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Rwanda: "Peace Cannot Stay in Small Places"

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Dec 21, 2005 (051221)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Peace cannot stay in small places," said Ndagijimama Abdon, an elder Gacaca judge in Gisenyi, "it is good when peace reaches everywhere." The Alternatives to Violence project of the Rwanda Friends Peace House focuses on workshops for judges in the local Gacaca process dealing with lower-level genocide perpetrators. One key issue, as this participant told evaluators, is how such small-scale projects can have a wider impact.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from an evaluation report from the project, published on the web site of the African Great Lakes Initiative, one of the co-sponsors (

Another Bulletin sent out today contains a short summary of the Gift for Life program, which supports rape survivors in Rwanda, and excerpts from a 2004 report by African Rights based on interviews with over 200 rape survivors. The report, published on the web site of the UK-based SURF Survivors Fund ( also contains background on Rwandan women's organizations working on this and related issues.

For earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins and links on Rwanda, see

Note: Today's two issues of AfricaFocus Bulletin are the last for 2005. My best wishes to readers for the holidays and for our common work and concerns for Africa as we enter the new year. Publication will resume in the second half of January.

Thanks to all of you who have supported AfricaFocus Bulletin this year. Your support will continue to be needed in 2006. To make a voluntary subscription payment, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Peace Can Not Stay in Small Places

Lessons From Alternatives to Violence Workshops with Gacaca Judges

May 2004 - March 2005

By Laura Shipler Chico and Uwimana Marie Paule

A joint report from the Friends Peace House (FPH) and African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI)

For further information about FPH, please contact David Bucura at or 250 08 520862

For further information about AGLI, please contact David Zarembka at or (314) 645-0336 Or visit AGLI's website at

[Excerpts only. For full text see]

Executive Summary

"Peace cannot stay in small places," said Ndagijimama Abdon, an elder Gacaca judge in Gisenyi, "it is good when peace reaches everywhere." Abdon's message of hope and expectation is characteristic of what we found as we traveled Rwanda to evaluate the impact of the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) on Rwanda's slow recovery from genocide. As we interviewed more and more people, we began to feel that AVPis gaining momentum here in Rwanda. Again and again, interviewees issued a clarion-call for AVP to continue, to reach into every corner of the country, into every heart. Every person needs AVP, interviewees said again and again. Blanket our communities, reach every Gacaca judge, every leader, every genocide survivor. Go into the prisons and work with those who have been accused of genocide. Take AVP to our neighboring countries and help our region find peace. Tothe participants in this evaluation, AVP is not just a series of workshops that stays confined to small meeting rooms. Though AVP starts as a short three-day workshop, it inevitably ripples outward reaching small corners of each life in unexpected ways. Now in Rwanda, 4 years after the program was introduced here, AVP is beginning to feel like a movement: a movement of hope, of healing, of slow reconciliation, of possibility.

With funding from the United States Institute of Peace and support from the Africa Great Lakes Initiative, the Rwanda Friends Peace House offered seventy 3- day workshops in Alternatives to Violence to Gacaca judges throughout Rwanda. To evaluate the success of these efforts, we interviewed 37 judges, government leaders, AVP facilitators and community members. The reports from interviews were, without exception, glowingly positive. This evaluation seeks to move underneath this praise for AVPto discern why it has been so well received here, and to identify its major contributions to Rwanda's healing process in the wake of the 1994 genocide.

Through the course of the interviews, four major themes emerged. First, AVP's experiential methodology was new for many participants and they reported that it helped them to internalize the workshop. As one interviewee observed, "AVP teaches people to have lessons in the mind, not just in the notebook." At the heart of AVP's efforts in Rwanda is the hope that the transformative and community-oriented nature of AVP's methodology can contribute to the country's difficult journey of healing and reconciliation. This, then, was the second theme that surfaced during the interviews: the role that AVP is playing in healing wounds and rebuilding after genocide. This is a complex theme, with interlacing questions of truth, forgiveness, and transformation. Without asking for personal testimonies or demanding that participants recall past violence, AVPquietly invites participants to begin to see the possibility of good in themselves and others, to seek truth even when it contradicts strongly held beliefs, and to find a deep source of reconciliation and transformation.

The third theme examines how AVP 'culture' and Rwandan culture interact, compliment and challenge one another. AVPis an imported program that, over the past several years, has been molded and shaped to suit Rwandan society. The interviews revealed that AVP both reinforces existing values within Rwandan culture (such as humility and respect for one another) and simultaneously challenges aspects of the culture (such as established hierarchies and top-down decision-making processes).

Lastly, many interviewees reported that AVP equipped them to respond to community and family conflict with creativity and compassion. While most interviewees were Gacaca judges and had been trained in AVP for the purposes of applying lessons to the Gacaca process, these same judges gave countless testimonies about how AVP had helped them in responding to conflict in their personal lives. It was through these testimonies that we discovered that AVPis not only a conflict resolution program, but also a quiet and unassuming advocate for women and children's rights: many interviewees talked about how AVPhelped to shift communication patterns between husbands and wives and stem violence in the home.


