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Rwanda:: Visit to Prison Camp

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

By Fleet Maull

Rwanda Bearing Witness Retreat – Day 5 After hour morning council circles, we boarded our bus for the 30 minute ride to the TIG work camps. TIG is a French acronym that stands for something like working for the benefit of the community. The TIG prisoners are confessed genocide perpetrators who have gone through the Gacaca (something like community restorative justice based on a traditional Rwanda practice) court process, and after time in prison are now serving more time in the TIG work camps where the work on various public works projects. We first visited an entire new housing community built by the TIG prisoners for very poor people in Kigali. The mud brick, tile roofed duplexes have a value of about $32,000 each.

We then visited another TIG work site, where the prisoners were quarrying and busting rocks, both for paving stones and in smaller sizes for mixing in concrete for their constructions projects. Following this, we visited the TIG camp itself and spent several hours in dialog with five TIG prisoners, all confessed genocide perpetrators. Although they had all confessed as part of the Gacaca court process, initially the appeared to want portray themselves as victims of the genocide masterminds, simple people forced or manipulated into killing Tutsis, often their neighbors and sometimes even family members in mixed Hutu/Tutsi families. While there is certainly some truth to this, we kept questioning them about their role and how ordinary people could become genocide killers. Eventually, several of them broke down and began admitting their genocide crimes and expressing their shame and remorse, though they still wanted to lay most of the blame on the genocide planners.

After our visit with the TIG prisoners, we boarded our bus again for a journey across town to the Maison des Jeunes youth center. Se delighted in passing the rest of the afternoon with the hundreds of children there, many of them following us around, holding our hands and wanting to see their pictures in our cameras. We enjoyed a beautiful choir performance by young girls. Then our retreat participants engaged in a two hour council circle with about 25 young survivors in their late teens and early twenties, who had been very young children during the genocide and who in most cases had lost many if not all of their family members to the genocide. My co-leader Genro Guantt and I, along with our primary retreat partners, Dora Urujeni and Issa Higiro from Memos, Learning From History held a press conference with the national press corps of Rwanda, with all of the Kigali radio stations and newspapers represented.

Upon returning to our base at the Guest House, we then heard from three Rescuers – Hutus who had rescued Tutsis during the genocide. It was very interesting to hear their stories and get to know them after having spent the morning with the TIG prisoners. We were all incredibly inspired by these genuine heroes, who risked their lives and their families’s lives to protect and rescue Tutsis, in some cases their neighbors and in other cases people they didn’t even know. One of the rescuers, a man with the nickname Reagan (after president Reagan), had been a local gangster or gang leader in his community and rallied other Hutus to fight the Hutu Interahamwe militias who came to their town to murder Tutsis. The Hutus he rallied are now very grateful, because none of them are now in prison. Reagan is my new personal hero.

Tomorrow we will spend the day here at our Guest House base hearing presentations from our Rwandan partner organization representatives who participated in the retreat with us followed by an Open Space Technology process to envision the future of the Bearing Witness Retreat and Peacemaker Institute work here in Rwanda with our Rwandan partners.

photo by our friend Peter Cunningham.

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