Burying the machete in Rwanda

Ntarama Church Genocide Memorial
Ntarama Church Genocide Memorial

Seven months after the 1994 genocide, most Rwandans were still struggling to come to terms with the slaughter of nearly a million of their compatriots. How does a society cope when it loses one in five of its own citizens? 

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: March 1, 1995


Last spring, 1.5 million people were slaughtered. The genocide in Rwanda was well-planned. It was systematic. It was efficient. Machetes were the main weapon in the slaughter of one out of every five Rwandans. Most of the victims were Tutsis. 60 percent were children.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “ Burying the Machete”. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

7 months after the genocide in Rwanda, the survivors are still mourning their dead. On Sundays in churches, tears flow freely over the faces of bowed, weeping women and over the cheeks of others who just stare blankly. Peace, justice and national reconciliation are on the lips of Rwanda’s leaders today, but before that could begin to take place, Rwandans had to come to terms with the three months of terror that began on April 6th, when the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi back from peace talks in Tanzania was shot down. The event was the starting signal for the genocide.

EB: What’s your name ?? EB: How old are you? 12 years old. EB: Can you tell me what happened to you? He saw war. EB: And what happened? He saw many people being slaughtered. EB: And what happened to you? He sought refuge in the bush. EB: What happened to your family and your parents? They were killed in the bush. EB: Did you see them being killed? Yes. EB: How long did you hide in the bush? For almost one month. EB: And how did you survive in the bush? Were you all alone? Yes, he was alone. He went to some places where people were cooking and took some food and returned to the bush.

Child's drawing of the genocide
Child’s drawing of the genocide (© Eric Beauchemin)

After hiding in the bush for a month, this 12-year-old sought refuge in an orphanage run by the Italian aid organization, AVSI, in southern Rwanda. Doreen Muzirankon is one of the orphanage’s social workers.

He has got a very terrible experience because he was living with an aunt of his. He witnessed this aunt being killed. As he told you that he was hiding in the bush, the aunt was dumped in a nearby swamp with a lot of other dead bodies. So each time he got thirsty and hungry, he went to that same swamp and he drank water which was full of blood. That’s what he told us at first.

There are stories that are even worse, unbelievable as that might sound: the girl who was constantly raped by 50 men of a two month period, the tormented priest who had to abandon his 2.000 parishioners to save his own life. The Hutu who was forced by the extremist Hutu militias – the interahamwe – to murder his own wife. There’s worse yet, but to go any further would be to become a voyeur…to try to find the most gruesome tale…to be able to feel assured that humanity could not sink any lower than this. According to Leslie McTire of the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, there is another factor which makes the massacre of 1.5 million people even more difficult to fathom.

The country, prior to the war, was divided into thousands of small communities. Kigali was the largest city with 400.000 people out of 8 million. That tells you that this was not a heavily urbanized society. And, in small communities, as everyone well knows, everyone knows everybody and what they did and what they’re doing. And such, unfortunately, is the case with the genocide.

It’s not surprising that the survivors have needed time to come to terms with the tragedy. For weeks, they were simply in shock. But, given the scale and brutality of the genocide, Leslie McTire believed that the shock would soon be replaced by trauma. But he wasn’t surprised when the first of two surveys he commissioned showed a very small percentage of people complaining of trauma symptoms.

The culture traditionally insists on the family and the individual keeping his pain to himself because support mechanisms in the community and the family are there. So, it’s not necessary to go beyond. That was confirmed in the first survey with a very low response rate of 7%. The second survey, which we completed by the beginning of September, one month later, the response rate had gone up to 42% which meant, to me at least, that the degree of trauma was so severe in the society that a traditional or a cultural almost rule was being broken in a desperate search for help, a desperate search for assistance due to an inability basically by the entire population to cope with something of a psychological nature that had never been experienced before.

Tombstone of a genocide victim
Tombstone of a genocide victim (© Eric Beauchemin)

But how can a society cope with the murder of 1.5 million people, one in five of its own citizens? Many of the bodies lie in mass graves throughout the country. The Rwandan government and UNICEF are undertaking a major burial program: bodies that went unburied to preserve evidence are now being laid to rest. Original mass graves are also being dug up, and the remains moved to new sites during mass burial ceremonies.

