The pioneers of the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda arrived in Arusha, Tanzania in 1996. They were destined to spend the following 18 years prosecuting those accused of responsibility in the Rwandan genocide. The lepers on the potholed avenue leading to the courthouse, who used to reach out in the hope of a gift from the rich muzungu(whites in Swahili), have vanished. And the last judges and prosecutors of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda were to have left by the end of 2014.
“For the tribunal’s very first hearing they had to place buckets in the courtroom to catch the leaks during the rainy season,” a lawyer recalls. The steady drip set the cadence for proceedings as Georges Rutaganda, former leader of the Interahamwe militia, who brutally slaughtered the Tutsi with machetes, pleaded not guilty before Judge Laity Kama, of Senegal.
This was the fourth international criminal tribunal in history, after the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war crimes, its counterpart in Tokyo, then more recently the Hague tribunal for crimes committed in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
For many years, Arusha was just a base camp for safaris into the surrounding savannah. Its new role came by default: all other potential hosts declined the offer, so Tanzania was left to accommodate the tribunal. In the course of its stay, the court tried 71 suspects: army officers, ministers, politicians, militia, priests and purveyors of propaganda. All in all it performed its duties well, though there are some grounds for the accusation that it dispensed “victor’s justice”. It did not bring to trial any of the former Rwandan rebels, who resorted to terror tactics, too, in their drive to end the genocide.
Close to the Maasai homeland, Arusha has long attracted flocks of tourists. Some tour operators even gave them the opportunity to view the big game in the dock at the international tribunal between two safari outings. En route for Kilimanjaro, they would traipse through the public gallery in their T-shirts and sandals before transferring to the aerodrome across the road from the prison. But some 3,000 witnesses from Rwanda came here, too.
Originally people in Arusha only spoke Swahili. Water was in short supply and an out-of-date copy of Le Monde, gleaned by street sellers from the daily flight from Amsterdam, would cost you $5. On return flights, the cargo was generally a consignment of roses. But the aircraft did not only carry flowers. Jean Kambanda, who led the government formed a few hours after President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in 1994 (the occasion for the start of the killing in Rwanda), was flown back to The Hague and imprisoned alongside alleged Yugoslav war criminals, after pleading guilty in 1998. There this austere former banker was taught to play poker by Mladen Naletilić, a militia leader from Mostar, Bosnia.
Today Arusha has daily flights and 4G connections. In less than 20 years the city has been transformed. In the bar of the New Safari Hotel, Akayesu, as he is known, orders a Kilimanjaro, the local beer. The estate agent owes his nickname to Jean-Paul Akayesu, the first person ever to be convicted on charges of genocide. When the violence first started in Rwanda, in 1994, this local council leader tried to stop the slaughter, but finally gave in and joined the killers. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. What is currently troubling the estate agent is the likely drop in house prices when the court finally closes. In contrast Modest Akida, a local barrister, is delighted. “We went to the same shops, rented the same houses and all the prices soared. So it’s really very good news that they’re leaving at last,” he says. According to a 2004 survey, ICTR staff injected more than $2.5m a month into the local economy. The court employed some 200 Tanzanian nationals.
According to Kosic, a UN guard who came here from former Yugoslavia, the town is “a black hole, halfway between Cape Town and Cairo”. He thinks Arusha owes its prosperity to the court, “but now it has grown up and can stand on its own two feet”. The ICTR attracted investors and theEast African Community established its headquarters in a brand-new building next door to the court. Now the African Court on Human and People’s Rights has moved in and peace talks have been held here. Arusha is beginning to see itself as Africa’s Geneva.
In Kijenge neighbourhood, Alfred Lotuno, an elderly Maasai, voices his concerns. “Tanzania has acted like a saint in Africa. We have tried to help Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Darfur and Somalia,” he says. “Tanzania has become the policeman of Africa and everyone says: ‘Tanzania, Tanzania!’ But now we have al-Shabaab in Arusha and bombs are going off. So I’m not so sure.”
In recent months the town has suffered several attacks allegedly perpetrated by the Somali Islamists, though some say it has more to do with local politics.
This article appeared in the Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde