaders from the majority Hutu ethnic group planned and used militias to execute. “It doesn’t matter whether it takes 10 or 20 years. We have to find out what happened,” says prosecutor Alain Mukurarinda of Mugesera’s case, which was transferred from Canada to Rwanda. “First and foremost, the most important thing is that the judgement is passed where the offences took place, so that the people here understand that Rwanda will not allow the perpetrators to escape justice.”
On April 7, Rwanda will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the genocidal slaughter.
And two decades on, Rwanda is still recording every single nugget of information in a bid to make sure that the horrors are accounted for, recorded and never forgotten.
“I’m not worried about this taking too long, as there are ways to make sure that all the information gathered is legally admissible,” says Mukurarinda.
He is certain that with these documents, even those “genocidaires” who have fled and changed their appearances and identities will be called to account.
The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, set up in 1994 in neighbouring Tanzania to try the alleged masterminds behind the genocide, only got round to hearing about 60 cases.
Over the course of 10 years, almost two million others passed through traditional village courts, called “gacaca”, meaning to sit and discuss, whereby attackers faced their victims.
Human rights groups have cast serious doubts over the fairness of these trials, which used judges elected from local communities that often had no legal background. Today the records of these trials, which include admissions to the most heinous of crimes, heartfelt apologies and options for redress, are under threat.
They are documented in films, photos and files stuffed into 18,000 boxes that now sit in police headquarters, while the government looks for backers to help digitise Rwanda’s history before it is consumed by humidity, theft, insects or fire. “We have to preserve all those documents because the information we have is so important for history, memory, education and research,” says Jean-Damascene Gasanabo, director general of The Research and Documentation Centre on Genocide. In many of the genocide memorial sites across Rwanda, heaps of clothes fill churches where thousands of people hid from attackers who blasted holes through walls or crowbarred through windows to get to their victims.
Identity cards, jewellery and chipped glasses are displayed alongside rows of skulls and neat lines of leg bones that belie the raw anger of the events of twenty years ago. At the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre — the site of a mass grave for 250,000 people — the old photographs of genocide victims posing for family portraits, on their wedding day or watching their children grow up, fill the walls. Their ripped and soiled clothes hang eerily from wires and their relatives, neighbours and friends speak of the indescribable horrors that they witnessed from video screens.
Viewing the scene are groups of Rwandan schoolchildren wearing high socks and taking notes on a history they never experienced firsthand.
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