Inside a church where 10,000 people were killed, screening a post-genocide film in a prison, in search of the truth
Last week was my first time venturing out of the city and into the Rwandan countryside. Internews, the organization where I'm interning, was doing a film screening in a rural region just outside of the city of Kigali where I spend most of my time. This new film, the latest in a series of documentary films on post-genocide justice, looks at the issues of children orphaned by the genocide and of Rwandan refugees in Tanzania.
The film includes a section on the recent provisional release of tens of thousands of prisoners from prison in order to reintegrate into their communities while awaiting their trials before the gacaca courts. It was this last section of the film that proved to generate the most debate, both when the film was screened before a general audience in a small rural town and also when it was screened in a nearby prison.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Although this region where the screenings were held was not very far out of the city (as the crow flies), the drive took two or three hours each way, for as we left the city of Kigali, we also left behind paved roads, traveling the entire way over curvy, dusty, and painfully bumpy roads.
As soon as we left behind the pavement, we entered another world. Gone were the busy intersections, the office buildings, and the crowded streets. Instead, we drove past endless dust-covered fields of corn, sorghum, and vegetables. Past wells where children lined up with yellow water containers to collect the day's water supply. Past teenage boys on bicycles, heading to town with recently slaughtered chickens hanging over the handlebars. Past countless mud-brick houses, some standing alone, some clustered together in small villages. Past herds of long-horned cattle led by young boys down the road. Past goats led on strings by young kids barely bigger than the goats themselves. Over a leveed road that straddled a mile-long marshy valley, running with small streams and with beds of corn, sugar and other crops planted in rows, their verdure and fertility a stark contrast to the dry dusty yellow patches of farmland along the rest of the road. Past little kids who waved and screamed "Capitaine!" as they saw the car pass, one of the only cars on this remote road. Past heaps of dark-red grain drying in the sun. Past women heading to the market with sacks of cassava on their heads.
In addition to all of these signs of normal rural life, though, we also passed many more sober sights on this drive, sights that betray how central memory and history are to this small region, and how relatively recent the experiences of war and genocide.
The first such landmark was a large graveyard, next to the road on the top of a hill only a matter of minutes out of the city. In April 1994, as the genocide was beginning, thousands of men, women, and children sought refuge in a school on this road just outside of Kigali, protected from local genocidal militias by the presence of UN peacekeeping forces at the school. When the peacekeepers were given orders to withdraw, approximately 2,000 of these men, women, and children were subsequently murdered. Their bodies lie in this cemetery, the tragic circumstances of their deaths commemorated by a gate reminding all who read it that bearing witness to crime means nothing if it isn't followed by response to that crime.
A bit farther down the road we came to a town called Nyamata, where we paid a brief visit to a genocide memorial, a church where thousands of people took refuge during the genocide, believing that they couldn't be killed in a church. Contrary to this belief, however, 10,000 people were killed in this church, and their skulls and bones are kept on display inside the church and in vaults outside, reminders of the horrors of 1994. The corrugated metal roof of the church is still dotted with bullet holes.
Not all of these markers of history and of war were so stark, however. As we crossed a bridge over a river, I was told that there were still landmines in amongst the reeds underneath the bridge, planted by the former army during the 1994 genocide. The landmines still remain, for removing them would destroy the bridge.
But all of that was only the drive, for in addition to the scenery and landmarks of this short trip were the film screenings themselves. At the first one, held in a large room in what appeared to be a schoolhouse, approximately 400 local residents gathered to watch the film, after which several people made comments and asked questions about the issues raised. Some questions were quite technical and concerned how the process of testimony would work at these trials. Most of the questions and comments, however, centered around the concept of truth. One man was concerned that the prisoners' confessions, which had allowed many of them to be provisionally released while awaiting their trial before the gacaca courts, were not necessarily the full truth. Others were concerned that the gacaca trials themselves may not in fact reveal the truth, that there may be no living witnesses to some crimes or that people might lie. Setting the record straight was the main concern.
Likewise, the issue of truth was central to the discussion after the next day's screening at the prison, but this time in an entirely different manner. Here, the film was screened in the inside courtyard of a prison before about 3,500 prisoners, so most of the questions raised by the prisoners about truth, gacaca courts, and confessions were very personal to the questioners. Their questions largely focused on how to navigate the complexities of their own cases.
Nonetheless, the gist of their questions was largely the same as the questions coming from the larger community. Details aside, both groups essentially wanted to make sure that in all of the legalities of the gacaca courts, and in amongst the voices of thousands of other prisoners and witnesses, their own truth would somehow be heard.