Law and Reconciliation in Rwanda

Graduate student Kristin Doughty studies how perpetrators and victims coexist in post-genocide Rwanda.
August 13, 2010

In the summer of 2004, Kristin Doughty, an anthropology doctoral student in the process of conducting pre-dissertation research, was having lunch with her friend Eugenie in an open-air restaurant in southern Rwanda. They drank cokes and ate potatoes, peas and beef at a white-plastic table that wobbled on the hard-packed dirt. Doughty had been married the previous year and was eager to compare notes with her Rwandan friend, who was planning her own wedding.

Eugenie told her about how the groom in Rwanda solicits funds from family members to pay for the wedding and other pre-nuptial ceremonies. The couple was planning to be married in Kigali, she said, but there would be an engagement ceremony in another town.

“Oh, is that where your family is living?” Doughty asked.

There was a long pause. Eugenie looked her in the eye. “My family was killed in the genocide,” she said softly, dropping her gaze to the scratched tabletop.

In 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were killed over the course of just 100 days in a genocide aimed to exterminate the country’s Tutsi population. That’s 8,000 murders a day—mostly with machetes and clubs. Once the genocide was stopped and the refugees came home and the revenge killings ended, survivors (and bystanders) had to live side by side with the thousands of machete wielders, mostly Hutus, who murdered their neighbors.

After a year and a half of research in Rwanda, Doughty has trained herself to avoid those conversation-killing questions. “There’s a very raw texture of pain,” she explains. “It’s not very far below the surface, and it’s easy to stumble on.”

“These trials serve as a forum for people to debate, contest and negotiate the past and come up with a shared—maybe not fully shared—understanding of what happened in their community.” - Kristin Doughty

For her dissertation, Doughty is trying to figure out how Rwandans are remaking their broken world out of this legacy of betrayal and slaughter. “I’m interested in understanding the dynamics of post-conflict reconciliation,” she says, “by studying how Rwandans wrestle, through court cases and legal consultations, to make sense of what has befallen them.” As an anthropologist, she’s not so much interested in what the law says as how people are using legal institutions to make meaning out of a past that is always present.

For 12 months in 2007 and 2008, she lived in Rwanda, attending trials almost daily and taking field notes on contested legal issues and the stories that defendants and witnesses told. Her time was divided between the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the United Nations-led court in neighboring Tanzania that tried high-level genocide suspects, and the local gacaca courts, which tried the legions of génocidaires among their neighbors. She also observed mediation-committee sessions and legal-aid clinics, studied court records and other documents, and conducted one-on-one interviews. “This combination of forums allowed me to see how ordinary and genocide-related disputes were handled across local, national and international levels,” she says.

Two to four days a week, Doughty hopped on the back of a moto-taxi (basically the back seat of a motorcycle) and traveled half an hour to one of the gacaca trials. The gacaca are a system of grass-roots justice in which local assemblies presided over by elected inyangamugayo (which means “person of integrity”) hear testimony and make judgments on charges related to the genocide.

“People would begin to congregate under a big jacaranda tree in the morning,” she recalls, “and these weeping purple flowers would drop down on the proceedings over the course of the afternoon.” The accused typically wore pink prison uniforms. The hearings probed the specifics of who did what and where they did it. “The judges ask questions or push reluctant defendants or witnesses for testimony, and people from the assembly can chime in whenever they have something to add,” Doughty explains. “These long discussions would go on for hours, debating the details of things that happened—quite terrible things—that happened 14 years ago.

“As a researcher, I was writing and writing and writing—trying to capture simultaneously the details of what’s happening, the complexities of the case, the debates, and also the social phenomenon of who’s present, who chose not to come, who is sitting next to whom, how people are responding, and whether they seem to believe what people are saying. Are they disagreeing? When are they chiming in? When are they just folding their arms and rolling their eyes? I felt like I couldn’t blink for a minute. It was incredibly intense and emotional and complicated.”

More than a million gacaca trials took place across Rwanda over just a few years, and the stories they document add local detail and nuance to the master narrative of the genocide. “These trials really are about dealing with the past in a public way,” Doughty notes. “They’re not trying just a few high-level people like in the higher courts. These trials serve as a forum for people to debate, contest and negotiate the past and come up with a shared—maybe not fully shared—understanding of what happened in their community.”

Doughty has found that many of the disputes embedded in gacaca or appearing before mediators and the legal aid clinics are not directly about the violence between Hutus and Tutsis. Some cases also deal with disputes within families over property or land. After serving a long prison sentence, one convicted perpetrator returned to find his brothers’ wives living on the family land. They had been given the land by their husbands, who were also in prison, in order to feed the children. The wives couldn’t support the recently released brother along with their own families, so they told him to leave.

This intra-family, post-genocide legal wrangling complicates what it means to reconcile, Doughty observes. It also makes it hard to distinguish “ordinary” cases from those about the genocide. “The violent political past continues to permeate present-day disputes, and the people use legal forums as a space to negotiate their understandings of the past,” she says. “These legal processes mediate people’s social interactions by constraining and enabling certain forms of compromise and resolution.”

After Doughty returned home, several months passed before Doughty could look at her field notes, which record 10-hour days of graphic testimony about brutal killings. Currently, she is sorting through the meaning hidden in the data as she writes her dissertation. “If I do my work right,” Doughty muses, “I’ll be bearing witness to both sides of the story—and the complexity of what the Rwandans are facing.”

She recalls an old woman who had seen her at the gacaca trials week after week. Taking Doughty’s hand at the end of a trial one day, the woman told her, “That man who just testified really did those terrible things. They killed my children and my grandchildren right over there.” The woman pointed to the place, straining to maintain composure. “Thank you for listening,” she added.