20 Years After the Rwandan Genocide – “Never Again” is Personal

On the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, Alison Cole of the Open Society Justice Initiative, who previously worked at the ICTR, shares reflections on her experience.

Discussing the Rwandan genocide is complex. It feels disrespectful to speak in the abstract about such extreme levels of human trauma. The oft-quoted statistics of over 800,000 individuals murdered in 100 days can never fully communicate the magnitude of how people were affected by the atrocities. Similarly, for people who have worked on documenting the crimes that took place, the insertion of a first-person narrative is an uncomfortable exercise because it’s hard to justify talking about yourself after working with survivors with a far greater weight of life experience.

But the truth of the matter is that the genocide in Rwanda shaped the course of my life. I was a teenager in New Zealand when I saw the first news story. A Rwandan woman was describing how she had hid under corpses and pretended to be dead to save herself from the militia armed with machetes. I can recall her interview almost word for word. The horror was unbearable and it was already days into the massacre. What could be done to stop the atrocities?

I was not yet able to understand the nuance of real politik or why powerful States were refusing to stop the killings, let alone why they were avoiding the legal implications of using the “G” word. All I could begin to understand was the bravery, strength of character, and incredible instincts of a young woman hiding under dead bodies and surviving to tell her story to the media. At the time, I was going through issues at home that ultimately resulted in me being put into foster care. The knowledge that kids my age were being slaughtered while taking refuge in churches focused my efforts to overcome my relatively minor challenges and grow-up to do something about it. This personal motivation was something that I often found I held in common with my future colleagues.

A twist of fate led me to working on the cases prosecuting the genocide. I was a graduate student after law school and I was signed up for a human rights clinical class due to a clerical error. I was somewhat frustrated with human rights law, which seemed to be the purview of soft norms and voluntary non-compliance. I had never heard of international criminal law which was still in its early stages of formation. By coincidence, a former UN lawyer was at the clinical class introduction accompanying her husband who was at the university on a visiting professional exchange.  She described how she arrived at her new UN office in Kigali, Rwanda, to discover a cardboard box filled with evidence that no one had analyzed. The box contained over 500 statements from survivors of rape. At this time, the world was observing the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, and yet, a significant portion of the crimes was literally being ignored, collecting dust in a dark corner of the UN. The challenge was to convince prosecutors at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) that this evidence was relevant and that their existing indictments ought to be amended to include rape. Believe it or not, this was an uphill battle. In the early 1990s, respected legal scholars were advising that rape was not an international crime.

The clinical class supervisor was the former Human Rights Watch researcher who had documented rape during the Rwandan genocide. She was due to be an expert witness at the ICTR testifying on rape and the 500 rape statements needed to be analyzed to identity patterns in order to attribute liability to the senior leaders who coordinated the genocide.  The patterns were horrific. We found that around 70 percent of the rapes documented took place in public places: at roadblocks, at checkpoints, on the street, in fields, in public spaces like government offices, schools, churches, hospitals. Rwandan officials overseeing the killing must have seen the mass rape which was taking place openly in plain view. The evidence revealed a narrative that was almost certainly part of the coercive environment faced by the young woman who survived hidden under corpses, and yet this reality of the genocide was still not fully integrated into the legal proceedings. Although there have been seminal judgments at the ICTR addressing rape as genocide, both the non-charging of rape and the acquittal rate for rape, far outnumber the limited convictions for rape. No senior leader has been convicted of intending mass rape, despite the propaganda sexually demonizing women and the admission of a senior government official during his trial that it would be “ridiculous to believe that soldiers would not commit rape during war.”

Working in Rwanda with survivors of genocidal rape was hard, although there is a certain amount of guilt admitting that, since it feels shameful to confess to being disturbed by your nightmares while surrounded by people who have literally lived your nightmares. But the trauma associated with this work must be factored into planning for an appropriate response. Interacting with the head of the UN peacekeeping mission at the time of the genocide, and learning about the post-traumatic stress disorder he endured as a result, brought home to me the potential impact of responding to grave responsibility with insufficient resources. My colleagues at the ICTR were, for the most part, a highly dedicated and inspiring group of individuals, who endured an uncannily high frequency of trauma and tragedy. People in our community died from sudden illness, traffic accidents, killing by wild animals, murder, and in a plane crash. A team member suddenly absconded after a colleague discovered via a google search that he was wanted for a triple murder. The Tribunal itself unwittingly hired  a suspected genocidaire as an investigator. And unfortunately like many work places, sexual harassment and discrimination were not uncommon. This no doubt added to the stress on the human condition which can result in professional dysfunction. However, the hardest part of the work was trying to process the shortcomings of a UN institution that was intended to address human suffering. There are several experiences which epitomize this, including those available on the public record of the legal proceedings.

For example, at the time that I started working at the ICTR, antiretroviral drugs were available to the accused but were not provided to witnesses who came to testify at the tribunal. In one instance, a woman who travelled to the tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania to describe her repeated rape, was asked to identify the accused in court. She stated that, although she could positively identify the accused, he was looking so different. So healthy. And that he could just reach for a glass of water, while she had to walk for miles to draw water from a well.

In another instance, a woman agreed to face the many risks associated with testifying as a rape survivor (social stigma, threats to her security, losing her job) if she could state on the record that the accused had infected her with HIV/AIDS. She wanted to tell him directly about the continuing impact of the rape on her life. When the prosecutor requested leave of the judge for the witness to make her statement, he asked “how is this relevant” and denied the motion. On another infamous occasion, judges laughed while a rape victim recounted her ordeal. On a different case, both husband and wife were testifying but the husband didn’t know that she was a survivor of rape. She agreed to testify only if her involvement was not disclosed to her husband. Instead of respecting this request, they were placed in close proximity while waiting to testify. He left her and their children as a result.  During an investigative mission, the leader of an investigative team asked a man on the street to locate the witnesses’ intermediary, even though the man was referenced by the witness in her statement as one of the rapists. The witness was then told to meet for an interview at 9am the next morning. There was great annoyance when she showed up later in the afternoon. But her prior statements recorded that she worked nights as a sex worker, a socioeconomic decision she made as a result of being held as a sex slave during the genocide.

These are avoidable failures. At the heart of the matter is the need to work with people as equal partners and humanize our mutual exchanges. There have been efforts to improve, and last year the ICTR issued a manual on best practices for prosecuting sexual violence. This is dramatic progress from the early days of rape denial. But still the experiences of women and witnesses are not sufficiently central to the legal process. The problems are systemic, institutional, structural, financial, cultural, and gendered. I went on to work at other UN tribunals and in each instance similar challenges arose. What is the appropriate support to be provided to witnesses? How can security and protection be guaranteed? To what extent can international criminal cases facilitate reconciliation and the personal motivations of survivors who courageously participate in proceedings?

Twenty years on, we may be more aware of the nature of the challenges, but it is hard to identify any significant improvements in our collective response and implementation of immediate solutions. This week, in a painful convergence of history repeating, the UN Secretary General “stopped over” in Central African Republic on his way to join commemoration activities in Rwanda, and acknowledged that the international community is not doing enough to stop the current violence, which some commentators have identified as genocidal. A peacekeeping mission is supposedly due to be deployed to the Central African Republic in September. That will be too late. The absence of a peacekeeping force is already too late for the 150,000 people reported to have been killed to date in Syria. Meanwhile, people caught in the cross-fire of conflict continue to do whatever it takes to survive – hiding under dead bodies and taking refuge in places of religious worship. What are we doing to help?


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