Genocide’s deadly residue

Posted: January 30, 2011 in Evidence Material
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The international community looked the other way while more than 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda 10 years ago. Now, justice remains elusive and the harsh aftermath of orphans and HIV, psychological scars and physical scarcity threaten to prolong the killing.


Mbezuanda (who only gave her first name) is a tall, frail woman who often holds her jaw because of a toothache. She is one of the few Tutsis in the small town of Kibuye, who survived the Rwandan genocide 10 years ago. But as with so many other survivors of the massacres, her story does not end happily.

Now, at age 47, she lives in a mud-and-wattle shack with a dirt floor, caring for seven orphans. She has HIV and is getting sicker by the day. Unable to work, she is often short of money to buy food, and the children pick wild guavas and passion fruits to sell in the market. Through an organization that helps genocide widows, she receives free medicines to treat her secondary infections, although they cannot yet afford to give her anti-retrovirals to treat her HIV.

In the end, Mbezuanda regrets having survived.

“When I sit down and think about what happened,” she says unhappily, “I think the best solution is suicide.”

A history of holocaust

Rwanda erupted onto the international scene in April 1994 with a lightning-quick genocide that observers estimate killed tens of thousands of people in the first five days. In the West, the conflict was initially thought to be a civil war, but it soon became clear that it was an attempt by the Hutu majority to eliminate the Tutsi minority. Though media outlets have often described the violence as tribal, scholars to this day disagree about the origins of the Tutsis and Hutus and whether or not they constitute different tribal or ethnic groups, especially since they share the same language, customs, and religion.

The two categories of people became solidified in the 1930s, when Rwanda was under Belgian control and the colonial government issued each Rwandan an identity card specifying his or her “ethnicity.” The Belgians also used Tutsis as overseers of exploited Hutu plantation workers, thereby fueling a lasting sense of resentment among Hutus, and a growing Hutu Power movement. When the country gained independence in 1962, it became a Hutu dictatorship. Every decade or so there were outbreaks of violence, mostly against Tutsis. These episodes were often driven by events in neighboring Burundi, which was dominated by a harsh Tutsi government.

By the late 1980s, there were over 1 million Rwandan Tutsis in exile, many of them in Zaire and Uganda. In late 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) — an army of Rwandan exiles made up of mostly Tutsi, but including some Hutus who grew up in Uganda and opposed the Rwandan status quo — invaded Rwanda from Uganda.

A civil war ensued, and over the next few years, anti-Tutsi rhetoric escalated while killings of Tutsis became increasingly common. In August 1993, President Juvenal Habyarimana signed a peace agreement with the RPF, establishing a plan for a transitional government and eventual multiparty elections. A small U.N. peacekeeping force was deployed in the country.

But the wobbly peace did not hold. On the night of April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana was shot down over Kigali, the Rwandan capital. It is still not known who shot down the plane, but many scholars believe the perpetrators were probably disgruntled extremist elements within the Habyarimana government. In any case, radio propaganda advocating extermination of Tutsis had intensified through the early days of April, with broadcasts warning of big events to happen on the 7th or 8th. Within an hour of the plane’s destruction, roadblocks were set up in and around Kigali, and Tutsis attempting to flee were slaughtered.

The genocide continued for three months. Many of the killings were carried out by the ruthless Hutu militias known as the Interahamwe. Armed with machetes, spears and occasionally guns, they went door to door, looking for Tutsis or Tutsi sympathizers. In some places, they were given lists of Tutsis by local mayors or politicians, and set out each day to make sure each and every one was exterminated.

The small and under-equipped U.N. peacekeeping force was unable to help, and Western governments were reluctant to intervene in what they insisted was a civil war. Finally, a French peacekeeping force arrived in late June. By then, most of the killings had already taken place. By early July, the RPF gained control of Kigali. The old regime fled, taking close to a million Hutu refugees with it into Zaire. A new government consisting of the RPF and some Hutu opposition figures was sworn in on July 19, 1994.

