For the past four weeks, seven young activists from Rwanda, Peru, and Guatemala have toured Cambodia to learn how other countries have dealt with the trauma of war.
“I think it’s really important not to be stuck in your own country,” said Kerstin Kastenholz, an adviser for local group Youth for Peace, which organized the visit. “When you see what happened elsewhere, you don’t feel so lonely.”
Maurice Mugabowagahunde, 29, an assistant researcher for the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda, said Sunday that he was impressed by the approach of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
He noted that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which has thus far convicted 28 people for crimes during that country’s 1994 genocide, is based in Tanzania. Rwandans, he said, are not engaged in the court’s proceedings.
“Here people can go to the court and see,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
In addition to the ICTR, Rwanda has a local approach to justice, Mugabowagahunde added.
Shortly after the 1994 genocide, more than 120,000 Rwandans were imprisoned awaiting trial. By 1999, only 6,000 prisoners had been to court. At that rate, it would have taken more than a century to try them all.
To solve the problem, Rwanda resurrected a village-based, traditional approach to justice called “gacaca.”
“Gacaca is really powerful and easy to do,” Mugabowagahunde said. “It’s done one day a week, and we stop all other things.”
For each gacaca trial, he said, villagers pick seven to 13 local elders to pass judgment on local offenders, with an emphasis on rehabilitation.
“It’s good for both sides,” Mugabowagahunde said. “Some have been in prison for more than 10 years, and then they are found not guilty.”
The gacaca system is not without its detractors.
“With gacaca you don’t have lawyers,” Mugabowagahunde said, “so some international human rights groups don’t like it.”
In Siem Reap last month, the seven activists attended the six-day International Peace Conference Angkor, attended by 300 young Cambodians, along with about 50 foreign visitors from the Philippines, Burma, Vietnam, Nepal and beyond.
The conference included a workshop on whether gacaca could work in Cambodia. Mugabowagahunde said he saw at least one obstacle.
“In Rwanda we’re always talking about our problems,” he said. “In Cambodia, a lot of people don’t want to talk, and many young people don’t know about their past.”
Daniel Roca Sulca, 26, an organizer for Peru’s National Victims Organization, agreed.
“In Peru, after the civil war, people immediately demonstrated to bring the truth out,” he said. “I never see a protest here. The victims aren’t organized to fight for their rights.”
Ixchel Garcia, 25, a forensic anthropologist, said she was shocked to see the condition of the mass graves at Choeung Ek.
“It was hard to see all the bones piled up and neglected like that,” she said. “Back in Guatemala, it takes at least two hours to dig out a single body because we treat them with great care.”
Flor Calderon, 25, also from Guatemala, said she had been inspired after meeting a Cambodian woman who told her that educating her sons was her revenge against the Khmer Rouge.
“We don’t feel alone in the world, having political death, torture, genocide,” Calderon said. “We don’t want to feel we’re special.”