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Gacaca, Living Together Again in Rwanda? (2002)




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A valuable contribution, but limited in scope
3 July 2005 | by (Scotland, United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Gacaca 6/10

Rwanda, such a beautiful country, and the plight of it's people have been quite close to my heart ever since I saw the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda. There was massive news coverage at the height of the short genocide and then virtually nothing. What is happening now? Is it something that foreign aid, so lacking before, could help with now?

Gacaca tries to provide an update on what is happening today inside Rwanda. As a documentary it simply records, interviews, spending time with people in the villages. The word 'gacaca' means the local village system of justice that is being officially revived. Accused people are treated quite supportively, and encouraged to make a public confession and ask the community for forgiveness. After witnesses have come forward the elder of the tribe makes a judgement.

What does this have going for it? The system is being officially and sympathetically introduced in the face of the incalculable number of people who have committed crimes. They have ranged the crimes in four bands - leaders who have incited murder, those who have committed murder, those who raped women, and those who stole or misappropriated goods. In a country with very little infrastructure, doing much more judicially might easily be abandoned because of the impossibility and scope of the task. There is also the dilemma that many of those accused are also part of the fabric of the society and without them even more people will die - for instance, we see prisoners being released for two days to go and till the fields so their families will not starve (the families are also responsible for bringing food to prisoners, as there is insufficient food in the prisons).

At the moment people are living side by side with people whom they saw massacre their own siblings, their own husbands or wives, or who dragged the children from their backs and clubbed infants to death. The tension does not go away. During a gacaca, many people are afraid to denounce someone lest they themselves are denounced. Many of those convicted will serve a period of a few years in jail and then the rest of their term outside of jail but doing community work two days a week. (One local suggested it is only slightly better than before - a two week jail sentence was common for murder.)

The film documents this with an apparent lack of bias (always hard) and is to be applauded for that. The filmmakers have chosen not to comment on what they have filmed, which is also one of a number of responsible attitudes to take. But the film does beg comment. The division of Hutus and Tutsis, although having some slender historical basis to ancient times, is a colonial division more than an ethnic one. I.D. cards are stamped to show that any Rwandan is either Tutsi or Hutu (one of the main bases that was used in the massacres to determine who should be killed). Most people involved in the killing were forced to do so or be killed themselves but, given the historic tensions, probably either side could have formed waves that resulted in massacres and probably still could. Many of the innocent are innocent only there but for fortune.

It is not easy for Rwandans to overcome the desire for vengeance after seeing your loved ones macheted in front of you, however many government goodwill slogans urge you to do so. Grief, unattended, can easily turn towards the desire for retribution, which can smoulder for many, many years. Training grief counselors could go a long way to helping Rwandans live in peace with each other in a sustainable future

  • as could perhaps abolishing the current I.D. system - a hazy division

implemented by the colonists and determined by the length of someone's nose or how tall you are - and rebuilding a sense of pride, a sense of personal identity. Monitoring and justice sometimes is not enough - neither is giving people money and goods.

Gacaca is an important film because there is hardly any footage coming out of Rwanda to help the international community decide if it can help and, if so, in what way. But as a film it lacks depth or any academic analysis or variety of opinion, or even historical background, so is only useful in conjunction with a wider understanding. A television documentary would perhaps have helped to produce a more rounded overview - as part of the G8 programme of events it helps to illustrate the range of challenges that are often unique to a particular country within a continent of very widely differing problems.

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