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Saturday, 19 May, 2001, 12:04 GMT 13:04 UK
Rwanda's slow justice
Rwandan refugees
People's memories of Rwanda's horrors run deep
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, was the first court to prosecute a head of government for genocide. It has had its problems in the years since the 1994 bloodbath in Rwanda, and as Andrew Harding reports, it is still hard work.

I have started scribbling this down in the visitor's gallery of court number three. There is a thick sheet of bullet proof glass in front of me, and beyond it a brightly lit, air conditioned room full of lawyers, judges, and three slightly bored looking defendants.

The defendants were brought in about 20 minutes ago - shuffling past me in handcuffs and smart suits. Two former Rwandan politicians and soldier. One was wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Bones of genocide victims
The exact number killed in the genocide is still unknown
I felt myself flinch when they suddenly walked in. I had never seen a genocide suspect before. They may be innocent until proven guilty, but the stench of their alleged crimes soils the air.

It is an odd feeling sitting in this modern, expensive courtroom in a shabby building, in a remote corner of Tanzania.

On the street outside, safari touts chase German tourists, hoping to tempt them with deals for the nearby Serengeti national park.

Upstairs, there are three courtrooms working at the moment - and 44 defendants, all Rwandan, sitting in a specially built jail on the outskirts of town.

There are ministers in there, newspaper editors, bureaucrats, a doctor - even an Anglican priest.

These are the suspected ringleaders of a killing spree so huge, so fast, and so well organised that almost a million people died in little more than three months.

One of the accused is a woman - a former minister for family and women's affairs. She is accused of genocide and of rape.


The Rwandan culture itself complicates matters

After half an hour watching the court proceedings, I found myself stifling a yawn. The wheels of justice here turn very slowly.

The court's official languages are French and English. But most of the witnesses speak Kinyarwandan.

A prosecutor asks a long, complicated question in English, it gets translated into French, then into Kinyarwandan. The confused witness says "what?" - that gets translated back into French, then into English. The question is repeated ... etc.

And that is not the only obstacle. There are lawyers here from all over the world. I met a sharp-suited Canadian sexual harassment lawyer, a London QC with a voice like cut glass, a polite prosecution lawyer from Cameroon who was about to be dismissed for incompetence, and many more.

Language difficulties

In court, this can lead to something of a culture clash.

I watched a recording of a solemn African lawyer delivering his opening statement, only to find himself interrupted after about 10 seconds by a table thumping American called John Floyd who seemed to object to, well, just about everything. The OJ Simpson trial meets Nuremberg.

Not surprisingly, most trials here drag on for months, if not years.

The Rwandan culture itself complicates matters. The British QC, Diana Ellis told me how hard it was to get a straight answer out of anyone.

"I'm told that Kinyarwandan is an idiomatic language," she said. "Ask someone yes or no, and they'll reply instead with a series of elegant points, slightly related to the matter in hand."

There is also the issue of hearsay. Like much of Africa, Rwanda has a long oral tradition. Stories have always been passed around without being written down.

Kigali, 1994
The language used in court is apparently rather idiomatic
As a result, it seems, people tend to blur the lines between what they have seen themselves, and what others have told them.

As one weary lawyer put it, you can waste months finding a witness, checking and rechecking his story, and preparing him to give evidence.

Then after a couple of days of cross examination in court, your star witness admits, without seeming to understand how damaging the revelation is, that he did not actually see the event himself. But his wife's aunt did.

Diana Ellis got into trouble with a judge recently for losing patience with a witness during the trial of a genocide suspect - the director of a notorious radio station.

"You're not an idiot," she said to the man. "You told me you've been educated."

The judge intervened, asking her not to use insults.

"But your honour," Ms Ellis replied without missing a beat. "I specifically said he wasn't an idiot."

Fear goes on

Her witness, like most witnesses here, had his identity hidden for fear of reprisals back in Rwanda. There is a big curtain behind the bullet-proof glass, which seals off the witness box from the visitors' gallery.

The wheels of justice may be slow - but the wheels of reconciliation are even slower.

Suddenly I found myself listening to a new witness - the delays, the tedium, the confusions vanished. This was what it all boiled down to:

Through my headphones I heard the woman describing, via a translator, how her mother, child and neighbours had been chopped to pieces in front of her and thrown into a pit latrine. It was almost more shocking to hear the simple facts relayed by a dry, monotonous translator's voice.

But for me it was not just the woman's memories that were disturbing. It was the fact that seven years after the genocide, she still felt it necessary to hide behind that curtain.

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See also:

16 Feb 00 | Africa
Rwanda tribunal's shaky progress
27 Apr 01 | Africa
Bishop charged with genocide
17 Apr 01 | Europe
Rwanda nuns in genocide trial
17 Jul 00 | Africa
Rwanda counts its dead
05 Jul 00 | Africa
UN general's Rwandan nightmares
22 Jan 00 | Africa
Rwanda updates genocide list
16 Dec 99 | Africa
UN admits failure in Rwanda
24 Apr 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Rwanda
02 Apr 01 | Africa
Eyewitness: A survivor's story
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