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A Piece of My Mind
August 4, 2015

Lessons of the Gacaca

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
JAMA. 2015;314(5):451-452. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.6829

I exited the church memorial in Ntarama in 2006 to find a crowd gathered, immersed in discussion, an elderly man resting in the middle on a wooden stool. “It’s gacaca,” my guide said, but my mind was still focused on the racks of human skulls in the church, the rusty brown blood stains on the wall. It wouldn’t be until years later at my patient’s bedside that I would appreciate the true significance of that meeting under the acacia tree.

Twenty-one years has passed since nearly 1 million people perished in Rwanda at the hands of the Interahamwe, a Hutu paramilitary group, in a genocide rooted in decades-old tension between the Hutu and Tutsi people. Twenty-one years after the bloodshed, the ghosts of the genocide live on—in the discovery of human bones behind a house, in the amputees on the streets. Yet today, Rwanda is a country that is healing, its people emerging from the shadows of the past both as individuals and as a nation, and in the process, defining the vast and abstract nature of how we heal.

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