The generally accepted estimate of the death toll is 800,000 people, including Tutsis and moderate Hutus who opposed the genocide. This April, however, the Rwandan government said that 937,000 bodies have been identified, and more are expected to be found.

I went to Rwanda in April for the 10th anniversary of the genocide, looking for evidence of reconciliation. I had read some hopeful articles about development projects involving Hutu and Tutsi widows rebuilding their shattered communities, but I found much more rebuilding than actual reconciliation.

The government of Paul Kagame — first elected in 2000 and re-elected in September 2003 — has attempted to eliminate old divisions and create a new national identity, an idea many Rwandans have responded to positively. But national identity and national reconciliation are two different things. And many people question whether it is appropriate to talk of reconciliation when so many of the killers are unremorseful, and the survivors — particularly women — are languishing in poverty and hopelessness. The reality in Rwanda today is that people live together, mostly in peace, because there is simply no other choice.

Haunting memories

I traveled to Kibuye, in western Rwanda, to find survivors and possibly perpetrators, because I had read that 90 percent of the Tutsis in this little town were killed. Mbezuanda was walking along the main road as I was negotiating with a local woman to rent a car and driver for the day. When she heard I was interested in speaking with survivors, the businesswoman brought Mbezuanda over.

Mbezuanda was known in the town, it seemed, for having given testimony to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Because she did not want strangers to hear what happened to her, and said that she was terrified of crowds because of what they did in 1994, we drove around for nearly an hour looking for safe places, and finally, ended up at Mbezuanda’s house.

My translator and I sat on wooden benches in Mbezuanda’s hut. It was dark inside, lit only by the open doorway. Pages torn from newspapers, mostly ads for prayer ceremonies featuring born-again Christian preachers, adorned the earthen walls. She introduced her oldest orphan, a young woman who appeared to be in her late teens and was taking care of the other children. On Mbezuanda’s instructions, the young woman lifted up her batik skirt to show us a huge wound stretching the length of her thigh. The orphan was raped and attacked with a spear during the genocide, Mbezuanda said.

Mbezuanda said that she and her family had first sought refuge in the town stadium, where the local authorities told them to gather in the first few days after the plane crash. When the Interahamwe attacked the crowds in full view of those authorities, Mbezuanda and her husband ran to the church of Home St. Jean, a few kilometers up the hill from the stadium. But Home St. Jean was not safe either. The Interahamwe threw tear gas and grenades into the church, and Mbezuanda’s husband and twin children were killed. Hours later, she found herself lying under the bodies of others who, like them, had hoped for safety in the church.

As she tells it, Bible still in hand, Mbezuanda crawled out, accompanied by a young girl. But outside the church they ran into a group of armed men. They raped and brutally murdered the girl while Mbezuanda got away by paying them off. However, there was another group just behind them, and they tortured and gang-raped her too.

Left and then threatened by a new group of armed Hutu men, Mbezuanda was rescued by a neighbor, an old Hutu woman, who told the attackers that she was already dead. The woman hid Mbezuanda and several other Tutsis in a trench at the back of her banana plantation. When the Interahamwe came looking for Mbezuanda, following rumors she wasn’t dead, she and the others were forced to spend three days in the latrine pit. Finally, the RPF took control of the town and Mbezuanda emerged from her hiding place.

The emptiness and the echo

The outlook for Mbezuanda and many others of the estimated 400,000 Tutsi survivors in Rwanda is bleak. Though the country of just over 8 million has been physically rebuilt, and more than 500,000 exiles have returned, survivors’ lives are fraught with difficulties. Not surprisingly, women — who make up a majority of the post-war population — have borne the heaviest burden. Many complain that they are not receiving any aid, even though foreign development organizations and donors are active in Rwanda.

Poverty especially afflicts women survivors. In a country where the average per capita annual income is just $252, survivors such as Mbezuanda struggle to care for orphaned children.

