By Lindsey Hilsum. London Observer Service. September 10, 1995

KIGALI, Rwanda — “I couldn’t even kill a chicken,” said Paulina Nyiramasuhuko, the minister for women and the family in Rwanda’s ousted Hutu government.

“If there’s a person who says that a woman — a mother — killed, then I am ready to be confronted by that person,” she said in Zaire.

Nyiramasuhuko should be prepared, then, because she hasn’t been forgotten in her home town of Butare in Rwanda.

“She came to encourage people to kill. . . . I saw her in a car with gendarmes as escorts. She said, `You must start work; you must chase out the enemies.’ Then people picked up their machetes,” said Grace Hagenimana, a Tutsi peasant and mother of four whose husband was killed in the massacres that claimed more than half a million Rwandan lives last year.

Marguerite Musabyimana, a teacher’s assistant, hid at the Butare local administration building with her sister and brothers, where she observed Nyiramasuhuko.

“She would come at night in a car, driven by her son, with other people. These people came to where we were sleeping, looked for those they wanted, put them in their vehicle and took them away to be killed. . . . They had already prepared the graves.”

Musabyimana’s four brothers were killed.

These voices are among those heard in the Africa Rights report, “Not So Innocent: When Women Become Killers,” which describes research on how educated women leaders were among the organizers of the genocide in Rwanda and how Hutu peasant women were coerced into killing their Tutsi neighbors.

Nyiramasuhuko fled to Zaire when the Hutu government lost the war to the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front. She was in a tent in the eastern Zairian town of Bukavu, where she runs the social services department at Inera camp.

Nyiramasuhuko said she was a volunteer trying to trace the families of orphaned and abandoned children.

In April and May 1994, when her accusers say she was whipping up peasants to kill, Nyiramasuhuko said she was holding “pacification meetings.”

“We wrote a pacification document saying people shouldn’t kill each other,” she said. “But when the RPF arrived, people in panic killed. It was war. It’s not true to say it was genocide.”

“The extent to which women took an active role in the killings is unprecedented anywhere in the world,” said Rakiya Omaar, the author of the African Rights report.

Government radio propaganda exploited the widely held perception in Rwanda that Tutsi women are the more attractive, encouraging Hutu women to finish off their rivals.

In the village of Sovu, about five miles from Butare, the testimony of survivors of a massacre at a health center implicates two Hutu nuns from a Benedictine convent.

Josee Mukarwego, a Hutu peasant who was married to a Tutsi, alleged that Mother Superior Gertrude Mukangango told Tutsis sheltering in the convent that they were making it dirty and noisy. “She went to get soldiers,” said Mukarwego.

The Tutsis, numbering more than 3,500, were forced into the center and attacked. Mukarwego’s husband and seven children were killed.

Another nun, Julienne Mukabutera, known by her religious name Kizito, is alleged to have participated in the killing. “Kizito came with the interahamwe,” said Mukarwego. “All of them were carrying jerrycans of petrol. Because people were hiding there, they were burnt in the garage, including my eldest son. There were many people inside. A man called Byumbuka set fire to the garage with petrol given to him by the sister.”

Several massacres occurred at Sovu. Other survivors added detail to Mukarwego’s testimony. The two nuns fled to Belgium, where they have been staying in their mother convent at Maredsous, near Namur.

Those most likely to be punished for their role in the killings are the 1,000 or so poor and illiterate women already held in Rwandan jails. When they were arrested, some confessed, but after more than a year in prison all declare their innocence.

One irony is that poor, uneducated Hutu women were traditionally Rwanda’s most oppressed people. Genocide turned them not into victims but killers.


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