Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Personal Account of the Rwanda War Crimes Tribunal

A week ago today, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted Theoneste Bagosora, who is widely seen as the mastermind of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, on eleven counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

I was a spectator in the court on the day Bagosora was indicted, back in 1997. I happened to be in Arusha several times during the first few months of the tribunal and went to the court whenever I could. I saw the indictments of Bagosora, who ran the army, and Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of a small town called Taba, and heard a fair bit of testimony.

To imagine the court, think of a large rectangular room that is divided long-way down the middle, creating two long, thin rooms. The rooms were divided by a large glass window. One side of the window was the spectator area and had bleacher-type seating with about four or five long rows. Each chair had headphones so we could hear simultaneous translations of the proceedings. In the court area there was a long high bench in the middle, facing us, at which the half-dozen judges sat, with the chief judge in the center. To our right was a table at right angles to us with prosecution lawyers (who rarely seemed to be there), and behind them were places for a number of clerks, who were always busily doing things. To our left was an area for the accused and their lawyers.

There were never very many spectators when I was there (I don't think there were ever as many as ten) and they mostly seemed to be, like me, aid workers who had dropped in. The day that Bagosora was indicted we had a celebrity in the spectator room: Philip Gourevitch, a writer for the New Yorker. He carried a big stack of black and white photocopies of the cover of a New Yorker that identified him as the author of an article on Rwanda; this apparently is how he establishes his bona fides. He sat in the front row chatting with people nearby, to the annoyance of those of us who were trying to listen to the court. The event seemed to call for a more respectful, somber attitude than he displayed.

The Rwandans in the court spoke in Kinyarwanda, which sounded to me like a mix of French and Swahili. I mostly used the headphones but could follow along pretty well without, and did that from time to time to get a sense of the speakers' emotions. Everyone was quite dispassionate: very articulate, respectful, not nervous, not sounding at all upset - even those who described watching their families get hacked up.

The initial phase of the court seemed a bit jumbled to a spectator. Testimony came from survivors of the massacres, but also from Human Rights Watch workers and journalists who were there during and after the genocide. There was a mix of first and second hand information, some of which would not be permissable in a regular criminal court. I assumed that they were trying to get every bit of information into the record.

My overwhelming reaction was utter incomprehension. I heard one journalist describe standing at a bus stop shortly after the genocide ended. She was eavesdropping on some Rwandan housewives who were holding groceries and waiting for the bus. As the journalist described it, they were perfectly ordinary middle-class women with homes and children, but they were calmly discussing their part in hacking up their neighbors.

The eeriest moment was during the indictment of the mayor, Akeyesu. A young man testified that Akeyesu came to his neighborhood with a gang of killers and he, his family and neighbors all fled to the crop fields behind their houses. The young man climbed a tree but most people hid in the crops. He described watching the killers fan out through the crops, finding and killing the people hiding there. He described Akeyesu hacking his little sister and mother to death with a machete. Then the judge asked the young man to show where this took place. A big blown-up map was brought in on an easel, and the man stood in front of it and pointed to the various killing spots. The judge then asked Akeyesu to indicate where something happened, so the mayor went up and stood next to the young man to point at the map. The two men stood so close that they were touching, and the young man didn't flinch at all, or even seem uncomfortable.

I have read about the Rwandan genocide but I have never heard anyone explain the emotional response of the victims and killers. I can't explain it. I can think of possible explanations for the reactions of the victims - life is cheap in Africa, or the victims were so traumatized they were numb, or the victims share the emotions of the killers and so understand why they did it - but none of those seem right. Likewise, I can think of explanations for the killers - they were riled up by the Interahamwe, they believed they were acting in self-defence - but those don't seem sufficient for the frenzy of killing by perfectly ordinary people. If it were not for the ID cards that identified people as Tutsi or Hutu, it would have been difficult to even distinguish the two, as there is no ethnic or linguistic difference and they lived together in the same neighborhoods.

The court is now done - its prosecution phase ends next week, although it will hear appeals for at least two more years. In its 12 years of operation, the court convicted 30 people and acquitted five. It also amassed a record of what went on during those fateful 100 days in 1994.

Note: I took extensive notes while watching the proceedings but have lost them, so all of this is from my memory of events 12 years ago, and I may have mixed up some of the details. It would be great if anyone else who was there could correct or augment these recollections.


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1 comment:

Chrystal Ocean said...

Thank you for this post.