2004: Facing Genocide in Rwanda

Christophe Calais/Corbis




Dele Olojede ’88

Dele Olojede won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his unforgettable portrait, published in Newsday, of how Rwanda was weaving itself back together a decade after the genocide and mass rape of the Tutsi tribe.

Newsday – May 5, 2004
“A Killer Next Door”

By Dele Olojede

SOVU, Rwanda — Last in a series

“In the village up there, there are a lot of killers,” Domitira Mukabanza says. “Come, I will show you.” With that, she sets off briskly across a sorghum field, up a footpath and toward the home of Johan Nturo.

Mukabanza lost her husband and five of her six children in a massacre at a monastery here 10 years ago. The youngest, 3-year-old Petronira Nzamukosha, was hacked to death right off her mother’s back. The only surviving child is permanently crippled from machete blows. Mukabanza blames her neighbors, such as Nturo, who is accused of participating in the genocide.

It is early morning, and old man Nturo finds unexpected guests at his door. At 75 his sight is poor and his health is failing, which accounts for his recent parole after eight years in prison. Two of his sons remain behind bars.

“I am not guilty of anything,” Nturo protests, despite the testimony of several survivors. “My sons, too, are completely innocent. They are good Christians who feared the sin of killing.”

In part for this very denial, Mukabanza, 50, has far less faith than the government that Rwanda can be put back together again, that citizens can live together in peace, and that the genocide will not recur.

“It is very difficult to live in these circumstances, but we are poor and powerless,” she says. “To live with these people means that you don’t know whether you will survive the night.”

It is a situation scarcely imaginable anywhere, as if most Jewish survivors were compelled to remain in Germany immediately after the Holocaust, living cheek by jowl with their erstwhile neighbors.

“Our first task is to reconstruct a nation — to rebuild a people,” says Tom Ndahiro, a member of the country’s Human Rights Commission, one of the many official bodies charged with working with communities trying to stitch themselves back together. “It is not easy.”

Slowly, a country that was left for dead in 1994 is staggering back to its feet. The current government inherited a nation where 70 percent of the population of 8 million either was displaced or dead. Almost all civic and governmental institutions, including schools and hospitals, had to be rebuilt from scratch. Though it still depends on foreign aid for much of its treasury, today Rwanda is experiencing a construction boom. Roads are being built, mobile telephones and Internet cafes are ubiquitous. New office towers and international hotels are going up in Kigali, the capital, which has gone from a necropolis to probably one of the safest cities in the world.

“You would have expected a failed state here, a Somalia of some sort,” says Joseph Bidere, a Rwandan exile in Canada who moved back home after the genocide. “I would not have thought the country would get to this point.” But physical recovery has not masked the continuing trauma of the genocide, the bitterness and suspicion that still to a large extent define life here.

By freeing tens of thousands of genocide suspects from prison, the government of President Paul Kagame is attempting a precarious balancing act between justice and reconciliation. Those who receive lenient treatment — foot soldiers, not kingpins — are required to confess their crimes and seek forgiveness from their victims. In time, officials say, people would re-establish ties that were rent by the genocide, and the country could slowly leave its bloody legacy behind.

Lending a hand in this project, in part to atone for its own catastrophic failure to protect the innocent, is the Roman Catholic Church, by far the most powerful institution in the country after the government. The church, like the government, is betting that it is still possible for lion and lamb to lie together in this mountain country, and has been encouraging ordinary people who participated in the genocide to ask forgiveness from survivors, and for survivors to grant it.

“Those who sinned against others and against God have to repent,” says the head of Rwanda’s Catholics, Archbishop Thaddée Ntihinyurwa, who touts a broad new effort by the church to re-engage its strayed flock. “The church, after 2,000 years of preaching, now has started having a conversation with the people.”

Progress on the Surface

In public, a people notoriously obedient to authority — the follow-the-leader culture in large part explains the willingness of millions to acquiesce in the genocide — say the right things to conform to the official line. Many are loath now to talk about being Hutu or Tutsi, in accordance with official dictates. The government is hypersensitive to any flaunting of ethnic identity, and has thrown some leaders of the political opposition in jail ostensibly for engaging in a dangerous appeal to ethnic solidarity. So loud and frequent is the official condemnation of “divisionism” that many citizens make a show of minimizing ethnic identity as if it were already an ideology. According to one Kigali schoolteacher, who is Hutu, “We are no longer Hutu or Tutsi; we’re all Rwandans now.”

