Community in Post-Genocide Rwanda

As part of my undergraduate degree in international development studies, I did an internship in Rwanda in the summer of 2006. Because of the 1994 genocide, it made an interesting case study and I knew quite a bit about the country. I could describe its history, from pre-colonial times to the present; I had read many articles and arguments on the causes, circumstances, and impact of the genocide. In addition, I had written papers on its economic situation and future.

My theoretical knowledge of Rwanda was incredibly valuable; however, what I learned from working and living in Rwanda made it pale in comparison. One thing I observed early on was that there was calm in Rwanda—a lack of chaos that one envisions for “Third World” African countries. In the months I spent there, I got to know a culture that is recovering, and yet is still haunted by its past. Although still struggling with extreme poverty, regional unrest, and the ongoing challenges of reconciliation, the Rwandese are people with a single vision—for genocide not to happen again, development is the answer.

Gacaca as a Means to Enforce Community
Justice after the Genocide

One disputed and controversial way of remembering
the genocide is the practice of Gacaca. Gacaca is the
pre-colonial Rwandan court system set up to enforce
community justice. It is based in the community at
the village level and was traditionally used to settle
land claim or family law disputes. Its ultimate goal is
reconciliation and compromise for both the plaintiff
and the accused.

Because of the huge numbers of perpetrators in the
genocide, they could not all be incarcerated and
tried in a legal or international court system.
Consequently, the government instituted a purely
Rwandan solution to this problem by setting up
Gacaca courts in every town in Rwanda.

Once a week, all businesses close down for half
a day, all activity is brought to a halt, and villagers
gather at the court to discuss claims and disputes.
At Gacaca, either victims can accuse a person of a
certain crime committed during the genocide or a
criminal may come forth and confess of his or her
own will. Once the crime is denounced, appointed
judges and mediators seek to reconcile the two
parties involved and sentence the accused
according to his or her crime (this usually involves
a certain number of years of community service and
sometimes a period of house arrest).

The effectiveness of this system is uncertain—
although there are many success stories, there are
also disclaimers. One such success story is that of a
woman whose husband and son were killed by a
neighbour during the genocide. During the Gacaca
hearings, the killer came forward and confessed,
asking the woman what he might do to repay her for
a crime he had committed. In response, she told him
to take the place of her son in her home and care for
her as a son would care for his mother. This was not
only symbolic of the reconciliation that took place
between the two people, but also a practical way in
which this man could pay for his crime; in Rwanda,
women can become destitute without a husband,
father, or son to support them. By taking the place of
her son, the perpetrator was undertaking the woman’s
well-being and survival, because he had taken that
away from her by killing her husband and son.

Several disclaimers of the Gacaca justice system need
to be noted. The first is the fact that the system was
created to deal with petty crimes and family disputes,
not crimes against humanity, such as murder and rape.
The second is that it brings the reality of the genocide
back to the Rwandese week after week; it is always
present in their lives and will be for a long time. Criminals
must be dealt with in order for Rwanda to have closure
on the terrible events of 1994; however, there is also a
need and a desire to move on. Community will always be
fractured as long as people are looking to the past. With
the focus constantly on past events, community members
will not be able to focus their attention on what needs to
be done to move forward.  

The field of international development and multilateral and bilateral aid over the past decades has been characterized by top-down development projects and state-led initiatives. Aid has been “delivered,” regardless of the receivers’ actual self-stated needs or desires. There is a slow and gradual shift taking place from top-down development to community-based projects and an emphasis on capacity development.

In Rwanda, a country that hosts over four hundred Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), the 1994 genocide influences the kind of development work being done and how it is being done. The needs of a weakened society due to genocide and the call for grassroots-led development form a paradox. There are some community-based initiatives being encouraged; however, stating a need for stability and rebuilding, the government rules with a tight fist and often instructs how development will be carried out. This paradox is the center of community development in Rwanda.

What Is Community-based Development?
Community-based development “refers to those activities and programs focused on a specific locality and directed by the residents thereof. These are activities ‘in’ and ‘of’ the community's citizens.”1 The ideal for community-based development is for communities to survive and thrive without external help, especially financial help. The reality of the Developing World is that communities need external help to get out of the poverty trap in which they are caught.2

Therefore, the practice of capacity development can go hand in hand with the development of community-based frameworks. The outcome of combining community-based initiatives and capacity development is not only the creation of self-sustaining development programs, but also the fostering of ownership within these communities.

