Policing post-Genocide Rwanda: The early days

There was a great deal to do, the challenges enormous. Hundreds of thousands of suspects alleged to have participated in the genocide had to be arrested, case files created.
Gendarmerie officers during drills, EGENA, 1996. (Source: RNP archives)
Gendarmerie officers during drills, EGENA, 1996. (Source: RNP archives)

This is the sixth part of a nine-part series extracted from chapter four of the recently published book, Policing a Rapidly Transforming Post-Genocide Society: Making Rwandans Feel Safe, Involved, and Reassured, authored by the Rwanda National Police (RNP). 

There was a great deal to do, the challenges enormous. Hundreds of thousands of suspects alleged to have participated in the genocide had to be arrested, case files created. 

Large numbers of weapons remained hidden among the population. Genocide survivors lived under constant fear of being killed in order to destroy evidence. Insurgents were roaming in parts of the countryside. 

Refugees who had fled at the height of the war and those who had left the country in the early years of independence, had began to return amidst continued limited capacity by the state to resettle them. 

Criminals were still at large. Guns still proliferated in the population resulting in a relatively higher level of criminality, particularly murders, armed robberies, and other crimes: drug consumption and trafficking, physical assaults, motor vehicle robberies, and drunkenness. 

So was rape. In general, therefore, there was a challenge to calm criminality due to this context. 

With minor cases addressed in the formal courts themselves still trying to find their footing, the government chose to focus on genocide suspects. 

This, however, produced another set of complications. Among other things, it led to the overcrowding of jails, with some inmates having to sleep outside. Feeding and securing them became a huge burden. 

Some would be told to go home until their dossiers were created, but they would refuse: ntaho njya (literarally translated as ‘I’m going nowhere’). They felt safer in detention than in the communities where they had committed grave crimes.’ This called for more soldiers to provide security.

As a result of the general capacity concerns, the government put a lot of emphasis on training people to handle these cases. 

Officers were selected and sent to different countries for criminal and homicide training to equip them with skills they needed to qualify as Judicial Police Officers (OPJs). 

They worked alongside judicial police inspectors, police officers attached to the ministry of justice. These had received training in 1995, at judicial officers’ schools in Murambi. 

Policing in action

There was significant workload. This involved case files of both Genocide-related crimes and other ‘regular’ crimes. As a result, there was a need to prioritise according to the relative weight of the cases involved. 

Accordingly, Genocide-related cases were given priority. The fact that there were few prosecutors and hundreds of thousands of such cases means that they were often overwhelmed. 

A mobile unit of gendarmes who had by this time gained the basics of creating case-files was formed to respond to this challenge by going around the country to help create case files with the dossiers handed over to the judicial police inspectors. 

In some cases, it would be necessary for prosecutors to return to the field for evidence collection, testimonial or otherwise. 

However, evidence was not easy to obtain. Witnesses had died, while others had fled. Survivors were still traumatised and not able to talk. 

All this began to change in 1995 with the return of former refugees who had fled to Zaire with the defeated regime. They started to provide information that was critical in the preparation of dossiers. 

From hostility to insurgency, to cooperation

Policing organs were also affected by the insurgency that the country experienced in the latter part of the 1990s, starting in 1996 until 2000 when it was finally defeated, and 2001 when remnants of the insurgents also gave up the fight. 

Until then, communal police officers were also killed in attacks targeted at the population.

The insurgents would take advantage of the small number of officers posted to the communes, usually three or four, and raid communities where they would attack, kill the policemen, burn houses and public buildings, and then disappear. 

The counter-insurgency campaign was conducted primarily by the military but had serious effects on the policing agencies. First, a part of the gendarmerie ended up in frontline deployment. 

This affected the operations of the force in terms of its law enforcement mission. Secondly, the insurgency rendered some areas unsuited to normal policing duties. 

Thirdly, gendarmerie investigators also prepared dossiers and performed other policing duties such as protecting people and their property as well as in displaced camps within the war zone. 

Compounding these problems was the hostile context within which both the military and law enforcement agencies were operating. 

The insurgency occurred at a time when remnants of the old regime still believed they could topple the new government. Through infiltration and clandestine operations, some facilitated by local people, the insurgents succeeded, at least for a while, to preserve a pre-existing ideological gap between a section of the population and the new government. 

They did this partly by sending messages that they were coming back any time. In fact, up until 2000, in the north, there was still hostile propaganda spread by remnants of the insurgency against the government. 

One of the ways in which hostility toward the new government affected the work of the police was the fear by members of the public to provide information to investigators to complete case files.  

To get people out of this mindset required serious mobilisation and community oriented policing that usually entailed tasking key members of the community born in the insurgency-infested areas to preach the gospel of reconciliation while emphasising the shared aspirations between the ordinary person and the new government, of improving livelihoods and general quality of life. 

Gradually, people began to cooperate with government forces, including the gendarmerie and police communale. 

 

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