Friday, June 24, 2005

Running away?

This post was written on Thursday last week, just after the UN criticised Rwanda and Burundi for the 'forced' return of refugees from UNHCR camps

Yesterday we went to Butare, the home of the university and the site of a recent exodus by between
two and eight thousand refugees (depending on whose figures you believe) frightened of the Gacaca process. It was a lesson in media perspectives. The world's media had picked up on the condemnation of the UNCHR ofthe treatment by Rwanda of refugees, who were being repatriated by force with the agreement of the Congolese government. There seems no doubt that due process in the cases of them as asylum seekers had not been followed, but also very difficult to hear of any evidence that they were doing anything other than evading justice.
The Gacaca process has been criticised internationally, though it is largely accepted as the only solution to a huge prison population, which would take 100,000 years to try in the formal way. My Rwandan friend said that the Gacaca process was being criticised because the West could not accept that Africa could implement a system of their own. The system is also largely free of the vast legal beauracracy that could accompany this process and which would create another reason for international NGOs to be in Rwanda. Cynicism aside, it does seem, from talking to students in Butare, that they have a high level of faith in the process and a very calm, brave view of what they arew going to see this summer. The Gacacas now happen each Wednesday afternoon in Butare, with everyone invited. Alongside the formal investigations, witnesses testify and there is an effort to establish the truth of what happens. The third stage (after investigation and trial) will see the community decide on guilt and punishment.

For a country to be reliving its past in such a vivid way is bound to cause problems but I was told in two separate cases that security has been put into place in villages to prevent reprisals against the tried or the witnesses. Given the general level of security on the streets, this sounds plausible. They do not believe that these groups are in danger because, I was told, 'they know who is a survivor and who isn't. If anything happened they would know who did it'. There is a view is that the ongoing investigations mean that people know that they are going to be found out and that is why they are now fleeing. A journalism student who has been talking to the refugees say that they often refer to 'rumours' of violence, which may have been spread by former leaders of the genocide or they may be an excuse by people evading Gacaca: he wasn't sure about the truth. [there is a follow-up to this section which I will post another time]

The UNHCR undoubtedly has an authoritative perspective on the conditions of refugees and I don't agree with one view, suggested by the government as well as a friend here, that they are deliberately stirring things up to create work for themselves. However, I do think the West is, in its determinaton that its own processes are right, denying the Rwandan people the justice that they would demand for themselves. The risk is that the UNHCR start to be seen as harbouring genocidaire when perhaps it should be working as quickly as possible to ensure that the refugees do not languish for yeas in another jail, that of the overcrowded camp, rather than seeing Gacaca through and moving on with the rest of society.
In the meantime, repatriation is happening and international observers, if too quick to condemn the process, may find themselves shut out.

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