Alice Karekezi Interview [English]: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Justice in Rwanda: The Rights of Women; Conversation with Alice Karekezi, human rights activist; 10/5/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Il y a aussi un interview d'Alice Karekezi en français interviewée par Nanou Matteson

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Return to Rwanda

So you decided then to work toward putting the violation of women as a human rights issue on the agenda for the discussion of justice in Rwanda, and you decided to go back to Rwanda.

Yes, I knew that I would go back, but I think maybe it hurried me to go back. And I was thinking maybe, of going there and trying to work with the youth as a lecturer, to try to lecture criminology, which maybe could explain in a more detailed way the problems we were encountering, and also seek for the solutions. And also to work with others who have tried some other things to see how we can put it in the Rwandan agenda. It means, at home, to have it as one of the major issues, and also for those who want to address the Rwandan problem, to convince them that's one of the most important. I knew for sure that we were so overwhelmed that sometimes it was just difficult. I don't think that people were reluctant because they didn't want it, but sometimes you are just overwhelmed. And I was thinking that this can be a piece I can take and try to achieve, one of them.

Now, as you go back and assume this role at the university and as a mediator between women and the International Court, help us understand what it's like to be between the women who have suffered and the international system of justice. And particularly, help us understand the feelings of the women who have suffered these violations. What are the particular difficulties presented to them in coming forth to seek justice before the tribunal?

For the first question, I think what I've tried first is to say, I don't know. I don't know. I just don't understand. I know that I've spent so much time in radio programs and others, to try to explain it in France. I knew that in an intellectual manner I can dissect it and come to see what were the mechanisms [of the genocide]. But, at the end of the day, I say "but why?" So I don't think that I had an answer. The other thing which has assisted me in this process was to say everything [as if] I was there, if it was me. Everything. While approaching them, and in the relationship I have with them, with somebody who has suffered something you'll never understand but you can try to understand.

The difficulties for these women to come before the International Justice were many. Some of them were general to Rwandese and the others particular to these women. What they were sharing with other Rwandese is that the circumstances of the commission of genocide implies the fact that the international community didn't take some responsibility, well knowing the preparation of genocide.

The second thing, which never appears, is that Arusha, where the International Tribunal has its seats is, in the memory of Rwandese, a sign of failure. I spoke about the Arusha agreement of August '93. We felt it a lot. Many Rwandese, as myself, were expecting so many things from this Arusha agreement. But it was a failure, and a failure whose name is genocide. And also we felt lonely. I member that I was in France. They were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the end of Nazism. But they didn't want to hear about genocide in Rwanda. So it's a wound for us.

And also the circumstances of the creation of this tribunal has implicated some clash between the Rwandan government and the United Nations. Plus the fact that the United Nations has a bad memory in the context of Rwanda. I talked about the '61, when my parents fled. But the UN was supervising the elections, it didn't prevent something, and so on. One Rwandan official said that the United Nations has 72 years of litigation with Rwanda. But now to give you an example, when Justice Arbour came to Rwanda in May of '97, she was received by a demonstration in the street.

She is a justice of the International Tribunal which was established to deal with the legal ...

Yes, with genocide. Justice Arbour was the chief prosecutor after Justice Goldstone, and now she had been appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. She is no longer [with the Tribunal]. And at that time when she came, she had been received, in '97, by a demonstration.

Now, speaking about the specific problems of these women. I think it's not particular to Rwandese women. Not only those who have experienced sexual violence at that level, but we know from the data we have that no person, no human being, who has experienced sexual violence can come and easily speak about that. It involves other aspects. It involves trauma. It involves ...

Their relationship to their body, basically.

Their relationship to their body, and particularly what I've discovered with these women, it's just as if their body is no longer theirs. Not only do they have this problem of the violation of their rights, they have a problem of the community who has witnessed their "guiltiness," that's how they believe it. But also they are in conflict with their bodies. How do you live with a body which has been taken from you? Your psychosexual identity has been grasped from you. And it's a burden because you must live with it. But at the same moment I guess that it's no longer yours, because anybody can come and use it as they want. So how to live with that, how to live with the medical consequences? I told you about Clementine. She has been lucky enough to go to receive some type [of help]; but Clementine is not an exception. There are so many Clementines in my country.

