REUTERS/Antony Njuguna

Rwandan women in Kanombe district listen to proceedings on June 19, 2002 at the first session of a new court system aimed at letting ordinary people judge those accused of killing their families and friends during the 1994 genocide. Hutu extremists killed an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in the 100 days from April to June 1994. About 3,000 women are currently behind bars awaiting trial, and Rwanda has relaunched a traditional court system to try and deal with the backlog of unheard cases.In “gacaca” courts, Rwandan villagers will judge their peers by recounting their personal stories of what they saw during the massacres. The government hopes “gacaca” may also aid national reconciliation.

KIGALI, Rwanda (WOMENSENEWS)–Emma Mujawamaria has tried to add a few touches of her own to the pale pink dress that is the uniform for the female inmates housed at the fortress-like central prison in Rwanda’s capital city. The ring finger of her left hand is decorated with a dull brass ring and her right wrist with a blue beaded bracelet, both presents from her prison “husband,” the friend from the men’s section with whom she exchanges letters and small gifts.

It’s the little things that make life here bearable, Mujawamaria says. But there’s nothing that can be done about her hair, she sighs, running her hand across her closely shaven scalp. Or the food: corn flour gruel and peas every day for the six years she has been imprisoned, awaiting trial for genocide.

Only about 3,000 of the more than 100,000 people accused of participating in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, including nearly 1,000 imprisoned here, are women. Most of those, like Mujawamaria, are young women with children, accused of taking part in the mobs that rounded up and killed an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis–members of the smaller of Rwanda’s two ethnic groups–during the 100-day orgy of violence that engulfed this tiny Central African country.

“Fewer women were active killers than were men, but there are also women who were known to be big killers,” said Klaas de Jonge, a Rwanda-based researcher for Penal Reform International in London who has been closely following the situation for many years. “But according to Rwandan law, if a person could escape without you, you are responsible for their killing. There are many more women who fall into this category.” The government says Mujawamaria, a former nurse and mother of three, led machete-wielding Hutu thugs to the Tutsis among her co-workers at a hospital on the outskirts of Harare.

She tells a different story, saying she gave up one old woman–a patient–in order to save the younger Tutsi women hiding there. According to Mujawamaria’s version of events, she even risked her own life to help her Tutsi friends reach safety.

“They have put down that I killed many other people,” she says. “But I didn’t. There are witnesses who know that I am innocent.”

Gacaca Courts Are About Justice, Reconciliation and Emptying Prisons

More than eight years after the genocide and six years into her prison term, Mujawamaria will soon have the opportunity to tell her story. With its crippled justice system unable to try the tens of thousands in prison, Rwanda has established a network of traditional village courts that will try the accused, finishing in three short years what human rights organizations estimated would take hundreds at the current pace.

Named “gacaca” courts after the grass clearings in which they are held, the trials are as much about reconciliation as justice. Hoping to encourage the genocidaires to repent, the government has offered to halve the sentences of those who confess. In practice, for the vast majority of those imprisoned, including Mujawamaria, this effectively means they could soon go free.

Some 80 percent of those in prison are accused of participating in murder–Rwanda’s genocide law draws no distinction between giving someone up for murder and the actual act of murder–which carries a maximum 15-year sentence. Many prisoners have been imprisoned since the genocides or, like Mujawamaria, since 1996, when Rwanda forced refugees who had fled to the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo to return home.

For the prisoners here at Kigali Central Prison, the gacaca trials offer hope that their long years of imprisonment could soon be over. Most of the women here have been separated from their children for years. Mujawamaria has seen her three children only a handful of times during her imprisonment.

“I will be freed by gacaca because what I did, I did without my consent,” she predicts, somewhat contradicting her earlier claim of innocence. “I was forced by the men who I worked with.”

But it remains to be seen whether the trials, whose main purpose is to clear the prisons that have become a human rights blight on the new government, will lead to the outpouring of information that occurred in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Since Gacaca Began, Authorities Estimated 30 Percent Have Confessed

Rwandan authorities say some 30 percent of the nation’s genocide prisoners have confessed since gacaca began, but they have yet to compile records of which crimes. Many prisoners here have confessed to different crimes than the ones they are accused of. Those who have not confessed are gambling that their local communities will set them free, even if they are guilty.

“There are people here who are confident that if they go back they will be freed, even if they have killed,” said Mujawamaria, fingering the thin material of her uniform. “Because it is the law that if people say you didn’t do anything, you must be freed.” She pauses thoughtfully, then adds: “But there are also many people who have never been caught, especially women . . . If there is truth in gacaca, then these people will be found.”

Certainly there are innocents hidden in Rwanda’s prisons. In October, the Kigali Central Prison released five women against whom they could find no evidence. When they took them back to their home villages, no one came forward to testify against them. So the women were freed, some after eight long years in prison.

Returning home will likely be difficult for many of these women, innocent and guilty. The husbands of many are in prison or exile and many will have lost claim to their land, which is passed through the man’s family. Nevertheless, many communities are eager to welcome back the genocidaires. When three confessed killers returned recently to Gasharu, a small, mountaintop village an hour from Kigali, they were met with embraces and warm words.

Return of Genocidaires Frightens Tutsi Survivors, Most of Whom Are Women

But there is also another side to this story. While the return of the genocidaires may be welcomed by the Hutu majority, for the Tutsi minority their return reawakens hidden fears.

Rwanda is a tiny country where arable land is at a premium. Most survivors, the vast majority of whom are women, had nowhere to go but back to the villages where their spouses and children were murdered. Their only solace, they say, was that most of the worst offenders were imprisoned or in exile. Hutu and Tutsi women in some areas have bonded together to shoulder the responsibility of caring for the thousands of genocide orphans, yet such cooperation has been made possible by the absence of the genocide’s worst perpetrators.

Florida Kampeta, an aging woman of 67, keeps her 29-year-old daughter Clemantine close to her side all the time. Clemantine is Kampeta’s only surviving child; seven others and her husband were killed during the genocides, hacked to death with machetes at roadblocks manned by Hutu militias called the Interhamwe.

For Kampeta, the trials mean a return to fear, not justice.

“Gacaca is going to liberate the criminals,” she said quietly, clutching her daughter’s hand. “When we see someone who has been freed from the prison, we know we have to keep quiet about what happened. We know they are back and that we are no longer safe.”

Nicole Itano is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg.

For more information:

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda:

Human Rights Watch
“Leave None to Tell the Story–Genocide in Rwanda”: