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Documenting Apologies in Gacaca Trials

In Rwanda, Technical communication on November 17, 2009 at 12:06 pm

In my dissertation, I argue that contextual factors such as politics, cultural expectations and documentation shape the apologetic exchanges—which can in turn shape reconciliation, identity, and membership in communities once torn apart by hatred, genocide, and human rights violations. In this post, I look specifically at how apologies are documented in gacaca trials as well as what influences that documentation may have on society in post-genocide Rwanda.

DOCUMENTATION IN THE GACACA COURT SYSTEM

The gacaca system is divided into two phases of documentation. The first phase—or fact-finding phase—comprised identifying and documenting a list of all the crimes that were believed to have taken place leading up to and during the genocide. This phase included identifying and documenting suspects and witnesses, offenses, and names of victims, as well as determining the appropriate category of each offense (Tiemessen, 2004, p. 61). The second phase consisted of trying the cases against the accused perpetrators and documenting findings of each trial (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004a, p. 6).

In other words, documentation is a major component of both phases—and, therefore, of each trial’s setting. Documentation is so crucial to the gacaca system that the Rwandan government produced an official training and reference manual for gacaca judges entitled Process of Collecting Information Required in Gacaca Courts. The manual provided detailed instructions regarding what information was to be documented, how it was to be gathered, and the procedures for filling out and filing 33 different gacaca trial documents—including documents such as “Death of Each Victim of Genocide,” “Distribution of Killing Weapons in the Cell,” “Road Blocks Erected in the Cell,” “Identity and Charges Against the Accused,” and “Notification of Verdict” (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004b).

DOCUMENTING APOLOGETIC RHETORIC IN GACACA TRIALS

In terms of apologetic rhetoric, the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions (2004b) stated that understanding how the genocide was perpetuated and its effects requires “that whoever participated in genocide takes the initiative to confess, plead guilty, repent and apologise” (p. 5). These apologies are witnessed by judges, survivors, and entire communities, and they are recorded on an official government document entitled “Record of Confession, Guilty Plea, Repentance and Apology.” This document includes sections for recording the identity of the accused, the crimes that person confessed to (including the exact nature, weapons used, time and place of the crime), the names of the victims as well as the names of any accomplices and witnesses. In addition, ample space is provided at the end of the document for a detailed handwritten narrative explaining how each crime was committed, as well as for two apologies to be written (one to “God the Almighty, The State of Rwanda and Rwandans” and the other to “Families of the victims”). Finally, the last section on that document includes space for a written description explaining how the perpetrator is prepared “to face and live with the survivors of the victims’ families” (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004b, p. viii).

CULTURAL EXPECTATIONS AND DOCUMENTATION

In analyzing the information recorded in the “Record of Confession, Guilty Plea, Repentance and Apology” document, I argue that gacaca trials are shaped by the search for and documentation of apologetic elements that Rwandans value. My field research in Rwanda in January 2009 resulted in the identification of four common characteristics of a successful apology: a detailed narrative of the crime or offense, a statement of sorrow combined with a request for forgiveness, the demonstration of sincerity and heart-felt remorse, and reparations (either symbolic or real). Three of these elements are evident in the official gacaca trial documentation of apologies.

In the “Record of Confession, Guilty Plea, Repentance and Apology” a detailed narrative of the crime is documented in Sections II, III, and IV of the document. Specifically, Section II provides a list of information for judges to collect regarding each perpetrator—including individual crimes and information regarding the time, place, and weapons used in each crime.

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Section III also provides a list of information to be recorded by judges; however, this information focuses on documenting the human toll of the perpetrator’s actions, including the names of each victim (and any known nicknames), the names of their parents, and where each person’s body was placed after death.

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Section VI moves from quantified or objective data to a first-person narrative of the crime. In addition, rather than being completed by a judge, this section is designed to be handwritten by the perpetrator (or, in cases where the perpetrator is illiterate, to be written by the judge using the words of the perpetrator). According to the document, this written narrative should explain the “details of how each crime was committed” (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004b, p. viii).

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Additionally, the statement of sorrow and request for forgiveness that Rwandans value are documented in the two sections designated for the two written apologies. The document also provides space for the perpetrator to record a “general” apology to “God the Almighty, The State of Rwanda and Rwandans” in Section VII and a “particular” apology directed to “Families of the victims” in Section VIII (National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, 2004b, p. viii). Finally, the Rwandan need for symbolic or real reparations is documented in Section IX. Once again, this section provides space for the perpetrator’s written explanation of how he or she is prepared to face and live with the victims’ families.

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PLACING GENOCIDE ON THE PUBLIC RECORD

This information is gathered through ongoing dialogue (i.e., accusations and apologies) and is then recorded by the judges on the document. These documents are sent to the main office of the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions in Kigali and are intended to be made publicly available both at the official Documentation Centre in Kigali and (in the future) online through a database website of featuring scanned images of these official documents. In that sense, these documents form a large part of the public record of the 1994 genocide not only in Rwanda but also around the world as researchers begin to gain access to and report on the findings in these documents.

SHAPING POST-GENOCIDE SOCIETY

While some people may be tempted to view such documents as merely recording and relaying information, it’s important to remember that documentation is in fact much more “complex, active, and creative” and “involves giving shape to information…for the practical interests and needs of specific audiences” (Dombrowski (2000, p. 3). One of the active ways in which documents give shape to information is focusing on the information that is valued or needed by a specific audience. For example, in the case of the documents and reports of the tobacco industry in the 1960s and 1970s, the tobacco industry’s “values strongly guided what technical information was reported and how it was presented” (Dombrowski, 2000, p. 170).

The point I am getting at is that “documents both reflect and structure activity at all phases of the process” (Sauer, 2003, p. 331; emphasis added). That is, the evidence that a group deems valuable, shapes not only what is documented but the entire process by which it is documented—including which individuals give testimony; what questions are asked; and how that knowledge is quantified, measured, and ultimately recorded in official documents. Moreover, since the documents provide answers and insight by which a group comes to understand a problem or event, we can say that social values shape the process of data collection and the documents, which in turn “shape our understanding of the worlds we seek to understand” (Sauer, 2003, p. 331).

The presence of these elements in the “Record of Confession, Guilty Plea, Repentance and Apology” has two significant impacts on the documentation setting. First, it demonstrates how Rwandan culture and values shape not only what is documented but the entire process by which it is documented—including which individuals give testimony; what questions are asked; and how that knowledge is quantified, measured, and recorded. In other words, the presence of these elements in the official document shapes the apologetic exchanges that take place by narrowing the attention of judges and requiring perpetrators to offer specific information in order to fulfill the requirements of the document. Second, since this is the official document by which perpetrators place their admittance of guilt and repentance on the public record, the presence of these elements shapes more than just what is documented but also how the events of the 1994 genocide are discussed and remembered in the official government history.

FUTURE RESEARCH

These influences on the apologetic rhetoric and the entire process of gacaca trials are new elements in the analysis not only of apologetic rhetoric but also of reconciliation. Future studies on these elements in Rwanda as well as the impact of documentation in other areas recovering from genocide or human rights violations are warranted.

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