Fight for justice in Rwanda

Women who changed history

Posted
BRATTLEBORO — The lush green landscape of Rwanda belies the estimated 250,000 women raped and 500,000 to 1 million people murdered during the genocide the Hutu committed against the Tutsi in 1994. "The Uncondemned," part of the Brattleboro Film Festival's annual festival screening at the Latchis on Saturday, Nov. 4, documents the tenacity of a group of lawyers and activists determined to dish out justice, and the testimony of three courageous women in what The Guardian described as "a courtroom thriller crackling with suspense."

There hadn't been a case of genocide prosecuted since 1946, nor had a rape prosecution ever been pursued since it had been declared an international war crime at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda made judicial history in a landmark prosecution of the first case of rape as a crime of war.

Michele Mitchell wrote the film and co-directed "The Uncondemned" with Nick Louvel but shortly before its premiere preview at the Hampton Film Festival in 2015 where it won acclaim and awards, Louvel died in a car accident. The tragedy left Mitchell lost on how to finish the film without Louvel since he handled the technical aspects of filmmaking.

She reached out to Brattleboro resident Jennifer Latham whom Mitchell had met in a previous project with PBS. She was familiar with Latham's long list of award-winning documentaries and post-production experience.

Latham agreed initially as a favor to help a friend. After previewing it she thought, "I have to work on this." But it was tricky because she had to uphold Louvel's vision for the film.

"At first glance, it may appear to be a depressing movie about genocide and rape, but because of these women and their resilience, their sense of humor and hope, their heart, it is a positive film. The way Mitchell and Louvel made the film is remaking the genre of the documentary," Latham said. "What I took away from it is how a trauma like this doesn't go away, even after 20 years. They wanted to tell their story."

In the first tribunal since Nuremberg, the team for the for International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda included prosecutor Pierre Prosper of the Los Angeles District Attorney's hard-core gang unit; investigator and co-council for the prosecution, Sara Dareshori; former public defender and Legal Advisor for Gender, Patricia Sellers; researcher for Human Rights Watch, Binaifer Nowrojee; and Lisa Pruitt, gender consultant. They set out to build the case of genocide against the mayor of a small town, Jean-Paul Akeysu, believed to be complicit in the murders and rapes. Working in conditions that could only be described as a logistic nightmare, Prosper said, "I felt as though we were dropped on Mars and asked to make something happen."

Investigators went house to house to find witnesses, meeting reluctance to open up to strangers. With the assistance of interpreter Godelieve Mukasarasi, a trusted local resident who had created the support group SEVOTA for women who suffered through and survived the genocide, three brave women gradually began to tell their story, despite witness intimidation and no protection programs in place.

These witnesses were made to feel empowered, and needed to do this for their self-worth and dignity. Identified only by letters of the alphabet for safety reasons, JJ, NN and OO testified in a hot and muggy courtroom when it seemed as if no one cared, and few bystanders.

Witness JJ, testifying days after childbirth and still suffering from malaria, found her strength on the stand. She said, "When you are telling the truth you are not afraid."

When it all seemed to be not going well for the prosecution, the last witness' surprise testimony gave an opportunity for a recess to obtain more evidence. In this dramatic turn of events an amended indictment was presented against Akeysu for charges of atrocities against humanity, and women, redirecting the focus from just genocide to include rape at a time when political pressure was forcing the judicial system to consider rape as serious a war crime as genocide.

In a courtroom now packed with bystanders, Akeysu was convicted to life in prison.

Witness JJ said she was happy that rape was considered a war crime, that genocide includes acts of sexual violence because, "It kills the soul."

The timing of this documentary is important in light of the Harvey Weinstein controversy and blatant misogyny in order to get the word out that witnesses should not keep quiet.

"This case will make people aware that rape is a war crime. There is now a case log to work from for future prosecutions, to understand these victims will be believed." Latham said.

"The Uncondemned" has screened all over the world, including at the UN where the women who testified were guests of honor. A long, long, standing ovation honored these woman after the screening. At the Human Rights Watch in Lincoln Center, New York City, it sold out, necessitating the addition of more screenings to the schedule.

Latham said, "I wanted to show it in Vermont. When I presented it to the Film Festival they were excited to screen it." The documentary is not yet digital or on DVD so the only opportunity to view it is at screenings like the one on Saturday, 5 p.m. in the Latchis Main Theater, 50 Main St. Tickets $10, seniors (62 and over), $8.

A post-screening discussion co-sponsored by Latchis Arts and the Windham World Affairs Council will follow with Mitchell and the Honorable Patricia Whalen. Whalen has been a judge for more than 20 years, presiding over proceedings in the United States. and serving as an international judge in the War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia and Herzegovina (2007-2012). She is currently a Special Advisor to the Court in Bosnia and Herzegovina, focusing on judicial education in international law, judicial management systems, trial management, hybrid legal systems, and judicial trial skills particularly in regards to war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and gender-based violence. She lives in Westminster West.

This event is co-Sponsored by Windham World Affairs Council and Latchis Arts, supported in part by the Vermont Humanities Council.

More information can be found at theuncondemned.com and at brattleborofilmfestival.org

Cicely M. Eastman may be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 261 or ceastman@reformer.com








TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.



Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions