GIKONGORO, Rwanda - The men lined up at Gikongoro Prison, leaning awkwardly into a microphone and reciting their confessions in emotionless monotones.
``I've killed," said a scrawny young man who wore threadbare clothes. ``I've killed a guy who was from my home village. The authorities told me to do it."
``I confess and I apologize about the crime I committed," said the next man, also dressed in patched rags. ``I confess, but I also denounce the people who were with me."
Then it was Valens Nteziryayo's turn. He stood there - a sad, thin, barefoot figure with a cue-ball haircut - and quietly recalled how he bludgeoned his ethnic Tutsi neighbor in 1994 under orders from local troops.
``The soldiers went to the house of the Tutsi," said Nteziryayo, 35, an ethnic Hutu farmer. ``They asked him to come out. A soldier put a knife to my side. They told me to hit the Tutsi with a hoe. So I did."
It was as simple as that.
It was a typical account from Rwanda's genocide, when Hutu extremists set off a murderous, three-month frenzy to exterminate minority Tutsis. More than half a million people died - one every 17 seconds. Much of the terrible work was done by peasants like Nteziryayo, who were cajoled or forced to join in.
Nteziryayo's confession earlier this year, part of an effort by justice officials to induce prisoners to admit their guilt in exchange for leniency, is a small step forward in Rwanda's long march to rebuild four years after the genocide. But the long list of accused killers is one legacy of the genocide that is not likely to be disposed of soon.
Rwanda's prisons are overflowing with more than 130,000 people charged with genocide. Trials, which began last year, are moving at a pace that would take three centuries to clear the backlog.
Until recently, few prisoners have accepted responsibility for mass murders, maintaining their innocence under pressure from major genocide figures who control life inside Rwanda's prisons. But this year more than 8,000 prisoners have broken ranks and admitted participating in the genocide.
The act of confession is unusual in Rwanda, where many Hutus still believe the genocide was a justifiable act to defeat a nonnative enemy. This belief is especially strong among Hutu insurgents attempting to complete the job they left unfinished in 1994: to drive the Tutsi inyenzi - cockroaches - from Rwanda.
A provision for confessing was included in a 1996 law that defined several degrees of genocide. The most severe, category one, is for planners of genocide. It carries a mandatory death sentence. The law also introduced the novel concept, for Rwanda, of plea bargaining.
Those charged with category-one crimes who plead not guilty but are later convicted face the firing squad. But those who plead guilty have their charge downgraded to a category-two crime - a life sentence. Those prisoners who confess are also promised a speedier trial.
Most of the confessions were suddenly offered after the government publicly executed 22 people in April, despite protests from human-rights organizations. The executions appear to have driven home the point that the government was serious about dispensing punishment.
``Before the executions, many people were denying, saying they were innocent," Nteziryayo, the prisoner, said after his public confession. ``Now they know the law is operative."
Most of the confessions have been from small fish swept up in the genocide, rather than the political and military organizers who plotted the genocide for months.
Many organizers are targets of the U.N. criminal tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, where 31 defendants are being held. Last week, a former mayor from Rwanda was convicted by the tribunal - the first international conviction for genocide.
What was striking about Nteziryayo's confession - and those of other prisoners interviewed - is that he expressed neither shame nor contrition for smashing in his neighbor's skull, in the town of Rukondo. Later, when he was asked if he had regrets, he wrinkled his brow in confusion.
``I killed this man under orders from the soldiers and the authorities in my sector," he said simply.
Justice ministry officials say few prisoners have expressed contrition.
``They're prepared to say they're sorry, but there's no remorse at all," said Gerald Gahima, secretary-general of the justice ministry. ``This is not surprising. These people were brought up for 30 years to believe it was OK to kill Tutsis."
That lack of contrition - the understanding that what happened here was so monumentally evil that it cannot be rationalized in a civilized world - is one of the great challenges confronting the Rwandan people.
``It's really a question of values, and it takes time to change those values," Gahima said. ``First and foremost, it will take a demonstrated commitment to promoting the rule of law in our society, and for this to be done over time."
It is a daunting task. Few countries have such unresolved, murderous hatred built on ethnic prejudices, in which extremists on each side have demonized Hutus and Tutsis.
Other nations, such as the former Yugoslav republics, pacified their ethnic or religious animosities by segregating themselves into enclaves. But Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis still live side by side.
And so the government is under enormous pressure to create an unbiased judicial system. ``Nothing we can do will make everybody happy," Gahima said.
Many Hutus also have little faith that they can get justice from a Tutsi-led government, so the government is under pressure to release prisoners for whom it has insufficient evidence to prosecute.