Now, the interesting issue that's raised here, and what you're suggesting, is that on the one hand there is the satisfaction of international justice being done, there is a tribunal, there are hearings, there is a verdict, there may be an admission of guilt. But on the other hand, that is different than coming to some sort of reconciliation in the hearts of these women, of reconciling themselves to what was done. That may not even be the right word. Justice may be a better word. But part of your project is to bring these two worlds together. On the one hand, international justice, but on the other hand, the real situation, the real feelings, the real injustices that have been done to these women. How do you go about doing that? Is it about listening to them, or what?

My focus is to try to know their needs in terms of justice. And it involves, of course, to know them because I don't assume that I know. What I've learned in my books doesn't tell me what are their needs. And I told you that when once home then the task was to listen to them. I concentrated much of my effort in organizing forums to let them speak, to let those who have lived or worked with them speak about that, to listen to them. And to try to translate it maybe in this boring language, which is law, unfortunately. And that's one of the reasons that the access of the tribunal is that difficult. [Beyond] the geographical and the political, even the experienced lawyers maybe just don't understand this so-sophisticated language. So the issue was first of all to listen to them and try sometime to put some advisor of the tribunal in contact with them. Those who work, for example, in the sexual assault team, when they need witnesses, we try to go, we try to discuss, we organize workshops to try to see how to approach them, you see. And maybe one of the most important for me has been to try to build a rehabilitation program, which we have started since August '97.

And what is involved in that rehabilitation program?

Mostly to address the consequences of genocide. They assume that the provision of Rule 34 assumed that most of the witnesses can be the victims. So before having them in court, or during, as a measure of the protection of witnesses, to offer them some assistance. But we try to use this bridge, to extend it as much as possible, to have a consistent program of rehabilitation, which will involve some legal advice of course, but also counseling. But more medical support. We are still fighting for that, we hope that will succeed.

Has the International Tribunal done some things that you think are right?

They are the ones to say what is right or wrong.

I mean right in a moral sense, not in a legal sense.

No, I understand what you mean. Yes. As I told you some time ago, it's difficult to say what is the thing to do to address the issue of justice. And that's what I will say in brief. But what is important is to dissect the causes, the consequences, and then to try to see. The International Tribunal is only a mechanism. They don't speak about domestic courts, but we have some and they're trying to do their best. They don't speak about extralegal mechanisms, which are economic empowerment, income generating activities, or medical support.

What I think has come out from the Tribunal, besides the importance of this legal precedent on rape, in its definition and also in its characterization. I think that the world needed to know that it happened. We know. We learned it the hard way. But following the discussions, the debates, to know if it has been a genocide or not, which has kept busy the Security Council for a while instead of intervening. We must acknowledge that it is important that an international court ruled that there has been a genocide, distinct of the war. That's one thing.

The second thing now, maybe not only for Rwandese but for those who are attracted, or human rights activists, there are some principles which are being put in action as the #Yumashita principle of common responsibility, it has been used in the case of #Akaezu, which has been sentenced, including for sexual charges, not having committed it but having incited it and letting it be committed.

So a person was found guilty because he gave orders to make something happen.

Yes, because it was in his office that some women were raped. And while they were being raped he'd say to those who are the rapists, "Don't ask me again what a Tutsi woman tastes like." And he has been sentenced. And for us it's also a recognition, a rehabilitation, a type of it. One other thing is that Jean Kambanda, a former prime minister was one of the leaders of the genocidal regime, confessed and pled guilty. I think that for those who are familiar with the context of Rwanda, this is very important. To see a man as Kambanda, who has been fed with ethnic hatred, to acknowledge. Yes, these are some of the [contributions] ...

But you believe that there must also be domestic Rwandan versions of seeking justice, and you are involved in a process of restoring gacaca. Explain that to us.