But in private, out of earshot in their living rooms or front yards, the level of bitterness people feel still has the capacity to shock, as in Tutsi survivors uniformly denouncing “Hutu murderers,” and known killers, even some who have confessed, effectively denying that a genocide occurred at all.

“You can imagine how difficult it is for a victim to live with the killer — not just a genocide survivor but any victim at all,” says Benoir Kaboyi, an official of the influential survivor group Ibuka, which means “Remember” in the Kinyarwanda language. “How can you live with the person who has killed your children and your parents? When you have been raped and your property destroyed?

“Some survivors are trying to do their best, especially the young. But the elders?” Here Kaboyi pauses, himself a survivor of the massacre inside the cathedral at Nyamata, south of the capital. A look of resignation crosses his face.

As in the rest of the country, the personal nature of the massacres in the district around Sovu, including at the nearby monastery of Benedictine nuns, makes the aftertaste especially bitter. This was not at all long-distance annihilation by precision-guided bombs. No gas chambers were used.

The killings, on the contrary, had a graphic, even pornographic quality. Killer and victim knew each other, either in the neighborhood or the workplace. Most of the deaths were close-contact: using a machete to hack a baby off the back of its fleeing mother, or a nail-studded club to smash a neighbor’s skull. Often when the killers got tired at day’s end, they would cripple victims by severing their Achilles’ tendons, the easier to restart the “work” next morning.

Tension on the Footpath

Adelis Mukabutera survived the massacre on the grounds of the Sovu monastery. But now she lives in fear of the genocidaires recently returned home from prison, or from years on the run in the rain forests of neighboring Congo.

“There are killers all over the place,” she says. “They pass every day on that road you took here. We meet them in the market, in the hospital, and it is every day like that.”

Unselfconsciously, Mukabutera peels off her dress at the shoulders to reveal extensive scars from cutlass and gunshot wounds sustained on the monastery grounds a decade earlier, when she was only 18. Her father and six siblings died in the siege. One recent afternoon she ran into a man she recognized as one of the monastery killers, “and there was not even a sign of guilt in his eyes.”

“Of course you feel terrible when you run into a murderer you know, and who knows you know them,” Mukabutera says. “It is very painful to see them walking around with impunity. They don’t even look down. We are very bitter about this.

“All the time we are scared that they will come in the night to kill us.”

In Mukabutera’s section of the district, a de facto segregation exists. The survivors live in an enclave of houses set along narrow dirt roads not far from the paved thoroughfare leading to the nearby town of Butare. Their former homes having been destroyed during the genocide, they moved into the new ones six years ago, through the generosity of a church group from neighboring Burundi.

The hills above them are inhabited almost exclusively by Hutu. Both communities cross paths unavoidably in the market, at the local dispensary, and on footpaths. Some are even friends.

Sorry to Have Survived

Marie-Chantal Mukamisha lives alone with her life’s sorrows, except for the kindness of Anastasie Akayesu, a Hutu neighbor who sometimes drops by to keep her company, and occasionally to run errands. Akayesu’s husband is being held in the local prison for crimes of genocide committed against the innocent, such as Mukamisha’s family. The two women hardly ever discuss the genocide, Mukamisha says, but simply help each other cope with the hand that fate had dealt them.

She also is supported from time to time by another Hutu neighbor, a man who, noticing the 32-year-old woman’s desperation, gave her one of his cows to help her get started. And during the genocide, after she had escaped by climbing from underneath a pile of bodies, Mukamisha had been saved by a Hutu woman who lived alone in a hut in the woods, and who had nursed her until her dreadful wounds healed. The woman, whose name she cannot now remember, took her in until the genocidal fever receded. “She was a kind-hearted woman,” she says.

