Rwanda: Eight Years Later

The day after our arrival I went to a Gacaca trial to observe the process that was going to attempt to grant justice to the genocide victims and the 110,000 suspects awaiting trial on genocide charges. Only the ring leaders of the mass violence are being tried in the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania – the rest will go through the Gacaca process where specially elected local judges will decide the fate of the accused in a system closely mirroring the ancient way of dispensing justice in Rwanda.

More than 200 people packed the little tented area that served as the Gacaca court that day. After the judges for that district were sworn in a ceremony long on messages of reconciliation, forgiveness and unity, the tension was palpable as the audience got its first opportunity to ask questions.

One woman asked: “there are lots of people who just disappeared – we don’t know if they were killed or what their fate was? What will happen to their cases? The courts answer: “This court does not address those issues.” Another woman then rose up to speak. “I wasn’t here during the killing,” she said. “But I was told how my family was killed when I returned. Will I be allowed to testify against the people who killed my family?”

The court’s answer: “No, you can’t testify because it would be hearsay. The original witnesses will be contacted for their first hand accounts.”

And so the questions continued only to be punctuated by the occasional ringing of cell phones. Each person who rose to address the court had his or her family’s personal tragedy to share in this sea of mass tragedy where many in the audience carried the visible scars of the violence. There were scars everywhere both visible on skin as well as audible in some of the descriptions of the violence the people seeking justice shared with the court.

A few days later I attended another Gacaca hearing in another district. There after the testimony I met with Thomas (Tom) Kamilindi, a leading radio reporter in Rwanda. Sitting in our rented Land Rover, Tom shared his story as a member of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority as well as a working journalist trying to survive the killing and report on it (full story in November 2002 Quill magazine – on the web at

“Every time I go to the memorial sites and see the skulls I can’t help myself,” Kamilindi said in a hushed voice. “Every time I look at them, I cry. Because I remember my daughter, who was killed during the genocide. So maybe her skull is somewhere but I don’t know where.”

Igihozo Kamilindi was only five in the spring of 1994 when she left for a vacation with her grandparents. Like thousands of others in Rwanda, her father Tom seeks closure for her death as Igihozo’s body was never found.

“By the time I got to the place where she had gone for the holiday with her grandparents, there was nothing left,” Kamilindi said. “I couldn’t even find the place where the relatives’ home had once stood. All the bodies had already been collected and dumped into a mass grave. The grass had already grown over everything. There were no signs of the life that once existed there before.”

Maybe hearing this heart-wrenching story from a fellow journalist hit me harder than the other stories I had already heard from so many others. Everywhere I turned I had met people who wanted to tell me their story. I had spent a day at a special center for victims of mass rapes – I had seen evidence pictures of women whose sexual organs had been mutilated - I had interviewed these women most of whom had contracted HIV or AIDS from the gang rapes and were now dying from the disease.

I had photographed girls as young as nine years old whose parents didn’t know if they too were HIV positive and didn’t have the money get the children tested or to buy them medicine if they tested positive for the killer virus. I had witnessed a woman desperate to have me believe her story rip open her business suit to show me where the bayonet pierced her skin scaring her for life.

At the end of that day I was exhausted and sought comfort in a glass of white wine at the hotel bar only to have my roommate Deirdre introduce me to a new friend she had made. After the obligatory pleasantries during the formal introductions this young man asked me to run my hand through his thick hair. Confused I looked at Deirdre and she nodded her head encouraging me to reach my hand out. And I understood her point instantaneously when the tips of my fingers sensed the bulging scars left all over this young man’s head.

As if bitten by a snake I yanked my hand back horrified by the pain he must have endured. Not knowing the appropriate thing to say I simply asked: How? And in a tone as matter of fact as discussing the weather, the young man answered: “By machete.”