A Discussion with Denis Bikesha, Director of Training, Mobilisation, and Sensibilisation for the National Service of Gacaca Courts in Rwanda

May 21, 2009

Background: As part of the Peacebuilding Practitioners Interview Series, Dr. Eric Patterson interviewed Denis Bikesha, who is a lawyer in Rwanda and has served as the director of training, mobilization, and sensibilization in the National Service of Gacaca Courts. In this interview, Bikesha shares his opinion on how the government and religious actors should interact in Rwanda. He particularly focuses on the experience of the gacaca courts in promoting reconciliation in the country.

Mr. Bikesha, can you speak about the general purpose of the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions?

As you may know, the gacaca courts are used primarily to obtain information, people’s stories, and compile a list of genocidaires and prepare their file for trial. The National Service has four main goals in supporting this process. First, we supervise and help facilitate proceedings at the local level. Second, we advise those at the local level. Third, we help train judges and other partners of the gacaca courts system. And, fourth, we help equip local courts with resources they need to conduct their proceedings.

The gacaca courts are scheduled to end this year. What does that mean for the reconciliation process in Rwanda?

The gacaca courts began in 2001, and the National Service of Gacaca Courts is now charged with completing the files for trials by the end of this year. While this will mean the end of the gacaca court system, this does not mean the end of our reconciliation efforts. In fact, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission continues the work of reconciliation in Rwanda.

The National Service of Gacaca Courts is confined to focus on justice, but of course, reconciliation is more than simply trials and this type of justice. While we have completed some one million cases in the gacaca court system, we cannot give similar numbers for reconciliation. We cannot say this many or that many people have been reconciled. Reconciliation is a gradual process. Someone today may not want to seek reconciliation, but tomorrow he or she may want that. It is a process that involves the mind and heart. It is a process that will continue with the life of the country.

You mentioned that the National Service of Gacaca Courts is primarily focused on justice. In what way has the pursuit of justice led to or not led to reconciliation in Rwanda?

Gacaca is justice for reconciliation. If there is no confession by a perpetrator, it is very difficult to convince others, including victims, to grant pardons. The mission of gacaca courts is to promote unity and reconciliation, but to do it through justice. During the genocide people lost family members and people close to them. How can you advise these people to forgive a genocidaire without that person accepting responsibility? Here confession plays an important role. If someone does not confess, then you don’t know if someone has turned away from their old path. Through confession, a person declares that he or she is a changed person. Also, through confession persons accept responsibility for their actions as crimes. The old belief may have been that what I did was justified, but now there is a new belief—that what I did was wrong, a crime.

In what ways has religion influenced the gacaca courts?

In the gacaca system genocidaires and past perpetrators are offered the possibility of a “guilty plea affair,” where if people confess their crimes and ask for forgiveness they may receive a reduced sentence. While there are many reasons people may choose to confess, religious beliefs are certainly a major reason many people choose to confess. In fact, church leaders are quite active in promoting confessions. For example, some church leaders have a program where they visit prisons and urge people there to confess their crimes, to accept responsibility for what they have done so as to reconcile with God. I know of one accused woman who admitted her crimes because she felt a great unease, unhappiness, within her. She said that she wanted to confess so as to enjoy happiness again, the happiness of the infinite, which is most important.

In addition, there are now several radio programs, like talk shows, on which religious leaders speak about the need for confession and reconciliation. So yes, religious beliefs influence people’s actions here in Rwanda.

Would you say that religion plays a large role in Rwandan society?

Religion plays a major role. I know of one story where a man’s son was poisoned in the village and died. The man knew the woman who poisoned his son, but didn’t say anything at first because that woman soon after committing this crime went to a church and became born again. The man went to the pastor of the church and told him of the woman’s crime. He also said that they should wait and see if the woman would confess her crime to the church community, since this is necessary to be truly born again—one must inform, confess, and repent before the church community. So during the next gathering the pastor mentioned that someone in their community had poisoned a child and that perhaps they would like to confess. He never mentioned who, and the woman never confessed. In fact, she never returned to that church. Rather, she went to another, where the boy’s father followed and told that pastor about her past deeds. That pastor too brought up the issue but never pointed her out. She did not return to that church. If fact, she goes to no church now.

You see, religion plays an important role in how we manage conflict in a variety of settings in Rwanda. Even in the home, when a husband and wife have a dispute they cannot resolve, they will go to their pastor and ask him for help. He will serve as a mediator or facilitator to work out their disagreement.

So religious leaders play an important role in Rwandan society?

Yes. Rwandans believe in religious people. This can, of course, be both positive and negative. For example, in 1994 certain Catholic priests preached that Tutsis should be killed. And even though people’s sensibilities may have told them that Christians killing Christians was wrong, they listened and followed the priests’ words. On the other hand, religious leaders can inspire Rwandans to do great things, such as in reconciliation efforts. If religion is used in a positive way, it can save the world. If it is used in a negative way, it will destroy it.

Have priests and other religious leaders complicit in the genocide been prosecuted through the gacaca courts?

Some priests escaped out of the country after the end of the genocide. However, several have been detained. Sometimes the Catholic Church has tried to intervene on the behalf of Catholic priests. While I can understand their concern that these priests receive a fair trial, it is also important that those religious persons who have committed crimes are held accountable. Religious or not, how can you justify telling people to kill others, or killing yourself? So yes, religious persons who have committed crimes must be treated as criminals and held accountable.

How has the complicity of some religious persons in the genocide affected the level of belief and/or commitment to certain churches in Rwanda today?

For those of us who are Christians, we base our faith not on people, but on the person we follow—Jesus Christ. If you say, for example, that the Catholic Church participated in the genocide and put a period there, this is not effective. People committed crimes.

There are no papal documents that supported the genocide—quite the opposite. One cannot have faith without reason. Faith goes hand in hand with reason. So just because certain priests told people to kill, doesn’t mean people should have killed. Indeed, Pope John Paul II has told us that we cannot look for peace in violent ways; peace can only be found through peaceful ways. Similarly, just because some religious persons participated in the genocide does not mean that we should lose our faith in the Church or God.

So do you see religion continuing to play a large role in Rwandan society?

Yes. Religion is very powerful in Rwanda—so powerful that most homes are based on religious values. And, most Rwandans still go to church. They still respect what they hear from religious leaders, and if you respect these people, you believe what they tell you. In this way, religion can play a big role in the betterment of our country.

Will religious institutions continue to work with the government and vice versa in the near future?

Yes. The government of Rwanda has to work hand in hand with religion to create chances to discuss certain issues. At the same time, the government challenges the churches. It says to them, “We are doing your work.” That is to say, the work of reconciliation. So the churches still have a large role to play there.

Do you have any last comments you would like to make about the future of Rwanda?

I think in the end, people must recognize that they no longer want to deceive themselves; they need to accept what they have done or has happened to them and live a happier life. People should be hopeful; hope does not disappoint.

Mr. Bikesha, thank you very much for your time today.

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