Pierre Hazan, Special adviser on transitional justice for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (Geneva), and editorial advisor of justiceinfo.net

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The delegation from the Central African Republic at the genocide memorial in Kigali, 11 janvier 2016

Two years ago, in the aftermath of the violence by the Seleka militia against Christians, anti-Muslim pogroms in Central Africa Republic (CAR) threatened to escalate into genocide. Today, the country is trying to find a way out of violence, but the challenges remain enormous. To explore paths of reconciliation, a Central African delegation recently visited Rwanda seeking inspiration from that country’s traditional courts, the “gacaca” (literally, “justice on the grass”).

You leave Kigali by the road south towards Burundi and drive about half an hour on a red-dirt track to get to Rweru. Known as “Reconciliation Village”, Rweru was built at the behest of a priest, one of the founders of the Prison Fellowship association. Here, all but closed in together, live some 500 people, survivors and perpetrators of genocide and their children. The village chief, John Giraneza, is in his fifties and walks with a limp, but he has energy to spare. John lost everything in the Rwandan genocide, including his will to live. Finally, in 2005, he came to settle in Rweru, determined to follow his government’s injunction: he would forgive.

And, then, John fell in love. His new wife is the daughter of the man who had killed his wife and children: “After the genocide, you are alone. It is very difficult to share anything, without children, without parents. I had to learn to live again. In 2005, I came here and I taught that it was necessary to live next to the genocidal killers and grant them forgiveness. This is hard to do. But it is also very difficult for someone who has committed genocide to ask forgiveness from the families of his victims. To forgive is the only way to freedom.”

John’s words resonate with the members of the delegation from Central African Republic. Led by two ministers, the delegation is comprised of ex-fighters, religious figures, judges, members of civil society, and each of them knows only too well of what John speaks: violence, atrocities, the spiral of hatred and vengeance, loved ones murdered, homes looted. In December 2013 and January 2014, the United Nations had raised the alarm (as it is doing, today, about Burundi) describing the violence in CAR as “pre-genocidal”. In September and October 2015, new outbreaks of violence occurred in the capital, Bangui. One member of this delegation was spared only because he was not home and the killers murdered his nephew. Others members watched their homes burn.

The society of the Central African Republic remains polarized between Muslims, who feel discriminated against, and the Christian majority who claim to have been invaded by Chadian and Sudanese fighters with the complicity of local Muslims. Is there a way out of this quagmire of hatred? What can Central Africans expect from international justice and the Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Reparation soon to be established in their country?

It was to answer these questions that the delegation from the Central African Republic traveled to Rwanda, at the instigation of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), a private diplomacy organization based in Geneva that specializes in mediation of political conflict, and its local partner, Aegis Trust.

Clément Anicet Guiyama, minister and political advisor to the Central African president, expressed his admiration of Rweru’s survivors and former genocidal killers. But at the same time he measured the power of denial that must be overcome in his own country: “In Central Africa Republic, we have not yet overcome hatred and the desire for vengeance. How can we get the executioners to confess when, often, they say they have done nothing wrong?”

A critical time in Central Africa Republic
In a few weeks, Central African Republic will hold elections. The new president’s job will be Herculean: reconstruct the country, rebuild broken unity, reconcile divided communities, disarm armed groups that still control much of a territory twice the size of France, reinstate the rule of law, relaunch the economy…

The project is gigantic. But the first steps in rebuilding the country have already been taken. In June 2014, armed groups signed the Brazzaville Accord, pledging to renounce violence (although, often, without supporting it). Then, early in 2015, extensive public consultations were held, and, in May, the National Forum of Bangui adopted a republican pact to build peace and national reconciliation. This pact provides for the creation of a Truth Commission, with the recommendation to take inspiration from the gacaca courts, the traditional “justice on the grass” hearings that Rwanda practiced for ten years after its own genocide. In front of village assemblies, 120,000 genocidal killers, jailed since 1994, were invited to recognize their crimes in exchange for a pardon and immediate release (except for the planners and leaders of the genocide).

“To kill someone, it’s not as if you had stolen cattle”
Christopher was one of those anonymous cogs in the genocidal machine who confessed before the gacaca courts. Today, he, too, lives in Rweru. Before he speaks, the Central African delegation first hears Mary, a survivor who lived only because “God protected her so that she could bear witness”. And, then, Christopher tells his story: “I am one of those who killed Mary’s family. I was imprisoned. At first, I did not want to ask forgiveness because I was afraid that they would kill me. Finally, the time came. I wrote to Mary, but I avoided her in the village. One day, I decided to take the plunge. I went to her house. Mary was not there. I returned several times. She did not forgive me immediately. It took time. It is not easy to ask forgiveness. To kill someone, it’s not as if you had stolen cattle. Now, our children play together. Now, you would not be able to tell who killed and who was the victim.” Christopher became the godfather of Mary’s grandson.

After the testimonies, there is music, dancing – almost as an act of will. “The last act of mourning is joy, for joy is life,” says one survivor. The Central Africans, usually so quick to laugh, remain lost in their thoughts: the words they have just heard still resound with them. Can this reconciliation be as deep as it appears? Then, Emotion Namsio, former spokesperson for the anti-Balaka militias, speaks: “I, too, was a victim. Eleven members of my family were burned alive. My house was destroyed. I wanted revenge and that’s why I joined the anti-Balaka. Then, I was arrested and I spent 15 months in prison. Today, I wonder what use is revenge? Where does it lead? I want to learn reconciliation.”

Can gacaca justice inspire Central Africans? Minister Brigitte Izamo Balipou, Legal Advisor to the President of Central Africa, believes it can, even more so as she has seen the limits of international justice in Rwanda. In 21 years and some $8 billion spent, only 72 genocidal killers have been convicted. “We must rediscover the virtues of the ‘palaver tree’, for our brothers and sisters buried in mass graves, and for ourselves. We must make peace with the dead and between the living.” But in Central African Republic, where violence can resurface at any moment, time is running out and there remains so much to do. Determine the future mandate of the Truth Commission. Find the right balance between justice and forgiveness. Meet the people’s huge expectations in terms of reparations while the State itself survives only by international charity…

A non-aggression pact for access to the Muslim cemetery
And Rwanda, land of a thousand hills, is not the CAR. In Central Africa, there is no military victor, no strong State, no security, no disciplined population ready to answer a visionary president wielding an iron fist. There are only enormous challenges, starting with the disarmament of the militias and the redeployment of the State throughout the territory. But Central Africa also has its bright side: after the atrocities, the people’s desire for peace has never been so strong.

Encouraging signs are multiplying. Ousmane Ali, president of the Muslim community in PK5, the Muslim enclave in Bangui, returns from Rwanda to sign “a pact of non-aggression and reconciliation” with his Christian neighbors in the 4th District’s Boeing quarter. “For the past two years, we have been burying our dead wherever we could,” he says. “This agreement will give us access to our cemetery. The anti-Balaka militias will no longer obstruct us and, on our side, we will go unarmed to the cemetery. The market and schools will open again.”

As they leave for home, the members of the delegation from Central Africa leave energized, desiring to share their Rwandan experience. They leave convinced that, if Rwanda was able to rebuild after the abyss of genocide, Central Africa can also rise again, that CAR must find its own model of reconciliation based on its history and specific situation. As Imam Kobine Layama says: “The teeth can bite the tongue, but the tongue and teeth are condemned to live together.”