The nine Rwandan judges wore a blue, green, and yellow sash that said ” inyangamugayo” — trusted person. Two prisoners were summoned from the rear, reports the Washington Post. Fifty or 60 people sitting on benches facing the court stood up. The chief judge said, “We are going to remember.” Then, a long silence. This is the gacaca court (pronounced ga-cha-cha). The name means “on the grass.” These Rwandan courts are faced with trying more than 40,000 prisoners implicated in the genocide of 1994, when the members of the country’s Hutu ethnic majority killed nearly 1 million minority Tutsis in a 100-day rampage. Most of the accused have been in jail for more than 10 years without trial. While the masterminds of the genocide — those who planned, organized and incited it — will be tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda operating in Tanzania, and others charged with murder will be tried in regular criminal courts, the many more who abetted the slaughter will go before the gacaca courts. The gacaca judges are not lawyers, but respected persons selected by the community.
The gacaca courts, which generally meet once a week, emphasize reconciliation and deemphasize retribution — though further punishment for those accused is still possible. There are approximately 10,000 gacaca courts, each with nine elected judges. They are how most ordinary people here are coming to terms with the past. Rwandans want to find out exactly where and how those close to them died. Without this knowledge, it is hard to move on. The need to learn the names of the dead is greater than the need to punish.