Community in Post-Genocide Rwanda
From April to July 1994, Rwanda suffered one of the most horrific and devastating events of the twentieth century. While the world turned a blind eye, over 800,000 people were slaughtered in the space of one hundred days, and millions of others displaced. In an act of protest against a corrupt government, the international community had initiated a sort of “funding embargo” on Rwanda in 1994 and most foreign NGO staff were quickly pulled out of the country for their protection.3

The 1994 genocide affected communities
in Rwanda through unprecedented

The genocide came at the end of a 4-year-long civil war that began when the RPF (Rwandese Patriotic Front), made up of children of exiled Tutsis, invaded Rwanda, fighting for the right to come back to their country of origin.4 The genocide and its aftermath affected how development is done in various ways.

Any discussion on current trends and policies in Rwanda must include the genocide because it changed the face of Rwanda and every Rwandese was affected in some way or another by the event. The genocide affected communities in Rwanda through unprecedented fragmentation and reconstitution of family and community units as a result of the deaths, exiles, and massive repatriation of refugees (both from the 1959 exile and returning genocide refugees in the years following the killings).

Another problem with the repatriation of refugees is that many returnees from the 1959 exile took over the land of genocide refugees (they could afford to do so because of the power they had gained by winning the war) and the latter therefore had no home in which to return. In many cases, reconstituted communities were nothing like they were before the genocide; many citizens were dead, others gone into exile, others traumatized by their experiences. Then there were the new additions to the communities: internally displaced people who chose to stay in different areas of the country and returnees from the 1959 exile, all of whom had grown up in different countries and, therefore, different cultures.

There is also a strange and haunting dynamic in post-genocide Rwanda: victims of the genocide living side-by-side with perpetrators of the genocide. The Rwandan genocide was unique in that it involved local citizens of a certain ethnic group rising up against another ethnic group. It was not only carried out by a guerrilla force or a minority of the population, but everyday people who responded to calls on the national broadcasting system to literally kill their neighbours.

Because of the vast number of executors of the genocide, it was nearly impossible to track all of them and try them in court. Therefore, many people are living in the same community, and in very near physical proximity to those who killed members of their families or victimized them in violent and horrifying ways. This affects community life and development is various ways—by:

  • prolonging the trauma of the genocide for victims who are constantly reminded of what happened through the presence of the offenders,
  • forcing victims to live in fear of more violence by the perpetrator, and
  • allowing one or both sides to feel guilty for the atrocities committed.

For certain Rwandese, it is very important to remember and memorialize the genocide (see the sidebar above); for others, it is too painful or shameful.


1. Pigg, Kenneth. 2006. Personal webpage.

2. According to Kiminori Matsuyama, “Poverty trap is a self-perpetuating condition where an economy, caught in a vicious cycle, suffers from persistent underdevelopment. Although it is often modeled as a low-level equilibrium in a static model of coordination failures, we discuss the concept in a dynamic setting. This is because, in a static setting, we will not be able to distinguish poverty traps from (possibly temporary) bad market outcomes, such as recessions and financial crises, that are also often modeled as a low-level equilibrium in a static model of coordination failures.”

3. Plumptre, A., M. Masozera, and A. Vedder. 2001. “The Impact of Civil War on the Conservation of Protected Areas in Rwanda.” Washington, D.C.: Biodiversity Support Program.

4. In 1959, when Belgian colonisers pulled out of Rwanda, leaving the Hutu in positions of power after years of Tutsi domination, much of the Tutsi population was exiled in retribution for their abuse of power in previous years. They went to other countries in the region, a large majority of them going to Uganda, where the RPF was later founded by Paul Kagame, who would win the war and become president of Rwanda.

5. Veale, Angela M. 2000. “Dilemmas of ‘Community’ in Post-emergency Rwanda.” 3(3). Routledge. 

Julia M. Smith-Brake and her husband live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, working in prevention and aftercare research and implementation for sexually exploited children. Smith-Brake did a summer internship in Rwanda with Canadian Baptist Ministries. Since graduating, she has been doing contract work for a Canadian NGO, Urban Youth Adventures, which aims to end child and youth poverty in the poorest neighborhoods of Winnipeg, and a Toronto-based company, Winning Kids Inc., a consultation firm that helps organizations implement child abuse prevention policies.