“A lot of them live in housing that is held together literally by a nail, so they don’t know what will happen to their children once they’re gone, and that’s the greatest worry,” said Elizabeth Onyango, program coordinator of African Rights, a human rights organization that has been collecting testimonies about the genocide and its aftermath.

Moreover, the thousands of children born of rape have grown and are making greater financial demands on the family, requiring school materials and clothing. Worse yet, Onyongo added, they are asking about their fathers. For those saved the burden of mouths to feed, loneliness and emotional distress are common.

“You have people who had eight children and they have nothing now,” said Onyango, “just the emptiness and the echo.”

Mamerthe Karuhimbi, another survivor, struggles with the void that the genocide left in her life. She was 19 in 1994, and lost all of her family except for her mother. She remains traumatized by her memories of horrible killings and of her own rape; like most survivors, she has not received psychological counseling. A decade later, she has a boyfriend, but has never married and has no children of her own — unusual for a Rwandan woman who is nearly 30.

When I asked her how she feels about her life now, she answered, “There is no life, because I don’t have a family or children.”

Karuhimbi has also never held a steady job, and has no hope of finding one in Nyamata, the small town where she lives. Though it is only one hour outside Kigali, its one dusty main street lined with decrepit concrete shop-fronts lends it the feel of a dying frontier town. As in most Rwandan towns, there is little commercial life: no supermarkets, no restaurants — just a gas station and a traditional market.

Karuhimbi at least lives in an area where there are other survivors, though she didn’t know of any local survivors’ organizations or support groups. In some places, the vast majority of Tutsis were killed, and the survivors have very little company. Human rights organizations have reported cases of intimidation and even a few murders of witnesses. But it seems likely that most intimidation is subtler, and goes unreported. Even here, like other survivors, Karuhimbi was afraid to speak in public about her experiences. Rwanda is a crowded place, and every time we stopped somewhere, people gathered and stared. Finally, we drove down the road to an empty lot past the gas station, and Moses, my taxi driver who doubled as a translator, periodically shooed away the groups of children that gathered around us.

Prolonged genocide

HIV is the most recent time bomb to hit women survivors such as Mbezuanda. In a recent report, Amnesty International stated that at least 250,000 women were raped during the genocide, and that 70 percent of the female survivors are estimated to have been infected with HIV

Some believe those numbers are an underestimate. “We are sure that 90 percent of Tutsi women were raped,” said Marie Immaculee Ingabire, a spokesperson for the women’s organization Pro Femmes Twese Hamwe. “We are sure that [the women] have not all told,” she noted, citing the immense stigma around rape in conservative Rwanda. But now, Ingabire added, testing positive for HIV is spurring some women to talk about their experiences.

African Rights recently published a report focusing on 201 women survivors in Rwanda and Bujumbura, Burundi. All had been raped, and many were HIV positive. Others did not want to get tested because they felt their situation was hopeless anyway. “A lot of them see themselves as dead already,” Onyango explained. “It’s sort of a prolonged genocide. I don’t know which is worse, dying immediately or dying over 10 years.”

Many Rwandan activists are furious that the genocide suspects awaiting trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), in Arusha, Tanzania, are receiving anti-retrovirals (ARVs) and good medical treatment. Pro Femmes and the London-based Survivors Fund are currently trying to persuade the ICTR and the United Nations to provide ARVs to women survivors so that they can stay alive long enough to testify.

The genocide widows organization Avega Agahozo runs a small clinic in Kigali for 600 HIV positive women, but at the time of my visit, it was only able to provide ARVs to 22. Aurea Kayiganwa, an adovcacy, justice, and information officer, said that Avega Agahozo’s aid has dried up since 1999.

“During the genocide, we didn’t have international solidarity,” Kayiganwa maintained. “What we want now, 10 years after, we want people to help the victims of genocide.”

Since April, funding from the Bush administration and the Global AIDS Fund has made free or heavily subsidized ARVs more widely available in Rwanda and in much of sub-Saharan Africa. But they are still reaching only a minority of the infected, and for some, it is already too late.

