‘It was a whole traumatised society’

May 21, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK
May 29, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

International criminal lawyer Carla Ferstman works for human rights organisation Redress. She talks about her experience of seeking justice for victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the rights of torture victims, and why she prefers not to talk about work at weddings.

I was a criminal defense lawyer in Vancouver for two and a half years after graduation and I was looking for a little bit of a diversion, and a friend of mine told me they were looking for prosecutors to go work in Rwanda. I went out in ‘95 with the UN High Commission for Human Rights without any international experience. I’m from Montreal and they were looking for criminal lawyers that spoke English and French, but had no associations with France, which was a Rwandan preference then for political reasons. I expected to go for three months and ended up being there for two years.

When I was there the genocide had ended a year earlier, but that size of genocide in a country that tiny – you really saw the remnants. You saw the physical destruction of houses, bullet holes, but you also saw the trauma of the average person. It’s an obvious but strange thing to experience – a whole traumatized society. There’s just a profound sadness. There, either you survived and 15 members of your family didn’t or you survived and your brother is in prison for killing 15 people. Definitely people were hostile. The UN’s role in Rwanda was so suspect, and the average Rwandan couldn’t make a distinction between the UN military forces who weren’t able to intervene during the genocide, and the civilian people who came afterwards. To a certain extent it was very rewarding, working with local lawyers and prosecutors to build something from scratch, but it was also very demoralizing and you came across cases in which you saw no hope whatsoever. I’m still working on Rwanda today, and tension between the communities there is still very high.

Part of my experience was helping with the process of reburial for mass graves.  I happened to have the only pickup truck in the area, so my pickup truck – with me driving – was used to transport these bodies for reburial.  It’s all very gruesome but you just do it. In terms of what I saw, you’re not really seeing bodies at that point, but remnants. It’s different, a little bit more removed. A lot of decompression took place after I left.

At Redress we’ve about ten lawyers in our office from all over, and we take up legal challenges for victims seeking justice, often for torture or related international crimes, like crimes against humanity. I’d say half are in the UK, refugees or British nationals tortured abroad and half are in countries across the world, where we work in coordination with local lawyers or NGOs. I probably travel a quarter or third of the time. This month I was in Canada for work, then herein Hong Kong, then I’m off to Cambodia next week for the trials, and I was supposed to go to Sudan in early December. That’s typical.

It’s hard to strike that balance. On one hand there’s a tendency, after having heard so many stories of torture, to have your notepad out saying, yeah next!  If you’re crying with the victims somehow, I’d almost say that’s less problematic than not being moved at all. We’re not psychologists but we’re more than lawyers because we can’t be part of a system that compartmentalizes these people into different boxes. It’s about your emotional capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes but also to be… helpful! It’s hard to explain. If you’re sharing the pain you’re not really helpful, but you need to understand the pain and not brush over details that are important to people.

I do get a deer-in-headlights look when I meet new people [outside of work]. At first, you can’t say what you do in four words, which is what’s expected, but if you go into more detail then all of a sudden people feel compelled to have a conversation about it, but may not be comfortable doing that. So you get the oh! And the long silence.

In a way our type of work has been in the media a lot so people have a preconceived idea about what I’m like, and also about the issues, depending on the newspaper that they read. Often you’re thought of as a total lefty, and very naïve, I don’t bother trying to change anyone’s mind usually. If I think a person is actually interested in my point of view then I’ll give it; if it’s more their spouting what they heard on Fox News or they just want a fight, then I won’t bother. Like this guy at a wedding once wanted to fight about Guantanamo, so I just went out and had a cigarette. I quite enjoy my friends who have nothing to do with my job.  They are receptive and interested, but their work and their lives and completely different, and I think it’s healthy.

One torture survivor, an incredibly intelligent guy, has been asking all the people that have helped him down the line how they got involved in these kinds of things and why they do it. He told me that no one really feels like they’re a missionary – like they’re doing anything extraordinary; they just feel like this is something they have to do and they do it. It’s not like I have this big cloud of sunshine pour on me.

Recently all this ‘war against terrorism’ business has come into conflict with the human rights world.  ‘Do-gooders’ are portrayed as the naive, unrealistic type that has completely lost touch with reality when it comes to fighting the problems that really matter, and in the media – or by those with agendas it’s now like there are polar opposites, a black and white debate. You need to realize that there are other valid points of view.

At Redress I like that we’re using the law. I don’t think we can change politics because it shifts according to the interests of others. One day it may be closer to us, but it can move away just as fast. I don’t see that we’ve made such an impact on advocacy to affect policy – I see more that we force things through certain pieces of litigation that then force responses, and have forced governments to be responsible for this and that. Obviously there are many other groups that have influenced public opinion, but in terms of what we as a small organization can achieve, it’s different.

Carla Ferstman is the director of Redress (www.redress.org) and was interviewed by Journalist Jo Baker.