Yes, I want to say again that we have our judicial system trying to be built, and we encounter some important problems. Among them is that we have so many prisoners. We have one of the most overcrowded prisons. We have thousands and thousands of persons in prison. The difficulty is to try them, and the other components of our conflict as the break of the social ties, the fracture of our community, has led us to try to think about other mechanisms, including those which emphasize not only the punishment per se, but which have as a goal to restore the social fabric. One of them, and one of importance we have found, is what we call gacaca. Gacaca is our ancient way of resolving our conflicts. When I say ancient, I mean precolonial. It has existed during the colonization, but weakened. And it still exists. Otherwise I can tell you, vis-à-vis the mass participation, the coming back of returnees, Rwanda would have known other major conflicts. We had two miracles in '94, just after the genocide, and in '96 with the different returnees. I can tell you that, myself, I was worried. I wasn't sure that it wouldn't lead to a clash. And unfortunately, to put people in prison was also a means of protecting them. But we tried to revisit this gacaca mechanism with the hope that it will help us in this painful process of trying to seek some solutions to our conflict.

You're playing such an important role in the recovery of your country and I think our audience would be interested in knowing what in your background prepared you, or in the situation, to deal with the emotions that you must be experiencing as you do this work?

I don't think I'm playing an important role. I'm just trying to give my contribution. I know that some, maybe unknown, are playing the most important role. I'm trying to do my part. But what helped me in this process, maybe, I don't know. Maybe I'll tell you that I had a very nice childhood. I've been gifted to have my parents and to have them giving me such a time. I learned to get interested in the suffering of others, which can sometimes help me to relate to our problems. We are not alone. Through my reading, and helped by one of my school teachers, I learned a lot about what the Native Americans have suffered, what the Armenians, what the slavery, what was it all about, the Jewish, and others. So I have been working in the ANC office, African National Congress, between '83 and '84 in Paris and I know what is Apartheid, and others. And I think that I've been also given love enough to try to share with others. Simply, when they ask me in their radio program what to do with women who have experienced sexual violence, I say spontaneously one of the first things is to love them. To reintegrate them in the community of human beings, because that's the issue. Also, it's not only the issue. I think that I've had an opportunity also to have meetings, encounters. I have met people all along in my life who have given me time. Generously given me something. And I think that's a tribute also I'm giving to them. People have taken time for me. People have taught me things and given to me. So I think that I can try to give to others also.

So, in a way your cosmopolitanism, all the different experiences that have taken you away from your country, were really learning experiences to reinvigorate your Rwandan identity? Is that a fair statement?

I think so. I think so. It has certainly helped a lot. It has certainly helped a lot.

Is it also the case that when you experience death to such a degree, is there some sort of an urge to contribute to a rebirth?

Yes, and it's in contributing to rebirth, you are contributing to your rebirth. Because, I am not alone, but I lived so deeply, I had so much the feeling of being dissolved. I was alive, I was working. But I was feeling, being physically destroyed. I lived it that way. And during all this depression I was trying to cry that I'm alive, I'm lucky to be alive, as Tracy Chapman well sang. I'm lucky to be alive and I want to stay alive. And this obsession of living, I met it when I went back to Rwanda in '95. I was struck by the way people were just celebrating to be in Rwanda. That was amazing for me. But this is an instinct also, of survival. When you have approached death. You know, there were so many dead bodies in Rwanda, just in the streets. These people who have come first to Rwanda, their first duty was to bury. And burying was an activity in Rwanda. Each Saturday there was national burying. And beside that, there were marriages. Each Saturday. You didn't know where to go. And I think that our people have done a lot for that, and I must salute that also. We have been helped, but we have tried hard to stay alive.

Thank you very much for this fascinating, complex discussion of the rebirth of your country. I know that you told me that when you came back a friend said you can't just sit around, you've got to be willing to come back and get your feet in the mud. And you clearly have done that. Thank you very much for joining us. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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Photos by Jane Scherr

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