Visit to Rwandan Prison Camp
Updated: Apr 21
Blog entry by Fleet Maull, PDN/PMI founder who led the April Bearing Witness Rwanda Retreat
Today was different from the preceding three days of visiting genocide memorial sites. This morning we visited a TIG prison farm and camp in the Bugesera district, about an hour outside of Kigali. Faced with prosecuting and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of accused genocide perpetrators, the Rwandan government implemented a traditional community justice process called Gaccaca, updated with some elements of modern jurisprudence.
The government’s main focus has been unity and reconciliation rather than punishment. Faced with rebuilding a country from the ashes of genocide and civil war, they simply could not afford to imprison hundreds of thousands of able-body workers. They also wanted people to find somehow a way to make peace and move forward as a country. Prisoners willing to admit their crimes and give information about where victims are buried, what properties have been destroyed or stolen, etc., have been processed through the Gaccaca courts.
They are then sentenced to the TIG community service prisons, where they work farms, build houses for the poor and refugees, build roads and schools, etc. They can spend up to 3 days a week at home with their families and working to support their families, but most elect to spend more days in the work camps because the days at home don’t count for their sentence. While in the work camps, they received education aimed at helping them reintegrate into the community, where they will be neighbors again with the families of those they have killed. Once they have finished their sentence, they are released to the community with no conditions. When the Gaccaca court process is finished (it’s nearing completion now), Rwanda will have brought more genocide perpetrators to justice than in any other genocide.
The survivors have mixed feelings about Gaccaca and the TIG camps. Many recognize that it was necessary for the country but consider it a necessary evil. They appreciate that the process has helped them locate the remains of their loved ones in order to give them proper burials and services. Still, many also feel that the process lets the killers off too easily or that many killers confess their crimes simply to get lighter sentences without any contrition. Other survivors are more supportive of the process. It depends on who you ask.
After touring the vast cassava plantation, we visited the camp where the prisoners live and where some of them work in a sewing shop making clothing for all the TIG camps. This TIG prison farm has 700 prisoners, 38 female, and the rest male. At the camp, we sat down for a dialog with a group of about 25 prisoners. The first several who spoke blamed the genocide and their actions on the bad political leaders. As we continued, several acknowledged that they knew they were doing evil things. Still, they did so out of fear for their own lives, either because they had been convinced to fear the Tutsis or feared the government would kill them if they didn’t participate in the genocide.
A number of the prisoners expressed gratitude to the present government, one named President Paul Gagame in particular, for not taking a retributive approach and for allowing them to live and be rehabilitated. Several said they thought they would surely be killed in retribution or punishment for what they had done. While some expressed genuine contrition or desire in living peacefully with the Tutsis, it was hard to tell what was happening under the surface.
The prisoners we met with were, for the most part, very uneducated, very poor people, and they appeared traumatized themselves. I could easily imagine how the leaders of the genocide had manipulated them to participate, but it is still hard to understand how they descended into such barbarism and savagery. The atrocities committed during the genocide are really beyond the imagination. They didn’t just kill people; they brutally tortured, humiliated, and in many cases, mutilated people. In many cases, family members were forced to watch their loved ones being raped, tortured, and mutilated, or even to kill their own loved ones.
Although it is fairly clear that fear is the root cause, I still can’t understand how such senseless savagery arises in people, even people manipulated and conditioned with genocide ideology and propaganda. I have to keep reminding myself though, that this manipulation and conditioning had been going on since 1959. The Hutu extremists had been preparing the population for genocide for a long time, including waves of ethnic cleansing, pogroms, and smaller-scale genocides that led up to the 1994 genocide.
We spent the afternoon in much more pleasant surroundings at the Kimisagara Youth Center, a community center now under the government’s ministry of youth programs that involves some 30 different organizations and sports clubs, including the Esperance street football program (http://www.streetfootballworld.org/network/all-nwm/esperance) . We met with young people of all ages, heard inspiring choral performances by young girls in “Mom’s” singing group, and held peace circles with some of the older youth. We also donated 400 notebooks for the school children and about a dozen new soccer balls. We have an ongoing partnership with the Kimisagara Youth Center, helping them establish the peace (council or listening) circles as a peace-building and community development tool for their youth leaders.