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Recovering from genocide: Rwanda's next steps

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How can a society heal after widespread atrocities?

In spring 1994, this tiny Central African country saw an orgy of violence that in 10 weeks killed around a million Rwandans, most of them ethnic Tutsis. Now the country's leaders and most of its people are trying to put the most troubling legacies of the genocide behind them. If they succeed, they could provide a valuable lesson in recovering from atrocities.

The most pressing issue here is what to do with the 100,000-plus Rwandan Hutus incarcerated on the suspicion that they participated in the genocide.

The country's court system – itself badly shattered by the genocide – has processed only around 5,000 of these cases. The international court that the UN established to try genocide ringleaders has completed only nine trials.

This month, the government will launch a massive project that aims to clear up its backlog of genocide-related cases – and do so in a way that strengthens national reconciliation. Most of these cases will be sent to a new, community-based justice system called the gacaca (ga-cha-cha) courts, a hybrid of the formal-style courts and a traditional gacaca hearing system.

The project will start, on a pilot basis, in 12 different communities. Men and women elected to represent their neighborhoods will start by constructing a historical record of what happened there during the genocide. Aided by confessions offered by many detained suspects, these gacaca judges will then try to figure which suspects committed which of the genocide-related actions.

They will sort suspects into categories, from Category 1, for genocide ringleaders, to Category 4, for those accused only of genocide-related property crimes. Category 1 cases will stay in the formal courts. All the others – including people who killed during the genocide but were not ringleaders – will be tried in neighborhood-wide gatherings presided over by the gacaca judges.

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