All posts by Paul Rukesha

Cataloguer Officer

Perpetrator Testimonies – A Tool For Peace Building After Genocide

After the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in which more than one million Rwandans were killed, the world could not believe that humans committed those atrocities. The authors of the killings and mass sexual abuse were considered monsters – like those we are familiar with in horror movies. But, 21 years after the Genocide, attitudes towards perpetrators are evolving, even though some still question their normality and humanity. This shift can be attributed to efforts to bring about justice.

In the immediate aftermath of the Genocide, the alleged perpetrators were arrested and put in jail waiting for trial. This, however, did little to achieve that objective. On one hand, the capacity of the country’s legal system to judge suspects was insufficient due to the consequences of the Genocide and the unprecedented number of cases to be handled. On the other hand, the prisons were overpopulated, and the normal judicial system was not able to handle the problem in those very specific circumstances.

Survivors were calling for justice, while the alleged perpetrators and their families were awaiting a fair trial. This situation compelled the government to look for alternatives to the inherited western style of justice. They chose to reintroduce a traditional community based judicial system known as Gacaca.


The role of the Gacaca Courts

Before the implementation of Gacaca however, certain questions had to be answered: were the Gacaca Courts of the right calibre to judge genocide crimes? How could the tradition-based courts achieve national reconciliation? What would be the reaction from Rwandans in general, and from both survivors and perpetrators in particular?

To respond to all these questions, the Rwandan government listened to survivors and perpetrators. Under the umbrella of different associations, survivors expressed their fears, hopes, expectations, and doubts, which were taken into consideration when laws and policies about Gacaca Courts were being drafted. Alleged perpetrators did the same through different associations formed in prisons. This informed the establishment of the Gacaca Courts, which started their work in 2001. Some perpetrators who had confessed saw the benefits of Gacaca and toured the country to encourage others who committed crimes to come forward and speak up. The purpose was to reintegrate themselves and help rebuild the destroyed Rwandan community.

Recording perpetrator testimonies

The year 2005 was a turning point in the progress of the Gacaca Courts and in the reintegration of perpetrators into their communities. This is because many confessed their crimes, and their testimonies in most cases proved to be genuine. These confessions helped survivors to know the truth. They revealed where victims had been thrown into mass graves, pit latrines, forests, rivers, swamps, and they shed light on how the killings were organised.

After the Gacaca Courts finished their work in June 2012, the reintegration of perpetrators required that they be given a space to interact with other members of the society and express themselves. It was also realised that the testimonies of perpetrators needed to be recorded so that the world could learn about what happened in Rwanda and how genocide could be prevented from happening anywhere else in the world. This has been made possible thanks to the Aegis Trust, which established the Genocide Archive of Rwanda.


Since 2004, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda has collected, preserved, and provided access to genocide related materials including audio visual testimonies of survivors, perpetrators, rescuers, and Rwandan elders. By visiting the online collection, one can listen and watch perpetrators’ journey from destructive ideology to a life where they are integrated members of society and contributors to peace building and truth-telling.

Perpetrators contributing to peace building  

While the testimonies of perpetrators are psychologically challenging to hear, they help us understand and make sense of what happened. By listening to them, we give perpetrators the chance to explain the process by which their humanity was corrupted and how they are trying to regain it.

The association “Ndaje twiyunge muvandimwe” which means, “Brother, sister, I come over to reconcile” from Musambira Sector, Kamonyi District has reunited survivors and perpetrators and their families and is helping to rebuild lives through an agriculture cooperative. One member of the association said, “My neighbours who also committed Genocide and I decided to approach survivors and ask for forgiveness. We offered to rebuild their houses that we had destroyed in the Genocide.”

Perpetrators who explain about committing mass atrocities and their desire for reconciliation contribute to building sustainable peace in Rwanda. Perpetrators are now included as stakeholders in telling of the Rwandan story. They contribute to education programmes at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, in the remote areas through outreach programmes and also outside of Rwanda in the Central African Republic where their message of peace and humanity is shared so that future atrocities can be prevented.


A day with Paul Rukesha, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda’s Indexer

paul's blog photoWhat does it mean to be an ‘Indexer’?

I started working for the Genocide Archive of Rwanda four years ago when it first opened. As the archive’s resident indexer, my job is to make sure our audio and video content is easily accessible to the public. We have thousands of kinds of files and, without an indexer, it would be difficult for researchers to tell the difference between them. I attach keywords to every file which helps us sort them by categories such as type of experience and geographical place. Today we have 1,500 keywords in use. That may sound like a lot, but it is a relatively modest system. The Shoah Foundation, one of our partners, has 67,000 keywords.

