CSI Rwanda

this week's UPI column

So There I was...

On the bus to Kigali, Rwanda. I was on the big bus – the good bus. This meant that it was about the size, and maybe vintage of a 1950’s era Greyhound. Sure, it had a few dents front and rear, and a lot of duct tape on the seats, and most disconcertingly, decal appliqués of bullet holes on the sides – very ‘Gangsta,’ – but it was clearly the good bus. I expected a quick trip. By the map the trip should take three hours.

Silly me.

We stopped to buy bananas. We stopped to buy peas. We stopped to buy BBQ goat on a stick. The border crossing ate up an hour. OK, it was going to take five hours, no sweat, we’re on third world time and I am just fine with that. Then we were stopped and boarded by the Rwandan Police, not once, but twice.

The first time was apparently for speeding. We had seemed to be within safe parameters to me, but apparently the Rwandan police had been cracking down on this after a bad week of bus plunges. I was a little surprised when the Police chief boarded our bus and asked for witnesses against our driver. It was pretty clear that if we testified against our driver he would be taken away and we would sit there by the side of the road. No witnesses for the prosecution, no sir. Finding none, he scolded all of us quite soundly, and told us that he would let us go, and we could all die then. Our driver was released, gave us a thumbs up, and off we went.

OK, so the trip was going to take six hours.

We were making good progress towards the capital. We were maybe a half hour out when it happened. I had the front seat on the right side of the bus, I was directly behind the side mirror, my window was wide open for air. We were on a very nice stretch of road, good tarmac, and it even had a raised curb, a bit like a sidewalk. The countryside was wooded on both sides. We were going along at a good clip. We passed a young man on a bicycle. I watched him disappear in the mirror. I looked away. I heard a hard ‘thunk’ of a sound, and then very clearly, the sound of a bicycle crashing through trees. It is a distinctive sound. It went on, crash, crash, … crash. I sat up. I looked at the ticket taker sitting next to me.

“That wasn’t good.” I said
“No” He leaned over me and looked out the window.

He had a few quick words with the driver and we slowed. Everybody looked out the window. More words – Kinyarwanda I wasn’t getting. Clearly a discussion of “should we stop?” It was decided not. We proceeded.

A kilometer down the road a smaller bus, pulled up beside us. Its driver was shaking his fist at us; the passengers were leaning out the windows screaming at us. Our driver yelled back. No translation needed. The tension on our bus was rising. The next vehicle to come up behind us was a Rwandan Police pick-up. They pulled us over. Their captain boarded our bus with a very serious countenance. He asked questions and then argued with our driver and our ticket taker. Then he announced that there had been an accident and that we were all returning to the scene. The bus turned, the captain left a lower officer and his AK-47 on our bus. He joined me on the front seat and propped the gun between us.

“Bon jour, madam.”
Good day? Not so much, sir, thank-you.

Now a bit of an aside about Central African law. The law is Napoleonic. I am no great student of the law, but I was schooled a bit by my African friends before they let me lose in the countryside. The functional difference between our law and theirs is the presumption of innocence. They don’t have that. A great weight is placed in the investigation, and the testimony of the investigating officer – his determination of fact – is fact, unless you can prove otherwise. And it is the investigating officer’s job to determine responsibility, guilt or innocence on the scene. Traffic law is pretty matter of fact. If you hurt someone on the road you are instantly liable for all their injuries, and if you kill someone and it is determined that you are at fault, your life is forfeit for theirs, life in prison. I was praying for a young man on a bicycle.

We returned to the nearest village. The accident victim was there. Living, Jesu’ashimwe, but bloodied. The bicycle was DOA.

Now it got interesting. All the bus passengers disembarked. All the villagers gathered around. The Police captain took chaotic testimony. I tried to figure my way out. I asked the lieutenant with the AK, if I could leave – it did not seem like I had a place in the argument. I knew that I could stick my thumb out and get an instant ride with any UN, or Unicef, or any other NGO vehicle.

