Land Laws and Lawyers

Hi! Two posts in two days—how about that? Maybe you’ll applaud when you get an understanding of the internet situation. It’s widely available, but connection speed and signal strength and power outages and monsoons make uploading or downloading a challenge. Here is what I had to do to post yesterday’s video:

Record the video on my iPhone, transfer it to my laptop, and transfer it again from my laptop to the iPad using USB, because my phone doesn’t have 3G and the wifi connection on the laptop is too slow to upload video. I then tethered the iPad to Jeff’s iPhone, which has a 3G connection through a Rwanda carrier, and uploaded the video to the internet. So. There it is: iphone to laptop to ipad, tethered to Jeff’s 3G connection, to internet. Boom! The video uploaded in about 45 minutes, processed for another 35 minutes, and a full 24 hours after the event: posted.

Now for the juicy stuff

Land Law

Imagine this: Your family owns a plot of land in the 50s, but due to instability you are forced to flee. Lets say your family stays out of country, and a new family establishes a home and farm on that plot of land. Pretend that family lives there for 20 years, but is forced to leave in the 70s due to instability. Now a new family establishes a home and farm on that land, lives there until the early 90s.  But, due to mass exodus before the genocide, or due to the direct acts of genocide, the family is no longer on that land.

Now you want to come back. Rwanda law says that landowners, once they return, must take back the land even if others have lived there for 30 years or more.

So, any members of any of these families can return at any time and believe they have rights to this land. The government has only recently begun issuing land certificates because of this problem, so the way these conflicts have traditionally been resolved is by collecting the testimony of the neighbors. But which neighbors? Neighbors from 1959, 1973 or 1994? If neighbors cannot be located for testimony, or the issue cannot be resolved, the government requires the family to share the land. At this point, post-genocide, landowners are like: But how? I think he has killed my family!

As you can see, a large issue right now is land law, which runs very deep.

In my entire lifetime, I will likely never encounter the need to flee, the experience of my land being owned by another family, members of my family being killed or exiled, or being forced to live on the same land as those who murdered or exiled my family member. Here, people are dealing with all four of these things simultaneously!

Rwanda Christian Lawyers Association

Last Monday, we met with the Chairman of the Rwanda Christian Lawyers Association (RCLA), along with two other Family and Land Law attorneys who are members of the Association. RCLA is another initiative of ALARM, which invests in, builds up, and supports local organizations toward leadership and reconciliation.

RCLA

The lawyers describe the RCLA initiative as going something like this: The community was destroyed after the tragedy of 1994, and right about the time Celestin (founder of ALARM) said to the local lawyers, Get up! Organize yourselves! the local lawyers had already gathered to do something, because the problems that led to the destruction involved the law and human rights. The lawyers were asking each other, What must be our contribution to build up our destroyed community?  

And so they formed the Rwanda Christian Lawyer Association—I am right now realizing I don’t know the date, but it was sometime after 1995. There were 6 members when the association was first formed, and now there are about 75 Christian lawyers, judges, prosecutors, legal practitioners and state attorneys from different churches and denominations.

In collaboration with ALARM, the 75 members of this association are equipping churches, grassroots leaders and government leaders to have a clear understanding of the law through teaching, mentoring, and volunteering for those who don’t understand or can’t afford representation.  We have learned in the short time we have been here that the community has confidence in pastors and government leaders as administrators, so RCLA believes if they train pastors and government leaders, people will listen.

Some objectives of RCLA are to:

  • Collaborate with the government, churches and other NGOs to promote a culture peace-building and conflict resolution
  • Facilitate reconciliation and mediation between those in conflict (communities, families, or third parties)
  • Organize and facilitate seminars and legal clinics in churches
  • Defend the rights and interests of vulnerable people, including widows, orphans, women and prisoners
  • Base daily activity on the Bible
  • Sensitization on laws to the population and make proposals against unfavorable laws enacted by the Parliament

Since local leaders at the grassroots level are the first to put into practice the law within the community, RCLA targets these leaders to train on the following: What are human rights? What is the responsibility of the people? RCLA wants these leaders to have a clear explanation of the law and a clear explanation of rights to pass onto the community members.

Right now, women lawyers carry a lot of influence, because the community sees them as intellectual advocates. RCLA also seeks to bring women attorneys together to share about different cases, topics and societal problems. Many times, women lawyers are the only ones able to “get the story of a violated woman” and have free access to the story for the purpose of prosecution.

An interesting connection: Watermark Church in Dallas, where Jeff’s brother and sister-in-law attend (wait, what?!) helped to fund the start-up of this Association. Watermark partnered with ALARM to gather and send lawyers from the US and other countries to Rwanda to discuss Universal Human Rights. Funds were raised through ALARM for costs, and ALARM hosted the group.

Each year, an Annual Conference is held in a different country, and attorneys from all over come to share experiences and present their contributions to promote peace internationally.

In Rwanda we have a saying: If your neighbor’s house is burning and you don’t react, your house can be burnt. It’s important to understand the issues going on in the countries around us. We meet at seminars and conferences, and by sharing our different cases we can come up with solutions that might be applicable to our own countries or other countries. If they are not yet applicable to our own country, they might soon be, and we have already gained new insights.   – Sophonie Sebaziga, Chairman of RCLA

This year’s conference is in Uganda from April 21-25th.

Challenges

RCLA is totally run by volunteers and members. Paola, one of the Family Law attorneys explains the majority of her time is spent trying to balance her job and the amount of pro-bono work she does around the city. Because her church and office are in the same town, she is known by many in the community as the person to call when there is conflict.

Just recently, Paola received calls from both a policeman and a husband in a domestic dispute. A man had kicked his wife out of the house and closed the gate.  The woman came back with a police officer attempting to get back in, because she had nowhere to go and this was her home. When the police officer instructed the man to open the gate for the woman, the man called Paola. The man expected confirmation that his wife didn’t have a legal right to her own home. “Because I am a man,” he said, “I can close the gate. I have paid the dowry to her family. I don’t have to open the gate.”

Paola says she was able to educate the man and the police officer on the rights of the woman—that she has the right to come home and the gate must be opened. The gate was opened, and Paola invited the couple into the office the next morning for mediation.

Men and women like Paola receive calls at all hours of the day and night from people in need of legal assistance, and they advocate and assist for free!  Through ALARM, the Association is able to raise funds to attend and facilitate trainings, seminars and conferences at training center or in local churches.

Do you want more info about RCLA? Check out the June issue of World Next Door magazine or contact Sophonie@alarm-rwanda.org

Over and out!

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