How do you ensure accuracy when indexing?

It takes a lot of precision and attention to detail to be consistent in the vocabulary we use. Often we watch videos or listen to testimonies over and over to make sure the labels we assign to each minute of material are correct.

For instance, take terms “hiding” and “identity concealment”. They sound very similar, but the distinctions are important:
“Hiding” is concealing yourself physically – for instance, an attacker is coming and you flee and hide.
“Identity concealment” means that you go through a crowd of people and try to blend in with them, hiding who you really are. It’s not quite hiding; it is more complex.

To the researchers who rely on our archives, these differences are important and we need to be aware of them.

We also have to be as objective as possible in our work. When I’m watching a survivor talking about living in a refugee camp. I can’t assign the label “bad living conditions” to that moment of the footage. Instead, I would write “living conditions.” Indexers can’t mix their feelings and emotions into the work they are doing. If we did that we would compromise the integrity of the archive.

It’s also important to find a middle ground with keywords – not too general and not too detailed. If you are too general, you miss information and the story doesn’t appear interesting to the user. If you are too detailed, it can be confusing to understand the main themes. When new indexers start, they tend to be too detailed because they are captured by the stories. But we don’t do historians’ work. We help historians to find the story they are looking for.

What difficulties are there translating meaning from one culture to another?

There are some generalities that people from abroad are not familiar with. Here in Rwanda, most people have a ‘houseboy’ or ‘housegirl’ – someone who lives at your house and looks after the yard, runs errands, and keeps the house safe. That is a reality the Western world is not familiar with, because in the US or Europe only very rich people have live-in help. During the genocide, some of the houseboys killed their bosses and stole their properties. So when people mention ‘houseboy’ in the footage, and we use that as a keyword, it is sometimes difficult for Westerners to understand the relationship.

Most of the testimonies Rwandans give us are in Kinyarwanda, our most spoken language. We subtitle the video and audio content in other languages like English and French. But there are a lot of cultural aspects that don’t directly translate. We do our best and warn the viewer that the original work may be slightly altered by translation.

How does the team support each other?

When you are indexing traumatic material all the time, it can cause secondary trauma. To help deal with this, we talk to each other and share our challenges, we have a psychologist come in and talk to us and we also take breaks. Sometimes when you are indexing the testimony of perpetrators and you feel it’s becoming too much, you change and go to rescuers because their stories are softer. Sometimes, the team might need a week off from indexing and focus on other activities of the archive. The most challenging thing is that you share the stories with the person you are interviewing or reviewing. You have to go through what he or she has been through to fully understand it. It’s important to understand, but you also have to take care of yourself.

It is not just psychologically challenging for the indexing team, it can be stressful for the interviewees. Although they volunteer to share their testimonies, some break down when recalling their experiences. In the beginning, we didn’t have the capacity to provide support to the interviewees. Now we have a counsellor who comes to work with them before, during and after the interview. Most of our counsellors are Rwandan, but some are international. Palo Alto University has helped train our team on how to cope with these kinds of sensitive situations.

We have so much work to do at the archive to digitise all of these stories. But we never forget the survivors we interview. Sometimes they are poor and we know they really suffered in remembering their story, so we go back and try to help them ourselves. You feel responsible. The interview is done, but I feel I have to go back. When we’re hiring for our team, we look for someone who can deal with these complicated situations, someone who may have lived through difficult experiences and someone who can understand fully.

How do you prepare someone to give their testimony?

We discuss and debate this a lot. How can we prepare them enough before the interview, so they fully accept and understand what it might mean to give their history. You have to explain the whole process.

On the consent form, we give multiple options – the interviewee’s testimony can be on a Rwandan website, or only on a foreign website, or maybe in a foreign museum but not in Rwanda. Some say “I still have young kids and I don’t want them to hear what happened to me yet”, while others say “you can share my story but only after 10 years”.

What does indexing and your work archiving the genocide mean to you?

I am in position of developing tools that help people to have a hands on learning experience and to view the genocide from different angles. Knowing that people from around the world can develop deep knowledge about the genocide is a big part of why I am proud of my work.

I feel I am useful to social psychologists, historians, sociologists, economists, educators, just to name a few. Most importantly, I learn new realities about the genocide as I go through the interviewees’ life stories, and the online tools that I create channel that knowledge to a bigger audience.