I’ve been able to observe personally the vast change that takes place in people attending a burial, for example. They will come in to see what’s left of their relatives, of their parents, of their children, whatever they are coming in to see. Their demeanor will be very depressed, very downtrodden, very beaten. And as they see the remains, it becomes much worse. They cry, they faint, they throw up. By the time the ceremony is over, people are going out, talking as if they are coming out of Sunday school or something, discussing politics and smiling and telling jokes. It’s a vast change in a period of two hours over an entire mini-population. That’s encouraged me so much that we have continued to push forward, we meaning the government and UNICEF with this burial program as a step necessary, in some cases, even prior to trauma healing. Trauma healing is somewhat hampered if you can’t build a future because the parents are out lying in the mud and the rain, and the trauma victim knows it full well because he’s seen them or whatever.

But as friends and relatives are laid to rest, the call for justice mounts. Nyanzara Makiri lost all her brothers and sisters – save one – in the genocide. Today she works as the coordinator of a project in a small village in southern Rwanda financed by Terre des Hommes Holland. She has adopted 5 children of the 11 her brothers and sisters left behind. Hesitantly, but clearly, she expresses the views held by many in today’s Rwanda.

According to the law, a person who commits murder should suffer the same fate. That’s what the victims here are demanding. We hope and we believe that our rightful wishes will be fulfilled. People who destroyed houses should rebuild them. People who looted their neighbors’ homes should return the goods. Some people have already started doing that. And those who have killed should also die. That’s the wish of almost the entire community.

For others, like Veneranda Nzambazamariya, also a Rwandan, who works for the Dutch Volunteers Foundation SNV, the issue is even more basic.

Justice is the inalienable right of every human being. And if there is no justice, we are creating a breeding ground for more violations of this right. For me, justice implies the reconstruction of this country and in particular rebuilding a new society based on different principles: on tolerance, on the respect of others. Our future depends on it. It’s the only way, I believe, to prevent new conflicts, organized massacres or genocides. Without justice, our dictators here in Africa and elsewhere could organize more massacres of civilians. It’s unacceptable.

What it amounts to is making a clean break with the past. Since Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962, the country has experienced five genocides, all pitting the majority Hutus against the Tutsi minority. And never have the killers ever been tried. Now is the time, says Rwanda’s Justice Minister Alphonse Nkubito, to break with what Rwandans call “ the culture of impunity”.

Here, the term impunity, the culture of impunity as we say, refers to those periods in our history when a person who killed a chicken was punished more severely than someone who killed a fellow human being. Kill a person’s chicken and you will be punished because you must be punished. But kill a person because he comes from a certain ethnic group or region, and you will not be punished because you have support from the government or the military. That’s what we mean when we speak of a culture of impunity which contributed to the massacres, looting, devastation and genocide that began in April.

Today, many Rwandans are demanding that every single person who participated in the 2-month genocide of 1.5 million people be tried and sentenced. But the Justice Ministry cannot cope with the immensity of the task that lies before it. The office of the Kigali public prosecutor or district attorney is located right on the edge of the Rwandan capital’s central market, where everything from cigarettes to automobile parts – is for sale. The Rwandan flag flies proudly outside the building, but the only indication that this is the office of the only one of the nine public prosecutors left in the country. The rest are either dead or in refugee camps. Piles of dusty files, manual typewriters are the most modern equipment in the office which lies at the back of a courtyard made up of old, run-down buildings. Yet, Public Prosecutor François-Xavier Nsanzuwera and his staff of four are doing their best to prepare themselves to try the killers.

I have made a very rudimentary estimate of the number of killers. I believe the minimum number of people who participated in the genocide is 150.000. That’s the minimum, the minimum number of people who participated spontaneously and directly in the genocide.

The central prison Kigali is home to some of these “authors of the genocide” – as Rwandans call them. Built in 1930, the prison has a maximum capacity of 2.000; today it’s home to 6.200 prisoners, most of them accused of having participated in the genocide. Karangua, a 33-year-old man, is one of them.