“Oh NO!, madam! You are a witness, ALL witnesses must stay until the case is decided!” Yikes. Sequestered I was.

Now I knew why every passenger was so involved in the increasingly heated discussion. Their time was on the line too. Our driver’s personal stake was big. The bus company was considered a rich target and the supporters of the young man were arguing for guilt and a large settlement on the spot. Our driver was admitting no responsibility. The captain decided to see the actual crime scene. We were all reboarded, along with the young man and his supporters and the wrecked bicycle. The bloody young fellow was given the best seat in the house, between the lieutenant and me. I gave him my water bottle. He didn’t look like he had any major bones broken, but one of his feet was really bad. He seemed rattled. He smelled bad. He apologized when he got blood on me.

We retraced our travel at a snail’s pace, heads out the windows trying to find the exact spot. “Here – where the trees are broken!” We stopped - everyone got off. A couple of passengers had taken on the roles of counsel for the defense of the driver. A villager or two was clearly the prosecution. We were accused of hitting the young man and knocking him off the road. We all examined the side of the road. We examined the side of the bus. Much argument and discussion, done at volume with gesticulation and shouts of approval and derision by the crowd. Our ticket-taker pointed out that there was this nice sidewalk. With an ad hoc translator, I was asked if I saw the boy on the road or up on the curb. I testified that I had in fact seen him on the curb. I could not say if we had hit him or not, but I was certain that we had not climbed the curb which was a good six inches high.

This curb was found to have lateral cuts in it at regular intervals for drainage. The cut just above the first broken tree had a very fresh dramatic scratch on it. Voila! The young man, startled by the bus, but not hit, had taken the curb cut wrong, precipitously decelerated and was ejected with his bike into the woods!

Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick!

The Police captain was convinced, but still had villagers to placate. The bus company while admitting no wrongdoing decided on the spot to magnanimously transport the boy to Kigali to the hospital and give him an admittance fee. The villagers were disappointed. Our driver was hugely relieved, and with just another hour of talking and a stop at a police station we arrived in Kigali eight hours after our departure.

All humans who are alive and awake and involved are called at times to be witnesses. Those of us who profess a life of faith, witness to truths that are not easily demonstrated, let alone proven.

I have seen many religious arguments, between religious believers and with those of other beliefs that have all the grace and serenity of African crime scene investigation. Perhaps we argue so gracelessly for similar reasons. We don’t actually trust that truth will win out. We see the temporal stakes as high and unchangeable. Win here and now or lose big.

Quakers have a testimony that is supposed to address this concern. It is called continuing revelation. It asserts that God will continue to work on our understanding of truth. It does not deny absolute truth, but honestly admits that we will not comprehend truth absolutely and that our understanding will change. It asks us to live the truth as best we know it, knowing that in the living we will come to find that which is trustworthy. Traditions based most closely in the truth will survive the longest. It asserts underlying unchangeable principles, but infinitely changeable application. It requires more listening than argument. It requires trust in God and in each other. It presumes a loving and fair judge.

I like it better than roadside justice.

As a lawyer I find this intriguing. In many ways, a much more "practical" approach without the years of delay and incredible expense found in our system. And from you description, it doesn't sound like the result is any less accurate or just.
Hi Dave, Yes, I think on that day that things worked out ok. If the young man had been killed I am not sure it would have as likely gone to a just conclusion.

I think for traffic accidents it works pretty well. And poor people seem to yell as well as rich ones. Although I did get the sense that these guys do a pretty good business in bribery.

the time the system falls down is in the weightier things.
For instance, there are still about 100,000 people in Rwanda in jail after the '94 genocide. The 'investigation' concluded that they were killers - often on the simple testimony of their neighbors, with no other evidence. Everyone believes that 10s of thousands of these people are innocent and were 'denouced' for various wicked reasons. Everyone believes that more thousands of the guilty walk free. The 'trial' that is supposed to confirm or overturn the investigative report has never happened, and these people sit there these 13 years later with no conclusion.
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