NEW YORK, Oct 18, 2006 (IPS) - In Rwanda, genocide widows are weaving baskets alongside the wives of war criminals, and forging their own path to reconciliation - and economic recovery - as the courts struggle to achieve justice. 

Basket weaving has been Rwanda's greatest craft, and a critical community activity, for hundreds of years. Now these baskets are a surprise hit at a major department store in the United States, and are bringing Hutus and Tutsis together in a way the courts never could. 

At the Macy's store in New York City last week, several Rwandan women presented a new line of baskets and demonstrated their intricate weaving technique for an eager audience. Introducing the women was Willa Shalit, a U.S. artist and businesswoman, whose Rwanda Path to Peace programme is the link between Macy's and the weavers. 

"Rwandan crafts have never been exported on this scale before," Shalit said. 

The economic impact in Rwanda has been significant, particularly in rural areas where the need is greatest. 

Some 2,500 women across Rwanda are now weaving baskets as part of Rwanda Path to Peace. The United Nations Development Fund for Women, which gives technical support to the weaving groups, credits the programme with a reduction in domestic abuse, as women are able to provide for their families and often get their husbands involved. HIV-positive weavers are now better able to afford crucial medicine and nutrition, and have gained greater respect in the community. 

"When an American woman buys this basket, she gives to a Rwandan woman some food, some clothes, some life," said Consolate Mukanyiligira of Rwanda's Avega genocide widow's association, which serves as an umbrella organisation for the weaving groups. 

While the basket programme has gone international in scope, it began with the efforts of individual master weavers in Rwanda. These leaders seek not only business success, but a path to healing where justice has failed. 

Twelve years after a civil war that killed as many as a million people in 100 days, the Rwandan justice system is still overwhelmed and inadequate. Until recently, Rwanda's jails housed 120,000 prisoners awaiting prosecution for genocide. Some have waited for more than a decade. An average of a thousand trials a year would take more than a century to complete. 

To speed the process, Rwanda resurrected a traditional, local system of village tribunals called Gacaca. The Gacaca courts are a vast and daring experiment in community justice, and many legal observers agree that it is the country's greatest hope for a sense of closure. 

But some rights activists say the Gacaca system has its own flaws. There is limited protection for witnesses. The rules of evidence and sentencing are subjective and inconsistent. The courts are concentrated in the cities, leaving some rural areas with little justice. Worst, many Gacaca judges themselves have been found to have participated in the genocide. 

Rwanda's network of weavers is succeeding where Gacaca falls short. Reconciliation was a conscious part of the plan from the beginning. Now, every weaving group in the Path to Peace programme includes both Hutu and Tutsi women. 

Rwandan weavers typically sit in large groups, sharing supplies and working together closely. Master weavers teach the craft to anyone who wants to learn. 

"The way they make it, they have to be together. You can't be alone," explained Marie Claudine Mukamabano, a Rwandan dancer and activist who now lives in Brooklyn. "And you need to be simple for your teacher." 

One such teacher is Pascasie Mukamulingo, considered to be the greatest weaver in the country. 

Weaving saved Mukamulingo's life. When the war broke out in Rwanda in 1994, Mukamulingo, a Tutsi, was in Kigali selling her baskets. When she returned to her village, she found that most of her family had been killed. 

The village was tense, and her Hutu neighbors were hesitant to talk to her for fear that she wanted revenge. Allied with a Hutu weaver, Mukamulingo started a weaving group called Dufutanye, which means "let us work together". 

"The baskets were the best medium to get the people together," Mukamulingo said. "People came out of prison for war crimes wanting to know how to participate in the basket project." 

In Gacaca court one day, a Hutu man was convicted of killing Mukamulingo's son. The wife of the killer was a member of Dufutanye, learning to weave. Ashamed, the woman left the group. Mukamulingo welcomed her back in. 

Mukamulingo designed her newest basket, a black and white fruit bowl with a checkerboard pattern, to symbolise togetherness of Hutus and Tutsis. 

"I've never seen such successful reconciliation," Shalit said. "If the focus is on something else, but you're sharing the focus, the reconciliation happens more naturally." 

Shalit approached a number of U.S. companies about selling the baskets through the Path to Peace programme, but chose Macy's because it was the only one that wanted the baskets as the women designed them, using traditional patterns. Macy's has also expressed a commitment to ensuring the programme is sustainable. 

The original line of baskets offered by Macy's in September 2005 sold out quickly, and the new lines have remained popular. Now Shalit is seeking markets for the baskets in Europe and Asia. (END)