Bearing Witness

The first time I ever saw people checking under cars for explosives was in Arusha, the tourist capital of Tanzania, a safari springboard just two hours from Kilimanjaro. I was heading into the Arusha International Conference Centre, to see if I could sit in on a trial. I had finished a law degree a few months previously, and Arusha was the site of one of the most important courts in the world at the time – the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The words of a friend’s father rang in my ear. I was in Tanzania to volunteer, which didn’t impress him – a solicitor and former diplomat. In his opinion, I could do more by becoming a lawyer than I could by becoming an aid worker, which I won’t argue now. At the time I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to see how lawyers were doing at their job of prosecuting rapists and murderers in the wake of one of the most brutal genocides the planet has ever seen.

I followed others through the metal detectors and signed in to visit the hearings. Day one was uneventful, the accused refused to be present and the court and spectators were dismissed quick enough. The next day was different.

The testimony at the ICTR is trilingual. Some of the advocates speak French, some English, and the victims, accused and witnesses often speak Kinyarwanda. Testimony bounces from language to language and back in a pass-the-parcel legal linguistics nightmare. It makes for dull, stilted listening, but sometimes the voice of a witness will break the monotony.

The witness in question had been gang-raped, after which she had to watch a batch of other prisoners, her friends among them, gang-raped in sequence. The curtains were closed as the witness came into the chamber, and she sat in a curtained booth where the lawyers could see her. Her monotone, emotionless testimony painted her face for those of us in the public gallery. She spoke flatly, quietly, without any feeling, as if her rapists had pummeled all sentiment from her in the process of getting what they wanted.

Quietly, she told the story of her brutal attack by the interahamwe. Softly, she spoke of their unspeakable physical violation. And she described how, when they were done with her, they moved on to the next girl in line and did the same thing. The next girl also had her baby in her arms. The attackers flung the baby across the room like a rag doll so that they could rape its mother. Without missing a beat, our witness got up from where she had just been raped and walked to the baby, picking it up to nurse it to silence. Despite the trauma she had been through, she knew that the Interahamwe would kill the baby for the inconvenience of hearing it cry, and that its silence might save its life, and those of others.

Describing such an act of intelligence and compassion, with a complete absence of passion, was a startling thing. As a journalist, it’s rare to sit that close to someone telling the truth so barely. Most people have their own agenda, they’re hiding something crucial, trying to put a barrier between you and some element of reality. Working as a news reporter in Dublin, a few years later, became an exercise in gathering predictable obfuscations of the truth . You would bounce from politician to politician for comment after banal comment, none of them willing to say what they felt, none of them daring stray into an independent thought or expression that might betray an underlying ideology or, god forbid, individual competence.

This ICTR tribunal testimony was a rare half-hour of pure, startling honesty. The witness had been so exposed, laid so brutally bare by her trauma, that there seemed to be nothing left for her to defend. She gave up everything.

It’s eleven years since I sat there, and seventeen years since the genocide. Before going to Tanzania, I was apolitical in every way. What I saw during two months living in Arusha made me curious about the world for the first time. I saw testimony¬†at the ICTR, witnessed the best & worst of expat NGO workers, gap year students & tourists. I crossed paths with Arusha’s amputee homeless, lived in a neighbourhood where thieves were killed by communal mob justice and met the people in small coffee & banana farms affected by my choices at the till. It was the ultimate crash-course in globalisation, before I knew what the word meant. I recommend it to everyone.

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