At the same time, genocide survivors have criticized the release of suspects in cases where the government said it had insufficient resources to try them. Vigilante justice is not unusual. On Aug. 16, 14 people were hacked to death in Nyamagana in what authorities described as a revenge killing. One victim, Emmanual Gasana, recently had been released after his acquittal on genocide charges.
The Tutsi-led army also has a reputation for killing Hutu civilians in retaliation for rebel attacks. ``People sometimes ask about violence done by our army," Gahima said. ``You cannot change these values overnight."
The government's attempts to change values are spelled out to prisoners during a sort of traveling road show in which prosecutors try to coax inmates to confess.
On a recent visit to Gikongoro, an agriculturally impoverished area near the southern border with Burundi, Gahima and the region's top prosecutors waded into prison without armed guards to try to persuade prisoners to confess. On their journey into the cell blocks, they came face-to-face with the immutability of Rwanda's culture of murder and tribal hatred.
Gikongoro Prison is similar to other Rwandan prisons. More than 2,800 inmates live in several high-walled brick buildings, where they sleep on bunks stacked three high to the roof of dormitories that reek of sweat. Bananas hang from hooks and clothes are hung out to dry, giving the place the air of a crowded, pungent market.
Rwanda's prisons and jails are hideously crowded; prisoners have suffocated in some packed local jails. International organizations say conditions have improved in the last year because of an emergency prison expansion campaign, but the prisons still are bleak places.
Gikongoro Prison had been washed down with sour-smelling cleansers to prepare for the official entourage, which included several diplomatic observers.
In one building housing prisoners who had confessed, Gahima reminded them that they had to tell the complete truth. ``If more information comes out later, you can be rearrested," he said.
He also assured them their sentences would be reduced. ``It doesn't mean you are not being punished," he said. ``Nobody can think of this as a pardon. We need to break the (sense of) impunity."
Many inmates - most were young men - greeted his words with interest and submission. ``When can we go free?" one asked.
The reception was more hostile in the main prison yard, home to inmates who continue to profess innocence. Nearly 2,000 prisoners wearing pink polyester shorts and shirts - some wearing hand-stitched hats that designated they were prison security - packed the yard as the entourage filed in to explain the confession process.
``I hope you have heard about this procedure," Gahima said through a megaphone. ``We passed out notices and sent in radios so you could listen to the news bulletins."
``The radios are broken," one inmate said.
Gahima continued: ``We can't forget about the genocide completely. It's impossible." He told the men there was a system to separate the leaders from those who sought to confess.
``I see some of you are laughing," Gahima said. He acknowledged that many prisoners had been told that the Tutsi-dominated government was massacring Hutus. ``It's not true."
He brought out an inmate who earlier had confessed. Now Gahima told the crowd the man would be released with time served.
``We don't wish you to spend all your lives in prison," Gahima said. ``We want you to confess and apologize and you can go back to your communities and live peacefully. I want to warn you, however: If you don't participate in this procedure, there will be consequences."
After a while, the inmates begin to show their skepticism more openly, laughing at the prosecutors' promises.
``If the time comes, you will have an opportunity to defend yourselves," Gahima said evenly, generating another round of guffaws.
``There are prisoners here who have killed a lot of people," he said. ``They killed those people who were innocent, but nobody has killed you." There were more laughs.
The prisoners began to complain about insufficient food and crowded conditions. Others demanded access to their case files or to potential witnesses.
``In court, you're innocent until tried," Gahima told them. ``Justice is working. But it's not working as we wish."
This statement prompted more laughter, louder than before.
Fed up with his audience, Gahima and the entourage walked out.
It was an extraordinary scene: Two thousand Rwandan prisoners charged with mass murder had spent an hour alone with some of the country's top justice ministry officials, who were unarmed. It says much about Rwanda that they did not attempt to stage a mass escape.
Indeed, in Rwanda, life in prison might be safer than living in a society where Hutus and Tutsis are still killing one another. At Gikongoro Prison, many inmates spend their days outside prison walls, unguarded, for there is little chance they will try to escape.
On Friday, after rebels stormed a prison in western Rwanda, most of the 3,000 freed inmates turned themselves in the next day. Only a handful opted to join the rebels.
``If you don't have the political commitment to join the rebels, there's nowhere to go in Rwanda," Gahima explained.
This is one of the strange quirks of Rwandan culture: It is such a small country - a little smaller than Maryland - that there are few places a prisoner can flee and not be known.
It is as if Rwanda itself is the prison, and there is no escaping its past.