I admit that I killed. I don’t know my victims’ names, but the public prosecutor has the information. I’m a Hutu and I killed the Tutsis because I was ordered by the authorities. They said the Tutsis had to be killed. It was regrettable and I wouldn’t do it again. I took part in the genocide nine months ago because I had no other choice. There were soldiers who come and forced us to kill. Those who didn’t want to kill were killed because they refused to kill others.

It’s a common story: the killers were simply following the orders of higher-ups. And it is one of the moral and ethical questions facing Rwandan society. Are men like Karangua, a soft-spoken, humble man who came to ask me when the prison guard stepped out if he would really be sentenced to death…Should every single one of the 150.000 genocide participants receive the death penalty or life imprisonment? Or should these people – many of them illiterate and from rural areas in Rwanda – be treated like soldiers who kill in war: they too were simply following orders, those issued by the interhamwe, the extremist Hutu militiamen. The interahamwe – which means “we fight side by side” – were reportedly established by President Juvénal Habyrimana, whose assassination was the start of the genocide. Many of the Hutu militiamen are said to have received luxurious housing in downtown Kigali, and they were given generous loans which many did not pay back. It created a strong link between the militiamen and the president. To keep their power and privileges, they had to ensure that the majority Hutus continued to perceive the Tutsi minority, who used to dominate Rwanda, as a threat to the continued existence of the Hutus. Creating a national psychosis was the only way for President Habyrimana and his regime to maintain its grip on power. The public prosecutor of Kigali believes a distinction should be made between these people and men like Karangua.

Among the 6.000 people in Kigali Jail, there are some who spontaneously admit that they are guilty. I listen to them and look at their faces. I know that they want to get a huge weight off their shoulders. They are criminals who today show remorse. There are others – the executioners – who plead not guilty during the interrogations, even though we have reliable testimony that they took part in the genocide. If these people were given another opportunity, they would do what they did again. It’s not easy to listen to these people all day long. I questioned five of them not too long ago. They were freed because of a lack of evidence. They told me that at night, in their dormitories, some people boasted about their barbarous crimes. They say no evidence will be found to bring them to court.

Whether the cases of the 150.000 suspected by the public prosecutor of having taken part in the genocide ever come to court is another matter. Antoine Habyamberé is the director of the administration and finance at the Rwandan Ministry of Justice.

In the courts and at the tribunals last March, we had about 8,000 magistrates, 2,000 judicial police to investigate the crimes, 10 district attorneys. The genocide has set us back at least half a century. Today we have one public prosecutor and he has only a few assistants. But we have no attorney general at present, and we have virtually no magistrates. Many are still in refugee camps or were killed during the massacres. I don’t know how many judges are left, but there are very few.

The ministry’s problems are compounded by the lack of equipment. The Justice Ministry, like most of the ministries in Kigali, was looted and partially destroyed by the retreating government forces. Today, the ministry has one car…it belongs to an appellate court judge. Before the genocide, the ministry had 150 employees: today there are 50 to try what would be a mammoth task in even the richest of countries: 150.000 cases of involvement in genocide. Despite the impossible situation, the public prosecutor in Kigali is busy gathering and checking testimony. So far, the public prosecutor and his staff have questioned 1400 prisoners, less than a quarter of the people currently being held in Kigali jail. And even he admits that the people who planned the killings, the real authors of the genocide, are now abroad.

That’s true. The brains behind the genocide, the people who planned it, are abroad. We only have henchmen here. We have started to issue international arrest warrants for people who are in countries like Belgium and France in the hope that these nations will provide their cooperation either by extraditing these people or handing them over to the international tribunal in The Hague in Holland. The problem is the authors of the genocide who are in neighboring countries like Zaire and Tanzania. That’s where most of them are.

And as long as they remain there, it’s unlikely that they will ever face justice. But many of the survivors are determined that the Justice Ministry’s virtual impotence should not be used as excuse not to track down the killers. One organization that feels particularly strongly about this is CLADHO, the umbrella organization for Rwanda’s human rights groups. Jean Paul Viranfu is CLADHO’s executive secretary.