Turning a blind eye

Benoit Kaboyi, executive secretary of the main survivors organization Ibuka — which means “remember” in kinyarwanda — is a busy and rather tense man in his 30s.

I arrived early one morning at Ibuka’s cramped offices on the third floor of a concrete building in the center of Kigali. After a long wait, I was ushered into a cluttered room, to the chagrin of a Japanese journalist who got there a few minutes after me. Kaboyi, himself a survivor, was tired of talking to foreign journalists, and a little macho when confronted with a female reporter. He answered my questions rapidly, but with strong, unfeigned emotion. We were constantly interrupted by phone calls and by people sticking their heads in the doorway. It was the day of a major international press conference about the genocide commemoration events, at which Ibuka was scheduled to appear.

Although the Rwandan government has set up a small fund that pays school fees for genocide orphans, they are still discussing how to fund a compensation package. Kaboyi thinks the world has a responsibility to help. “We have to honor the million who were killed while we were watching television,” he argued.

Kaboyi said that donors balk at giving aid to victims because under the rubric of unity and reconciliation, giving special consideration to genocide survivors would be divisive.

“The reality we are facing now is that they say if we support you there will be no unity and reconciliation,” he said. “Imagine unity and reconciliation! The killers have rights to return to their property. They don’t pay anything and they say I will not support you but I will support perpetrators who return home.”

Kaboyi was referring in part to the perceived bias of Western aid agencies toward Hutus in the aftermath of the genocide. Following the mass flight of Hutus to Zaire and Tanzania, hundreds of thousands landed in refugee camps that soon became squalid and disease-ridden. Aid agencies and journalists flocked to the camps, lamenting the dire refugee situation, and mostly ignoring the fact that the camps were controlled by the Interahamwe.

Meanwhile, Tutsi survivors in Rwanda were left to their own devices to reconstruct their lives. In the following years, there was also an emphasis on resettling Hutu returnees, though some critics of the government believe this was simply a way of keeping an eye on people. All the same, there was less concern about resettling survivors because many had never fled the country.

The stance of the United Nations and Western countries during the genocide remains a troublesome topic in Rwanda. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the April 6, 1994 plane crash that sparked the mass killings, Rwandan President Paul Kagame repeatedly blamed world powers for the way they ignored the genocide.

Kagame repeated this theme at a commemoration ceremony at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali on April 7. Lacking an official press pass, I slipped into the stadium just as the events began. The audience of about 10,000 was largely silent and somber. Then, when a group of female survivors came out to sing, women in the crowd started to cry noiselessly. As a male survivor took the microphone to give his testimony, the crying turned to sobbing, and shrieks and wails punctured the calm. Soon, several women were carried, limbs flailing, out of the stadium. Every few minutes for about half an hour, another woman erupted and was lifted up and then taken away. Their screams were still audible even when they were in the medical tents outside the stadium.

Toward the end of the ceremony, Kagame addressed the stadium and castigated the international community for disregarding the warning signals and allowing Rwandans to die.

“It is clear that the world had the capacity to stop the genocide but deliberately chose to turn a blind eye on Rwanda,” Kagame said.

While African heads of state including South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki spoke at the ceremony, the Belgian prime minister was the only Western leader to attend.

Uncertain justice

Picturesque as it is, Rwanda also is a very closed place, where people are wary of others. Because it is such a tiny country, people have no choice but to live close together. Some survivors see people who killed friends and relatives walking around every day. It has been peaceful in the last few years, but that doesn’t mean the divisions are gone.

“There’s a lot of mistrust,” said Onyango of African Rights. “You have survivors suspicious of everybody they live around and you have the general population suspicious of survivors.”

The old labels of Hutu and Tutsi are now banned. They are no longer used on national identification cards. The official discrimination of the past regime is long gone, though the Kigali elite is definitely Tutsi-dominated. I was appalled to hear my young translator in Kibuye say that Hutus are “rude, not polite, so it is hard to talk to them.”