But today she is no longer certain whether surviving the genocide was a good thing after all. With all seven brothers and both parents dead, and with her recent marriage effectively ended when her jobless husband walked away in December, Mukamisha admits to the torment of loneliness. And when she sees Hutu families, including the families of well-known killers, walking down the path, she admits to an acute sense of bitterness and helpless rage.

“Of course I feel very angry, but I don’t have the strength to lash out,” she says. “You think of these people who have left you destitute and without a family and you want to lash out, but I just don’t have the strength.” She disputes even her classification as a survivor, for how do you really survive a genocide? At the age of 32, Mukamisha sees a life of desolation stretching into the horizon, at the end of which comes death. “I think I should have died, because I don’t see any way to deal with this loneliness,” she says. “I just spend the days in no particular pattern. I don’t see any hope. All I can see is survival until I die.”

The Neighbor’s House

Domitira Mukabanza is a little agitated, which accounts for her volunteering to point out a neighbor’s house as the redoubt of unrepentant killers. She reels off names of accused genocidaires who have returned home from prison. Even more will return in coming weeks, as the government sends home another batch of up to 30,000 detainees, especially those who have confessed and were not adjudged to be principal organizers of the genocide. Mukabanza says she understands some of those who killed her children, and who left her for dead in a mass grave, would be among them.

“I was in the grave, and it began raining heavily,” she recalls now, shivering involuntarily. “It was a shallow grave. The rain washed away the soil. The wild dogs that were eating the dead bodies came. Luckily the rain had softened the soil, and I was able to get out.”

Stumbling around in the woods, bleeding from multiple wounds, she eventually made her way to her mother’s family, who were Hutu, though being half-Hutu had not saved her from the mob. Her mother’s people took her in for a while, eventually hiding her elsewhere to avoid exposing themselves to denunciation as collaborators, an offense that in 1994 was punishable by death.

But now the killers walk free, Mukabanza says, hissing in disgust that such a situation could have been allowed to develop. “When I go till my garden plot, I know only God is protecting me,” she says. “I can be killed at any time.”

Johan Nturo has a completely opposite view of things. Following his arrest in February 1995 for participation in the genocide, he had been held without charge until his conditional release last year, pending final determination of his status by a village tribunal that is expected to begin sitting here this month.

That two of his four sons remain behind in prison, to Nturo, is an outrage. He concedes nothing to the survivors. “Those who claimed that I killed have an ulterior motive,” he says, with heat. “They claimed that I killed Alexandre [a local man] but it is only because they wanted me in jail so that, perhaps, they could take my cattle.” Nturo is seated in his barebones living room. Behind him is a large wooden Jesus on the cross, and this religious symbol dominates the room. Nturo is quite agitated, frowning and gesticulating. His pants are patched; his skin dark and cracking.

During the “problems,” he says, he never went anywhere — never even left his compound. His sons merely cut grass for the cattle even as other men, young and old, took up arms and cleansed the hillside of Tutsi. In the end, he says, the government of the day was to blame for encouraging people to kill. “If the government decides that something is going to happen, I cannot do anything about it,” he says. “I don’t know what goes on in the minds of leaders that they would tell people to do something like that.”

He softens a bit. “You can see that I am an old man. I wish I could have done something to help,” he says. “I can tell you it was a very unfortunate event. Maybe it was a curse, the kind that brings famine and pestilence.” Still, Nturo misses his sons, Stefan Sibimana and Gasper Gasasira, and wishes they were home to help care for the cattle and fend for the family. “I am an old man now,” he says repeatedly, “and my days cannot be many. I am no longer strong. I have a bad knee. I am not in good health. I don’t have very long.”

He insists on his sons’ innocence while obliquely conceding at least moral cowardice in not raising a finger in defense of his Tutsi neighbors. He appears to be suggesting, in his roundabout way, that he should not be judged too harshly, for who in all truth can be certain of his reaction when called upon to risk his own life in order to save another?

But denying the genocide, not calling it by name, and treating it as a phenomenon for which an abstract “government” is guilty but not individuals, remains a matter of great frustration for Ndahiro, of the Human Rights Commission. He calls it “the killing of memory.”

“The genocide was conducted in plain sight,” he says. “When you start justifying or denying a crime of such enormity, you’re killing memory. You’re also telling the survivors that they should not rest in peace.”

