When Words Could Kill

Posted: January 31, 2011 in Genocide Denial
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By: Dele Olojede—Newsday May 4, 2004

GASHORA, Rwanda — Valerie Bemeriki would like the world to know that, all in all, she was only doing her duty.

Hers was one of the most recognized and most effective voices on the so-called Hate Radio, known by its French acronym RTLM, which helped mobilize Rwanda’s Hutu majority to genocide 10 years ago. That voice, by turns shrill, seductive and authoritative, goaded and encouraged the country’s Hutu, sometimes helpfully suggesting the names and hiding places of members of the minority Tutsi and their Hutu sympathizers who had yet to be murdered.

To make it easier for her listeners to see their victims as less than human, she made up vulgar stories about the inyenzi, or cockroaches, as Tutsi were called. She even accused them of cannibalism.

“They mutilate the body and remove certain organs, such as the heart, liver and stomach; they eat human flesh, the inyenzi,” she declared in one broadcast, transcripts of which are now in the possession of Rwandan authorities as well as the United Nations tribunal trying the ringleaders of the genocide.

Bemeriki, 48, sits today in the bleak, isolated prison here in southern Rwanda, five years after she was arrested in neighboring Congo. At the time of her arrest, in June 1999, the shocked and disoriented Bemeriki had pronounced herself guilty of incitement to genocide and begged forgiveness of her fellow citizens.

But now, facing the death penalty from Rwandan courts, Bemeriki is recanting. She contends that, at worst, listeners may have misunderstood her enthusiasm, a failing for which she cannot now be held responsible. “I was only doing my job as a journalist,” Bemeriki says. “When we were working we never used our radio to say they should go and kill people. But the listeners may have misunderstood. If we asked people to get rid of cockroaches, we did not mean they should kill people.”

Which is clearly a lie, according to extensive transcripts of broadcasts during the genocide by RTML or Radio Television Libre Des Mille Collines. As the killings escalated, one announcer abandoned any pretense to figurative language, pleading: “The graves are only half full. Who will help fill them?”

The radio station had been founded in 1993 by members of the family and inner circle of President Juvenal Habyarimana, who opposed the president’s compromise treaty to end civil war by sharing power with the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front. Two of the station’s founders have been convicted of genocide by the UN tribunal sitting in Arusha, Tanzania.

As a Category One offender — those accused of spearheading the genocide — Bemeriki knows she does not qualify for the mass release of suspects currently under way. The current Tutsi-led government, which assumed power after defeating the “Hutu Power” regime in July 1994, released 23,000 detainees last year. Many had been held without trial for nearly a decade, and the government was bowing to the reality that it had no capacity to try them in regular courts and, if it did, had no desire to jail or execute more than 100,000 people.

The fact that she does not qualify for amnesty makes it difficult for her to come clean, Bemeriki says. “It is hindering any chance of my confessing.”

A short and powerfully built woman, Bemeriki once was an elegant Kigali socialite who was to be found in the company of the country’s Hutu elite and at diplomatic functions. But her features now are coarse from five years on the run in the Congolese rain forest and another five in Rwanda’s notoriously overcrowded prisons. She limps on one leg, from an automobile accident. Her standard issue prison dress is pink and low cut. She wears massive round glasses, and a string of beads adorns her neck.

Bemeriki was recruited by RTLM in 1993 from the ruling party’s propaganda department. Her witty and conversational style soon made her one of the country’s most prominent voices. After the extremist faction seized power following Habyarimana’s death in a plane crash on April 6, 1994, they quickly arranged to have the moderate prime minister murdered — along with the 10 Belgian peacekeeping forces guarding her. In announcing the takeover, Bemeriki sneered that none of the moderates could be “found,” and then began to laugh uproariously.

She blames her superiors for any conduct that may somehow be construed as incitement to genocide. “As you well know, a journalist is like a soldier: he tells the story his editor tells him,” she says. “We told the story as it was.”

Although she is listed in the government’s top-100 list of genocide offenders, Bemeriki has no court date yet. The judicial system, which had to be built from scratch after 1994, has only now managed to complete a catalog of prisoners and the charges against them. Lawyers are in short supply. Most offenders will be tried under the Gacaca court system, a quasi-judicial tribunal being established at the village level where local notables will listen to confessions and sentence most to community service and compensation to survivors.

“Myself, I have no hope,” Bemeriki says.


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