How do nations struggle with mass violence and the rule of law? How do communities work to achieve reconciliation, repair dispossession, and remember those lost? Genocide and mass violence, past and present, raise all of these complex concerns and more.
Calls for reparations in the U.S. are generally met with skepticism: What would reparations achieve? Who should receive them, and under what conditions?
Other countries have tackled these questions. In 1995, South Africa established its Truth and Reconciliation Commission and paid reparations to the victims of apartheid. Eight years before, the United States apologized to 82,000 Japanese Americans unduly imprisoned during World War II and paid them US$20,000 each to compensate for their suffering.
Any civilised society must try to punish such horrors. But in ending internal conflicts, peace, reconciliation and truth are as important as justice. There is often a trade-off. Rebels and dictators often refuse to give up unless they are promised amnesty. Moral imperative is thus tempered by political feasibility. And the politics is not getting much easier.
Rwanda, Sundaram learned, was not the peaceful democracy it appeared to be. It was a state whose grip over the population subdued most citizens into silence or false flattery. Through the clarifying lens of this book, Rwanda appears not as a democracy making rapid progress after the horror of genocide, but as a disguised North Korea—a massively repressive dictatorship demanding slavish devotion to the leader, president Paul Kagame.
Reconciliation goes hand in hand with many other factors and generates many difficult questions. Who needs to be reconciled with whom? Who should initiate the process? Who should facilitate it? What should it look like? How do national and interpersonal movements towards reconciliation intersect, if at all? Can you reconcile when there’s no freedom? Justice? Equality? Redress?
The premise is simple and extraordinary in its efficient enforcement: Every able-bodied Rwandan citizen between the ages of 18 and 65 must take part in community service for three hours once a month. The community identifies a new public works problem to tackle each month.
Gacaca was designed to reward confessions, because the objective was not only to render rudimentary justice and mete out punishment but also to allow some emotional catharsis by establishing a collective accounting of the truth of the crimes in each place where they were committed. During a trial run of gacaca courts, in 2005, there were many reports of corrupt judges, and of intimidated witnesses, including an alarming number of cases in which genocide survivors were murdered before they could testify.
What is the ideal approach for a nation confronting its historical crimes? In dealing with historical guilt, are nations better off working to become “normal,” or should they strive to be “exceptional”?
But is there a way out of this impasse? We will argue that the only way to make peace with a bloody history is through exceptionalism—reckoning with what is exceptional in your own country’s story, and finding, too, a distinct and homegrown way to face up to the truth and its consequences. Those consequences, and their lessons, will after all be different for different peoples.