We at CLADHO are investigating the serious human rights violations which occurred in Rwanda beginning on April 6, 1994. In December, we issued our first report on the violations in and around Kigali. We tried to find the people accused of having taken part in the massacres. We gathered testimony and we printed the names of 3000 genocide suspects. For us, it was also a way of giving the judiciary a hand. The legal experts now need to determine whether the testimony we gathered is sufficient for justice to be done.

CLADHO has meanwhile begun the second phase of its investigation, which will cover human rights violations in the rest of the country. Another group which is providing the understaffed and overworked justice ministry is the Belgian branch of Citizens Network, a group recently established because of growing concerns on the part of non-governmental organizations around the world about human rights observance. It is providing training to 150 judicial police who gather the evidence needed to begin proceedings. According to Olivier du Bois, Citizens Network wanted the new judiciary police officials to reflect Rwandan society.

They come from all over the country. After the training courses, they will be placed all over the country, helping the different prosecutors in each prefecture. It was not a formal criteria, but we asked the ministry of justice to be a large panel of all society and this is really important. For the first time in Rwanda, there are 12 women who are going to be judicial police inspectors. And this is the first time. It’s really important now because as you know a lot of victims were women. They have been raped and so on and so forth. It would be easier with women to get evidence, to make inquiries.

The evidence gathered by these future judicial police officials will be among the documents submitted both to the Rwandan Justice Ministry and to the International Tribunal on Rwanda. The tribunal was set up last November because of fears by the international community and Hutu refugees that the killers would not receive a fair trial in Rwanda itself. But in Rwanda, there’s strong opposition to the tribunal. Many Rwandans argue that justice must be done and it must be done in Rwanda. Rwandans – half of whom are illiterate – will not know that Rwanda and the world are serious about prosecuting the assassins and ending the culture of impunity. The world has pledged funding to make sure justice is done, but many Rwandans, including Antoine Habyamberé of the justice ministry have lost faith in the international community’s pledges.

Personally, I believe the international community was indifferent to the events in Rwanda. It could have stopped the massacres and saved the country. But it was indifferent. That’s my opinion.

As the mourning continues, Rwandans are also asking themselves questions: why did the international peace-keeping force simply watch as we were massacred? Why did we have to go through this again, yet again? Last year, Father Jérôme had a parish of over 2000 people, mostly Tutsis in southern Rwanda. When the genocide started, they sought refuge in Father Jérôme’s church. For three days and nights, they managed to hold off the militiamen by pelting them with stones and sticks. The army was called in and the killings began. Father Jérôme was the only Tutsi to survive – his Hutu housekeeper brought him water and food during his two months in hiding…in a closet.

I knew all the parishioners who were tortured and massacred here. I knew I wasn’t worth any more than those people. They were dead and I had the good fortune of still being alive. The killings continued and I thought I had been given a reprieve, nothing more. When I left my hideout in July, I thought God might have kept me alive – not because I am more saint-like or more perfect – but to play a role in rebuilding the country. That is what I am doing now. Even though I am a Tutsi, even though I was supposed to die, I’m trying to speak to those who were supposed to kill, to those who wanted to annihilate us. I try to speak to these people as a Tutsi, try to show them some love and make the first step. For me, it’s an important role. It’s a difficult role, but it’s not impossible.

Leslie McTire of UNICEF believes all Rwandans will have to make similar efforts if national reconciliation is ever to come about.

It is very difficult to talk to a person who has lost 35 members of his family and is the sole surviving name bearer and tell him you have got to forgive the killers. Yet there is no other alternative in the long range. He has to forgive.

And Rwandans are beginning to forgive. They have no choice. Once again, says Father Jérôme, they will put the past behind them.

When you look at the country’s history, it’s not the first time that a genocide has occurred. The genocide last year was supposed to the “final solution”, as they called it. But in 1963, the same thing happened. My mother’s family was exterminated, but afterwards we tried to live with our neighbors, our killers. It was good. Life began again and we forgave. In 1973, it happened again, and again we tried to live together again. I don’t know. When I speak to the survivors today, they are despondent. They see no future for themselves and don’t know how they will carry on. But many survivors tell me people are prepared to live again with those who were killing them in April and May. Some are living together.