Eleven years ago, the small African nation of Rwanda burst into the world's consciousness with its 1994 genocide. That genocide has been called, by historians, the most "efficient" in world history in which a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in a period of 100 days. After the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) overthrew the Hutu Power government, swarms of refugees fled in fear of revenge killings and the new government imprisoned a hundred thousand alleged perpetrators of the genocide. Now, most refugees have been repatriated and Rwanda has turned to the monumental task of healing and rebuilding a nation after unimaginable brutality.

In an innovative and controversial effort to bring justice and reconciliation to both the victims and suspected perpetrators of the genocide, the Rwandan government has elected to utilize a modern day version of a traditional form of arbitration known as Gacaca to settle many of the lower-level cases


Gacaca: "Key to Hope for Peace in Rwanda"

The dictionary defines hope as "a desire for something to happen, combined with the expectation that it will." For the past two years, Rwanda has embarked in a process designed to seek the truth of what happened during the genocide, to facilitate reconciliation within the country, and to expedite the trials of the near 100,000 cases of alleged acts of genocide. At the heart of this process is the hope that it is possible to live together in peace after unspeakable acts of betrayal and horror.

After the genocide, the new Rwandan government arrested and imprisoned over 100,000 people accused of perpetrating acts of genocide. The numbers overburdened the legal court systems, and most accused have remained in jail without trial for ten years. This not only leaves the prisoners without a fair hearing, and the state bearing the burden of supporting them, but it also leaves survivors of the genocide in limbo, waiting to hear the truth of what happened to their families and to see justice done. It has been estimated that, without Gacaca, the cases would take up to 200 years to process.

Gacaca literally means "on the grass" and it gathers all community members in each small cell and each sector of Rwanda once a week to hear lower level cases related to the genocide of 1994. "Lower level" cases include those who allegedly looted, destroyed property, and participated in killing but were pressured or coerced to do so. Planners of the genocide, those who raped women, and those who killed multiple people remain in the legal court system. One Gacaca judge explained the system like this:

Gacaca was here in Rwanda even before. Gacaca is not here because of the genocide. It was the way Rwandan people and culture used to resolve their problems. Me, I am old and here there are others who are old. When the people had the problem in Rwanda before, they resolved in Gacaca because there was no court. The court came with development, but before it was Gacaca that resolved problems in the family. When the family had a problem, they resolved it themselves. If they couldn't then they went outside to Gacaca. What they call "igisenge" it is when a problem between a husband and wife is resolved between the two of them with just two other people members of the family or neighbors, but not many people. When a problem is not resolved in igisenge, they went to Gacaca, where they called members of the family, neighbors and friends to help them to resolve the problem. Now, Gacaca is not a new thing for Rwandans. Rukamata Dismas, Gacaca Judge

Each Gacaca court is administered by a coordinating team and tribunal of 9 judges. Each tribunal has a President, two Vice Presidents and two Secretaries. For the past two years, Gacaca has been tasked with collecting information and documenting the truth of what happened during those 100 days in 1994. On March 10, 2004 Gacaca officially began its judgment phase hearing cases and deciding on restorative penalties, designed to reintegrate released prisoners back into their communities. Amajor goal of Gacaca is to seek the truth, and therefore prisoners receive dramatically reduced penalties for confessing the details of their crimes.

Conflict is an inevitable result of Gacaca. As prisoners return to their communities, old hatreds and pain are revived and new conflicts spring up over land, family, children, and more. Fear and mutual suspicion mount as potential Gacaca witnesses and prisoners who are willing to testify are intimidated and, in some cases murdered. Survivors can be re-traumatized by the re-telling of what happened, and the wives of men who have been imprisoned for perpetrating acts of genocide may hear for the first time that their husbands are indeed guilty. Released prisoners may have to face false accusations and they might hear that others witnessed acts they thought were hidden.

In order to support the Gacaca process and to contribute to its ability to promote reconciliation, the Friends Peace House launched an intensive Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), training the lead judges in Gacaca tribunals across the country. In a span of 10 months, AVP trained 1,167 Gacaca judges in 11 of Rwanda's 12 provinces.


Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP)

The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) began in 1975, when a group of inmates near New York City asked a local Quaker group to provide them with non- violence training. Highly experiential in nature, the workshop encourages participants to recognize that they can best find their own answers to the conflicts they encounter.


Implementing Organizations

The Alternatives to Violence Project Rwanda (AVP- Rwanda) was established as a joint project of Rwanda Yearly Meeting of Friends (RYM) and the Friends Peace Teams'African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI). AVP is housed within and administered by RYM's Friends Peace House, an organization which was founded in 2000 to be a witness for peace, reconciliation, and conflict resolution after the genocide and war of 1994. AVP-Rwanda is currently administered by a nine-member committee and has 58 active facilitators located throughout the country.