Clearly the old categories still resonate for some. “Whoever you are, you don’t want to go through that horror again, but definitely, you know who you are,” Onyango explained. “People are cautious anyway, but they are even more cautious now.”

Nevertheless, there is some evidence that this may be changing, albeit very slowly. For example, Moses, the taxi driver who drove me to Nyamata, was born and raised in Uganda as the child of exiles and moved to Kigali shortly after the genocide. Without being prompted, Moses said that he didn’t know about the distinction between Hutus and Tutsis until he saw the massacres on Ugandan television. And he said he didn’t think about himself or other people in those terms. Perhaps there are others in the younger generation of returnees who feel the same, or at least strive to think that way.

In many other ways, Rwanda is moving on from its past. The economy has rebounded in some parts of the country and Kigali is a rapidly expanding city. Tourism is back, with intrepid travelers once again making their way to see the mountain gorillas. In April, an attractive national museum and memorial center dedicated to the genocide opened in Kigali. But questions of justice and reconciliation always lurk in the background.

Although the ICTR is trying the leaders of the genocide, there are still close to 80,000 lower-level suspects in prison in Rwanda. Given the limited number of judges and lawyers, the government has launched an ambitious plan to try these suspects in local people’s courts known as gacaca (pronounced ga-CHA-cha). These courts, which finally started up this summer, are supposed to involve investigations of what happened in each community, as well as voluntary confessions and apologies from suspects. The panels of judges are all regular community members, and area residents are expected to provide testimony in support of or against suspects. Those who confess will be freed if they have already served jail terms or sentenced to community service.

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, however, have expressed reservations about gacaca. Richard Haavisto, Amnesty’s Central Africa researcher, said that communities are not fully participating in gacaca because they don’t have confidence in it. Those who might be willing to give evidence are afraid of retribution, and others are afraid to defend the unjustly accused for fear of being accused themselves.

“The Rwandan government must create a climate which convinces people that there is an equitable justice system at work,” Haavisto argued.

Many Rwandans, though, are willing to give gacaca a try. At the Nyamata church, not far from where Karuhimbi lives, 20,000 people are said to have been massacred. The site’s caretaker, Rwema Epimague, himself a survivor, told me that soldiers and the Interahamwe massacred 10,000 people in and around the church over a period of five days, and another 10,000 in the surrounding areas. The numbers may be exaggerated, as the church does not look big enough to hold more than 1,000 people, but there are undoubtedly a huge number of skeletons at the site.

Unlike some of the other memorials, which have been left largely as they were found, Nyamata was cleaned up and most of the bodies were placed in a huge white-tiled tomb behind the church. There is an opening on top, and a ladder descends into a long, dark hallway, lined by shelves of bones from floor to ceiling.

Inside the church, light pours in through the hundreds of bullet-holes in the tin roof and there are still bloodstains on the walls. As with many other churches around Rwanda, crowds of Tutsis crowded into the church and its grounds, thinking they would be safe. But the Interahamwe fought their way inside after throwing grenades and tear gas. They left piles of bodies behind.

One of the survivors of the massacre is now a teenage boy with a huge scar on his shaved head. Edmond Cassius Niyonsaba, a high school student, said that he stayed alive by hiding under the corpses of his mother and father inside the church. Edmond followed me around with a sweet smile, and his speech was somewhat slurred.

On the day I visited Nyamata, workers were busy digging up bodies from the grassy fields near the church. Inside, there were at least a dozen partially mummified corpses lying on a blue plastic tarp, ready for the anniversary reburial on the 7th. Bits of clothing were still visible on the bodies, as were the ropes that bound their wrists.

Epimague informed me that there were bodies like these still in the ground all around the church, and all over the country as well. He was less concerned about justice than with finding the bodies. Epimague hopes that gacaca confessions will reveal the locations of yet more mass graves. “It helps prove exactly how many people were killed,” he said.