But for all Rwandans to be able to live together again in peace, it will take more than forgiveness. Rwandans have forgiven far too often. Now, it’s time to set an example to make sure the machete is never again used as a weapon to kill. If only to honor the dead, says the Kigali public prosecutor, the criminals must be tried and prosecuted.

If we can’t carry out the investigations because of a lack of funds or evidence, thousands of assassins will go unpunished. And then this culture of impunity which encouraged the genocide might return. For me, this is a question of patience and perseverance. Genocide is a crime which is imprescriptible: it cannot be undone. It doesn’t matter, even if it takes 5 or 10 years. The government must appoint magistrates and have the cases investigated. The authors of the genocide must be identified and tried.

Even if only a small number of the suspected 150.000 murderers are caught, tried and sentenced, Rwanda’s already overcrowded jails would burst. It appears inevitable that the government will eventually have to grant an amnesty to tens of thousands of killers. It’s a fact of life which many Rwandans, including Veneranda Nzambazamariya wish they didn’t have to accept.

I, as a human being, believe it’s very, very important that justice be done. It’s because of the culture of impunity in this country that human rights violations can continue to occur. People must feel that the government and the international community are serious about justice. Assassins must face justice, I believe. They must be tried. It is the only thing which can mend the social fabric.

Many of the killers joined the refugee exodus and fled to Goma in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo
Many of the killers joined the refugee exodus and fled to Goma in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (© Eric Beauchemin)

The demand for justice is justified, but at what price? The public prosecutor of Kigali freely admits that up to 20% of the prisoners might be in jail because of personal vendettas or problems between neighbors. The justice minister too is well aware of the horrific conditions in the Kigali prison, but he says, even if people are being detained illegally, the government has little choice.

That’s right. This government’s policy is to break with this culture of impunity, to root it out. Everyone who commits an offense must appear before a judge. There are a few exceptions provided for under the law, such as minors and the mentally handicapped. Everyone else – every single participant in the genocide – should be tried, even if it is only to honor our dead. It must also be a lesson for our children.

And to make sure that lesson is learned, François-Xavier Nsanzuwera, the Kigali public prosecutor, plans to call for the death penalty in certain cases, even though there have been no capital punishment cases in Rwanda in over a decade.

I think there are some cases that are really beyond belief. A guy who tells you that he only killed 20 people should be sentenced to death because he has almost become like an animal. Society can’t expect to reform him. He shows absolutely no remorse. I think some people must be executed, if only as an example for future generations. National reconciliation in this country involves justice. And I warn those who are saying that a general amnesty should be granted because of the enormous amount of assassins. I don’t think there should be an amnesty in the present circumstances. Reconciliation means punishing every single person who took part.

Without justice and national reconciliation, Rwanda will be condemned to experience yet another genocide. Leslie McTire of UNICEF believes that Rwanda is a lesson that cannot and must not be forgotten, either by Rwandans or the rest of the international community. At the very least, the 100 or so people who organized the genocide must be tried and locked up forever.

It worries me to no degree that we have opened up a Pandora’s Box with Rwanda by making it an entirely different level of magnitude of human horror. And we have got to close that box. We have to close that Pandora’s Box by saying: look, this happened in Rwanda. But look what the international reaction via a well-established justice system did. They stopped it. If we cannot say that after one or two years, then I have a feeling we’re going to be repeating this scene in different cultural contexts, in different social contexts around the world.

The justice minister’s mission is to make sure that it doesn’t happen again in Rwanda.

That’s history…forgetting what happened. But in reality, we who are directly concerned, we Rwandans, we will do what it takes to make sure that we don’t forget our dead, that we don’t forget what happened. Last spring’s genocide was a lesson to us and the international community which so clearly demonstrates its weaknesses. The international community pledged in 1945 that never again would there be genocide. There was in Rwanda last year, in Bosnia and elsewhere. The world must find mechanisms to avoid this type of catastrophe.

“Burying the Machete” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Mike van de Beambt. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.