Back to Magazine

Awaiting the verdict

By Jean-François Berger

Normality is slowly returning to Rwanda, although the scars of the 1994 genocide are still fresh. In the prisons, the ICRC is conducting a massive assistance programme, while striving to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

At the beginning of the year, more than 100,000 people were languishing in Rwanda's prisons and communal lock-ups, most of them accused of taking part in the 1994 genocide, the three-month killing spree that cost the lives of nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In the words of one Kigali woman, "The genocide was like three 11 Septembers a day for three months..." The vast majority have been in prison for eight years awaiting trial in unimaginably cramped conditions. In mid-January 2003, however, thousands of elderly, sick and underage inmates were released under a government decree.


Genocide suspects fussing around at Kigali's Central prison.

A halt to the carnage

To understand fully the detainees' plight requires stepping back in time. After the genocide ended in July 1994, the prisons began to fill up at a frantic pace with people suspected of carrying out the massacres. "If they hadn't been arrested just after this unthinkable tragedy, these people would have been subject to deadly reprisals in the hills," recalls Jean-François Sangsue, who was in Rwanda at the time and is currently head of ICRC operations for the Great Lakes. However, things swiftly turned to disaster. The prisons lacked everything: space, running water, sanitation infrastructure, medical care, food, staff, resources for maintenance... In no time, the death toll had reached alarming proportions. In 1995, ICRC delegates noticed oedemas appearing on the detainees' lower limbs due to lack of mobility.

Confronted daily by issues of life and death, the ICRC launched the biggest assistance programme in its history for thousands of detainees. "Keep the detainees awaiting trial alive" became the catchphrase. In the face of the authorities' incapacity to provide essential services in the prisons, the ICRC gradually stepped in, putting in place, with the active participation of the inmates, water, sanitation and preventive and curative health-care systems, in addition to supplying food and monitoring the detainees' nutritional status.

Combined with a growing responsibility from the Rwandan authorities — they now supply 50 per cent of the food — the mitigating effects of the ICRC's action have helped to overcome the emergency though current needs remain huge.

Years of waiting

How have the inmates endured these years in such a confined space? "Rwandan society is very organized and super-hierarchical. The same applies in the prisons. Everyone has a role to fulfil, and this is most likely what helps them to keep going," explains Samuel Emonet, deputy detention coordinator. When you enter the central prison in Nsinda — 80 km to the north-east of Kigali — you see what Samuel means. Here, the detainees are almost exclusively clad in the pink "uniform" that has become the trademark of a genocide suspect. The place is filled with activity: thousands of "conscripts" are cooking, mending shoes, sawing wood; others are returning from nearby fields pushing wheelbarrows. Accompanied by a detainee in charge of prison hygiene, ICRC nurse Diana Couffeau makes her way through the crowd to assist in a pilot HIV/AIDS awareness session. In a corner sheltered from the elements and furnished with a blackboard are squeezed some 30 detainees between 15 and 20 years old. The newly trained educator is highlighting the symptoms of the various sexually transmitted diseases before embarking on the message of prevention founded on basic hygiene and the risks of unprotected homosexual activity. The audience is clearly receptive. Indeed, these courses, organized by the ICRC and an African non-governmental organization, Society for Women and AIDS in Africa, are a lifeline for the detainees, after which they are offered the chance to undergo an AIDS test if they so wish. "The recent inclusion of prison inmates as a high-risk category in programmes to combat AIDS in Rwanda is progress in itself, but there is still a way to go," says Diana Couffeau who points out that if a detainee opts for the test, "it is mainly with a view to having children once they are released." More generally - and in the absence of official statistics on the prevalence of AIDS in Rwanda - experts estimate the probable rate of HIV infection to be 11 per cent of the population.


Rape as a weapon of war

The exact number of victims of the Rwandan genocide will never be known. According to Human Rights Watch, 500,000 died in the massacres; the UN estimates between 800,000 and 1 million. From this tragedy has emerged today another kind of atrocity: rape. A UN report has concluded that around 250,000 women were raped during the genocide, of whom a large number were executed immediately after the rape. Of the survivors, an estimated 15,000 became pregnant, of whom more than 70 per cent are now HIV-positive, according to a survey by Save the Children.

The use of HIV/AIDS as a weapon against women has prompted the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to qualify rape as an act of genocide, a view shared by the Gacaca tribunals. For several months, the trial by the ICTR in Arusha of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, Rwandan Minister of Family Welfare and Women in 1994, has been under way. She is the first woman to be accused of incitement to mass rape, now considered a crime against humanity.


The way forward

In time, the upkeep of the detainees will place a heavy burden on the stability of the country, for it affects the functioning of the whole of Rwandan society, not least the economy, which is mainly agricultural. But how do you overcome this terrible situation? Wishing to encourage Rwandans to look to the future, the government has decided, with the support of the international community, to fall back on the traditional justice system known as Gacaca — literally "small grass" — in order to decide the fate of the detainees remaining in prison.

Concretely, Gacaca entails the creation in the hills of customary tribunals consisting of popular juries made up of locally appointed "men of integrity" whose remit is to establish the facts, investigate each case and pronounce judgement. The judgements will vary according to the four categories of criminals into which the accused are divided, that is: planners of the genocide and perpetrators of rape (those will be referred to a conventional tribunal); perpetrators of murder (the majority of the defendants); perpetrators of serious attacks against the person; and perpetrators of crimes against property. A blend of conventional and traditional justice, Gacaca seeks to elicit a confession and request for forgiveness, in return for the promise of a lighter sentence. For Graciela Lopez Marclay, ICRC detention coordinator, "Gacaca is a kind of national catharsis which aims to rebuild Rwanda's national fabric."

Experts believe it will take at least two or three years to complete the whole operation. It is, however, common knowledge that many of the accused are reluctant to take part in the Gacaca exercise because the crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front after the genocide are not included in the mandate of the Gacaca courts. Whatever the case, the system has raised both hopes — of freedom for many of the accused and their families — and scepticism — among the survivors who fear the return of the perpetrators of the genocide.

These concerns have become even more acute following the presidential decree of 3 January 2003 which provided for the conditional release of "detainees at risk of being in prison longer than the term prescribed by the law". About a third of the prisoners, nearly 30,000 in all, should benefit from this release. Time will tell if this is simply a corrective legal measure or a first step towards an amnesty.

Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine.


Top | Contact Us | Credits | Previous issue | Webmaster

2003 | Copyright