AVP in the Training of Gacaca Judges in Rwanda
The traditional system of community justice in Rwanda was based on ‘gacaca’ courts. Gacaca means ‘on the grass’: community elders would gather people together, often literally on the grass, to resolve family and community disputes by listening to all parties and then deciding what should be done.
After the 1994 genocide, about 100,000 suspected perpetrators were imprisoned. Bringing them all to trial proved very difficult, and the majority languished in prison, without trial, for many years. The suspected leaders were eventually tried at a special international criminal court in Arusha, Tanzania, but the Rwandan justice system had to handle the rest.
This task was full of legal challenges: witnesses had often been killed, or, if alive, were likely to be unwilling to testify. More importantly, Rwandans needed to know the truth about what had happened, both in their own communities, and in the country at large, and a standard legal process would not fully achieve this.
Eventually the Rwandan government embarked on an ambitious healing and rebuilding strategy, intended to forge a national identity - the slogan was ‘we are all Rwandans now’. They decided upon a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process, as it would enable people to find out the truth about the deaths of relatives and friends, and about what the accused people had actually done. It would also enable some kind of reparation to take place. In essence it would be a form of restorative justice.
In 2002 they launched the process, based on a modified version of gacaca courts. Friends Peace House and AGLI (African Great Lakes Initiative) saw that AVP (Alternatives to Violence) had much to offer. By the end of 2002, AVP-Rwanda had already trained 300 AVP judges. The National Gacaca Commission then asked them to train many more. In 2004 they ran 70 workshops for 1167 gacaca judges, with funding from the US Peace Institute.
Two evaluations were done, one in 2003, at an early stage, and the other in 2005, when the process was concluded. The first was ‘I still believe there is good in all people’, by Adrien Niyongabo and Peter Yeomans, both AVP facilitators. The second was ‘Peace cannot stay in small places’, by two other AVP facilitators, Laura Shipler Chico and Uwimana Marie Paule. Both evaluations were extremely positive, and five aspects were especially helpful.
Active learning and ownership: the examples and the specific challenges all came from the participants each time. They worked on these together, learning much from each other, and many commented how much better a learning experience it was than listening to lectures and taking notes.
Listening skills: gacaca judges were facing many difficult situations, with claims and counter claims. AVP helped them to listen better and more carefully. One powerful activity was ‘Rumors’: five volunteers leave the room, and one returns to listen to a story being told, in the presence of the other participants. A second volunteer returns and is told the story by the first, and this goes on until all five have returned. The distortions in the story cause much laughter in the ‘audience’, and are a powerful lesson about the unreliability of hearsay.
The Tree of Violence and the Tree of Peace: tree outlines are drawn. Participants brainstorm where violence comes from, and the words they come up with are written around the roots of the tree – for example jealousy, resentment, anger…. Then they brainstorm the fruits – for example beating, lying, stealing, killing… Each workshop produces a different tree, but all help participants to understand the complexity of violence. The Tree of Peace is then developed in a similar way.
‘Transforming Power’: a key principle is the belief that it is always possible to transform violent situations and actions into positive learning experiences that build peace. The tree of violence can be uprooted, and the tree of peace planted in you and in anyone, whatever they may have done. Participants all mentioned this as a key insight, which empowered them in their gacaca work, and more widely.
Building a more equal society: an indirect effect of the workshops was an increased respect for women’s rights and their equal role both as gacaca judges and more generally.
AVP work continues in Rwanda.