Survival Is Paramount

But survivors are not foremost on Vincente Mutabazinga’s mind — survival is. Now 27, Mutabazinga was a hot-headed teenage member of the interahamwe militia that did most of the killing 10 years ago. After seven years in detention he was provisionally released last May, along with some 23,000 other genocide suspects.

But he has returned home to joblessness, his family’s grinding poverty, and the ostracism of some of the neighbors.

Mutabazinga remains the very picture of the militia member, who favors a bandana, T-shirt and jeans. His eyes are bloodshot and, if possible, he may be even more hardened now than he was at 17. Locals still call him Gasiyete, his nickname from interahamwe days. His very carriage invokes dread.

“Some pretend they don’t see me and cross to the other side of the road,” he says. “Sometimes you think that killing yourself is the best way to end this terrible life.”

Mutabazinga considers himself stuck in the hills, in his family compound that can only be charitably described as modest. Theirs is the face of poverty at its most elemental, and Mutabazinga’s father, for one, couldn’t care less about the genocide or the suffering of the survivors.

“I felt very bad about my son because he used to work down there in a shop with a Tutsi,” says Gasper Rurinda, who is 60 going on 90, so abject is his physical condition. “When the killings were over some people decided that my son was a killer, for no good reason. So how can I feel anything but ill will towards those who have wrongly accused him?

“Even the survivors you are talking about, how can you be sure they are telling the truth? How can you be sure they are not trying to take somebody’s cow? Just because they won the war?”

The father’s denials are unequivocal, but not the son’s. Mutabazinga says only that when he eventually appears before an open-air village court, known as Gacaca, “I will stand and say that I can’t understand what made young men do that. I was young at the time. I was 17 years old.”

For now, reconciliation between survivor and accused appears far away.

“The survivor and the detainees’ families, to me there is no communication. There is no social dialogue in the hills,” says Florien Ukizemwabo, a human rights activist. “Perhaps after the process of justice is finished, for the survivors and the detainees, we can have a proper dialogue about why the genocide was committed by Hutu against Tutsi.”

Even Hutu who were known to have opposed the genocide, such as Ukizemwabo, often resent that they are made to feel the enormous weight of a crime committed in their name.

“I am not for this generalization of crime, of group guilt, because it really frustrates people,” says Ukizemwabo, who runs the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. “If we generalize, the feelings will also be generalized and this attitude is not helpful in building the society.”

A thoughtful, soft-spoken man, Ukizemwabo says many Hutu feel frustration and an acute sense of isolation — estrangement, even — from their country.

A Growing Optimism

“Somebody who sees himself as a Hutu will say there is no hope for the future because the government is led by Tutsi,” he says. “A Hutu in that sense does not see his place. He feels out of place because we haven’t addressed the question of ethnicity. He feels a Hutu must be someone who lives in a Rwanda led by Hutu. Majority of Hutu feel this way. People feel things are Tutsi dominated.”

“Minimizing ethnicity is a good thing to stabilize the country, especially after the genocide,” Ukizemwabo, who ignores the relevance of being Hutu to the subject at hand, says carefully. “On the other hand, it is not healthy in the longer term to not talk about ethnic groups, since the genocide was conducted on an ethnic basis. You must prepare the society to talk honestly about ethnicity.”

Although he speaks in the third person, Ukizemwabo, 40, may have been talking about none other than himself. A Hutu who opposed the genocide and lived to tell the tale, he has an abiding optimism about his country’s prospects, despite the staggering problems it confronts.

“Overall we are going in the right direction,” he says. “At the very minimum, we have a government that does not preach hate.”

That optimism is not uncommon among Rwandans. Their government is heavy handed in dealing with dissent, but few Rwandans question the near miracle of its achievements, notably the revival of a literally dead nation.

“We Rwandans have a saying,” says Manzi Kayihura, a former exile in Germany who returned home to help rebuild. “‘By day God attends to the needs of his unruly children worldwide, but at night he comes home to Rwanda to sleep.’”

Kayihura is getting married in August and plans to raise a family in Kigali. In post-genocide Rwanda, that itself is an act of faith.

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