On a visit to the former Hutu stronghold of Ruhengeri, a mountainous area where the Interahamwe militia once found a great deal of support, I spoke with several farmers about their lives. Most Rwandans were extremely careful about criticizing the government, especially in the current climate in which opponents can easily be accused of promoting genocidal ideology. But these farmers were quick to say that not much has changed for them economically. “I was poor before the genocide and I am poor now,” one woman told me.

Though the woman farmer used the genocide as a time marker, she, and others, evaded my questions about what happened here in 1994. Most Hutus are extremely loathe to discuss the genocide. The only answer I could extract was one older man’s very quiet admission that many people died in his community. Yet most of those I spoke with said they approved of gacaca and thought it was a good solution.

On the long drive back through the mountains back to Kigali, I wondered if it was easier to accept gacaca if you weren’t the one whose whole family was murdered.

’How Can You Get Them to Answer to Their Crimes?’

Despite the fact that there were so many killers during the genocide, it was hard to find anyone out of jail that admitted to having taken part. Most of the leaders and the hardcore extremists were either awaiting trial at the ICTR or have fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though Rwandan survivors often claimed that the perpetrators were still living in their communities, they would not help me find them. The closest I got to a perpetrator was Musavimana.

A mechanic in Kibuye, Musavimana (the only name he gave me) was only willing to speak to me if we went to a little island nature reserve where there was no one else around. He was a nervous, hard-looking man who seemed much older than his 24 years. Musavimana, unlike some Hutus, did not deny that the genocide happened, or that it was a genocide committed by Hutus against Tutsis.

He described the events in the town from April 7 onward, insisting, “The people involved in the killing were Hutu, the Tutsi didn’t kill anyone.” He added that the massacres in Kibuye were well-organized, planned ahead of time, and carried out quickly.

Musavimana said that after the RPF took over in 1994, he was arrested for a crime he did not commit. He claimed that he buried a Tutsi boy who had been killed by some Hutu boys. He witnessed the murder because his family had provided shelter to the boy behind their house. He said that a Tutsi woman saw him with the body after the killers had fled, and later reported him to the police. Musavimana spent over eight years in jail. One day during a work release, he saw the killers, and convinced them to confess to the killing in the special prison gacaca. Those who confessed in prison were released, and so they took the opportunity to do so, taking the blame off of Musavimana, who was also released.

He praised gacaca, but cautioned, “Not all people will welcome gacaca, because some people who did bad things are still free, and they will do everything possible to fight it.”

As we clambered back from the island onto the shore and walked toward the road, we were met by several men who called out to Musavimana. Clearly they wanted to know what he was doing with foreigners and a Tutsi. My translator was nervous. I tried to give Musavimana some cash nonchalantly so it would look like he was just acting as a guide, and thanked him for showing us around. We drove off quickly, and I looked back before we rounded a corner to see Musavimana talking with the men. All I could do was hope that they were friends.

Was Musavimana’s story true? If so, it was both a sad story of the miscarriage of justice, which suggests that there are probably innocent people in jail, and a sign of hope, that there are ordinary Hutus who think that what happened in 1994 was wrong. It seems unlikely that he would have agreed to talk to a foreign journalist if he had something to hide. On the other hand, even the minority of prisoners who have confessed to committing crimes in 1994 have refused to take full responsibility. Most insist that they were forced to do what they did, or that they only acted as accomplices and didn’t carry out actual murders.

Some survivors such as Kaboyi and Mbezuanda doubt that there will ever be justice in Rwanda. Mbezuanda said that she may be dead before her time comes to testify in the gacaca court, and Kaboyi wasn’t sure justice could ever be possible.

“I don’t know,” he shrugged, toward the end of our conversation. “Imagine more than 1 million killed. Imagine more or less than 1 million participated. How can you get them to answer to their crimes? I don’t know.”

When I asked Onyango of African Rights about whether she thought gacaca was worthwhile, she answered that it was not ideal, but that it was the only viable solution out there.

But even with gacaca, she said, reconciliation takes time. “The whole idea of unity and reconciliation sometimes is touted too much,” she warned. “It’s not what’s really happening and it’s not going to happen that suddenly.”




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