AVP quietly invites participants to begin to see the possibility of good in themselves and others, to seek truth even when it contradicts strongly held beliefs, and to find a deep source of reconciliation and transformation. The Friends Peace House's vision is a unified Rwandan society that has a vibrant culture of peace, which respects human rights, and which improves the living standards of all its members. Its three general goals are: 1) to build a sustainable and durable peace in Rwanda; 2) to restore the relationships that were destroyed by the war and genocide to ensure peaceful co-existence; and 3) to reintegrate the people who were harmed by the tragic events of this country. The Friends Peace House works with all sectors of Rwandan society and in all provinces of Rwanda, regardless of religious affiliation, gender, or ethnic group, focusing particularly on women, widows, children and youth, genocide survivors, prisoners, community and religious leaders, and grassroots and religious associations.


B. Healing Wounds: Rebuilding After Genocide

At the heart of AVP's efforts in Rwanda is the hope that the transformative and community-oriented nature of AVP's methodology can contribute to the country's difficult journey of healing and reconciliation. Eleven years later, the reverberations of the 1994 genocide are still felt at all levels of society. The economy and infrastructure still flounders as Rwanda struggles to establish a reputation as a stable country and to attract international investors; only 12% of secondary school- aged children can afford to go to school; entire families have been obliterated by not only the killing but also by high levels of mistrust and suspicion. In this genocide, neighbors killed neighbors, pastors killed church members, fathers killed wives, grandmothers murdered grandchildren. Even families and churches that have survived in body have been ripped apart by betrayal. It is not surprising that people in Rwanda tend to believe that people are inherently evil, that no one is to be trusted, and that "forgiveness" is simply an empty gesture to push the horrors of the past away. Gently, AVP moves into these festering wounds. Without asking for personal testimonies or demanding that participants recall past violence, AVP quietly invites participants to begin to see the possibility of good in themselves and others, to seek truth even when it contradicts strongly held beliefs, and to find a deep source of reconciliation and transformation.


In Rwanda, truth is a keystone to healing. Many people do not know what happened to their families and want to find their bodies to be able to move through their mourning; wives of men imprisoned for committing acts of genocide live braced for learning the truth of what their husbands did; witnesses for Gacaca are being intimidated and sometimes murdered to stop the truth from emerging; people who participated in the genocide but have not yet been accused are fleeing the country, afraid that Gacaca will reveal the truth and they will be punished; prisoners who were falsely accused are hoping that the truth will liberate them. So essential is the truth to Rwanda's recovery that the government has chosen to encourage genocidaires to confess the full extent of their crimes in exchange for greatly reduced sentences. The country needs these confessions, and the Gacaca judges who have been trained by AVPhave the enormous responsibility of discerning truth from empty accusations and rumors.

The lesson of listening was very important for Gacaca because it will help people to understand and help people speak the truth. If judges don't listen well, that is in fact a form of violence, and they often don't know that they have done violence. - Rugandura Celeste, Gacaca Judge

In the Basic AVP workshop, facilitators introduce an activity they call "rumors." In this activity, they ask five volunteers to leave the room and choose one to stay to listen to a short, detailed story. Then one by one, the volunteers come in, listen to the story from the person who came before, and retell it to the person who follows. Usually participants are practically on the floor laughing, tears streaming down their faces as they story changes and changes some more, to the point of becoming unrecognizable. This activity is cited as one of the most valuable that AVPoffers Gacaca judges. Many report that after seeing how stories can change in the retelling, they will no longer believe hearsay or rumors but will go to the source. When we asked, "Before AVP,do many judges just believe what someone tells them, even if that person didn't witness it?" the answer came back again and again Yes.

There are many changes [in the community because of AVP]. When you look at the judges, there is a difference between those who have had the workshop and those who haven't had the workshop. We have found that judges who have not taken AVP don't listen to people or take the time to understand or see if what they are saying is true or not true. Instead they just write down what they have in their own minds. ... There is a secret to knowing the truth and that secret is in the game, 'Rumors'. It's not good to say that "I understand" [or I heard]. When people say they understand, it is good to ask them 'you understand from whom?' and go to see that person and ask them if what the other person told you is true. For example, a person can say, 'I understand that Patrick has killed someone.'Now, it is good to ask who told you that story, and then go to the source and ask if the story is true. Because sometimes you can go to the source and you find the story is not true. You can find that that person says, 'Patrick did not kill. He showed the killers where that person was hiding, but he did not kill that person.' The first person said I killed, the second story said I revealed someone's hiding place. So that is not the same story. - Kavoma Patric, Community Peacebuilder

Rwandan culture holds a strange paradox: because of the history of betrayal, people tend to be quite cynical and slow to believe another's assertions, and, simultaneously perhaps because direct communication is so expensive and impractical, and the society has relied on messengers for centuries - people are quick to believe what they are told. This tendency to believe information without checking its source, especially when it comes from perceived authorities, may have played a role in the genocide. It is possible that people were very quick to accept the pre-genocide Hutu Power propaganda, and, because they did not question its source, were more easily convinced of its credibility. AVP then enters into this paradox, teaching simultaneously that trust may be possible, and healthy skepticism is essential to rebuilding the country and preventing further violence. "At home, everything I was told, I accepted as true," said Mukarwihura Anne Marie, "but now I can be humble and look for the truth."

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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