Science & Tech

Undergraduates observe Rwandan attempts at justice

6 min read

Students’ research focused on Gacaca system of community-based courts

The Rwandan genocide memorial was a tiny one-room church, pervaded
still by a penetrating stench. On a table in the church was a pile of
human skulls and femurs, a startling reminder of the people who sought
shelter there in 1994 when the killers came calling.

“It just struck me that in this one church 5,000 people died, innocent
people, and the world didn’t blink an eye,” said Harvard junior Leila

Chirayath and five other Harvard undergraduates spent six weeks in
Rwanda last summer studying how the Rwandan government is seeking
justice for the estimated 500,000 mostly minority Tutsis killed when
the small east African country erupted in vicious widespread ethnic

The students’ efforts – undertaken largely independently – focused
on the newly created Gacaca system of community-based courts. The
Gacaca courts are considered essential because they both involve the
broader community in finding justice and they relieve the regular court
system of the burden of handling the thousands who have been accused of
genocide-related murder, assault, robbery, rape, and property

The students, who came together through an informal network of those
interested in African development, put the trip together under the
guidance of Robert Bates, Eaton Professor of the Science of Government,
and with the assistance of Jens Meierhenrich, lecturer in the
Departments of Government and Social Studies, who accompanied the
students to Rwanda.

Though several of the students said they met others in the group during
Bates’ fall 2001 class on African development, Bates said he became
aware of their project only during the course of the class, after the
plans were being formed.

Once he knew of their plans, Bates encouraged the students and helped
guide their efforts. His role, he said, was to help form their project
into a serious research effort, and to make sure they knew about the
difficulties they could run into in Rwanda.

“I made sure they knew what they were getting into, that they got
all the bad news ahead of time,” Bates said. “The other thing [I did]
was to make it serious, make it a research project and not just an
alternative to spending a summer at the beach – and these kids were
serious, so that was not a problem.”

Meierhenrich said his goal was to guide the students and to help get
them excited about working in Africa, on which there is a shortage of
scholars, he said.

“The students have come a long way. They started from scratch with
little or no exposure to serious research and ended up with a good
understanding of what it takes to make sense of an unfamiliar culture,”
Meierhenrich said. “If you want to understand Africa, it is critical to
get dust on your boots. I think the students have come to appreciate
this during the trip. And, if we are lucky, they will spread the word.”

The group came together through a series of informal connections. Not
all of the students involved were in Bates’ class. One, Catherine
Honeyman, worked last year for Women Waging Peace when a group of
Rwandan women visited campus. Several students’ homes are in Africa,
and two, Andrew Iliff and Alfa Tiruneh, were co-presidents of the
Harvard African Students’ Association. Also involved were Shakirah
Hudani and Justina Hierta.

Together they planned the six-week trip, making their contacts,
getting visas, and plotting their research strategy. Along the way,
they had to convince skeptical friends, classmates, and relatives that
the trip was not only worthwhile, but also safe.

“There were definitely doubts about safety,” Honeyman said. “People were saying, ‘Are you crazy, you can’t go there.’”

Honeyman, who is from Madison, Wis., said her parents were probably
among the most concerned. But they were ultimately persuaded by the
importance of the mission, she said, and her constant updating them on
planning and safety arrangements.

The endeavor received a lot of support here at Harvard, with the
group obtaining backing from the Center for International Development,
the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the Government
Department, the Undergraduate Committee on Human Rights, the Committee
on African Studies, and the Harvard College Research Program.

Hampering the planning was the difficulty in obtaining accurate and
up-to-date information, the students said. Even as they flew to Rwanda
in mid-June, they thought their report would be about preparations for
Gacaca. But while they were en route, they found out that the pilot
phase of the justice system would begin during their stay, allowing
them to observe the initial sessions.

They spent the first week or so in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.
They broke into two groups and interviewed nongovernmental
organizations and foreign government representatives based there. They
also spent time searching for the latest documents on the structure of
the Gacaca courts, as updated documents were difficult to find outside
the country. Even when they did find the documents, they were often in
the national language, Kinyarwanda, which none of them spoke. Finding
English translations took several weeks.

“Even the most basic information on the structure of the courts isn’t available outside the country,” Iliff said.

When Gacaca opened on June 19, half of the group went to the first
meeting in a Kigali suburb, riding with the Supreme Court justice who
oversaw the session.

After that, the whole group went to Butare, where the national
university is located and where they had made contacts in the law
school. Several attended Gacaca meetings in communities near Butare,
while others interviewed those being held for genocide-related crimes
in area prisons.

Several then traveled back to Kigali, where they interviewed Rwandan
government officials, including members of parliament, the minister of
justice, and President Paul Kagame.

At the end of the six weeks all but Honeyman and Hudani left Rwanda.
Honeyman and Hudani stayed behind to complete a draft of their report
for the Rwandan government.

The report presents a mixture of practical suggestions – such as
strategies for starting on time and erecting some kind of sun screen to
make the proceedings more bearable for those in the audience, to more
official recommendations on judicial preparation and salaries, and on
the handling of crimes of retaliation.

All in all, the students said, though they found room for
improvement in the Gacaca system, they were impressed with the
commitment they found in Rwandans to both face up to the genocide and
move on to the future.

“I was so impressed with the people we met. They have dedicated
their lives to this,” Honeyman said. “They have their sights set on
something and they’re moving forward.”