In Rwanda's `Slave Ship' Prisons, Life Is Grim for Suspected Killers
More than 15,000 adults and children accused by the Tutsi-led government of genocide languish in overcrowded cells
KIGALI, RWANDA — EXCEPT for lack of chains, the tightly packed prison cell, with three tiers of wooden bunks, looks like the hold of an 18th-century slave ship.
``It's a concentration camp,'' says one inmate packed into a cell where six people sleep in six-by-six-foot cubicles.
Elsewhere around this prison in Rwanda's capital, conditions are even worse: Most prisoners sleep body-to-body in an open-sided shed, in hallways, or in the uncovered courtyard. Nearly 100 children are bunched into a separate, bedless area. And more than 130 women, some with infants only weeks old, fill a ward. Fed one meal a day, one mother said she couldn't produce enough milk to breast-feed her baby.
In this prison built in 1930 to hold 800 prisoners but now bursting with some 5,000, almost all the inmates are facing charges of participating in Rwanda's four-month genocide of their fellow countrymen, the ethnic Tutsi people, as well as some of their own, the Hutu.
Nationwide, between 15,000 and 20,000 people, mostly Hutu, are now awaiting trial, packed in prisons like this one. And more join them daily as the Tutsi-led government that took power last July rounds up those suspected of killing an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people in a massive ethnic slaughter.
Between April and July, hard-line Hutu politicians sought to wipe out the minority Tutsis, whose military force of exiles from earlier massacres was bent on returning and achieving at least a share of the power.
Now Rwandan's new leadership, which includes the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), now called the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), faces a difficult choice: how to reconcile Hutus and Tutsis in restoring the country to normal while also prosecuting large numbers of people, many of whom killed under orders.
No way to prosecute
Rwandan officials estimate that between 30,000 and 100,000 took part in the killings. Many others were forced to kill or be killed, the officials say.
``Because the prisons are crammed full, people are being detained in toilets, shipping containers, and private houses,'' says Alison des Forges, a consultant for Human Rights Watch/Africa. ``And there is no judiciary apparatus functioning to allow investigations and disposal of cases in an orderly fashion,'' she said here.
Today, with only 31 investigators and five judges working on prison cases, Rwanda's wheels of justice are hardly turning at all. Many court officials died, or they fled the mayhem earlier this year and have not returned.
``Each individual case requires an investigation,'' says Rwanda's Special Prosecutor Francois Nsanzuwera, whose office is just outside the Kigali prison walls.
Mr. Nsanzuwera, a Hutu, says he was targeted along with Tutsis and nearly killed by Hutu death squads for promoting human rights under the previous regime. Many members of his and his wife's families were murdered, he says.
Rwanda needs not only physical rehabilitation, but a ``moral rehabilitation,'' the formation of a new society in which killing is no longer accepted with impunity, say Tito Rutaremara, one of the founders of the RPF, some Rwandan church leaders, and senior United Nations officials.
``There must be a tribunal to stop impunity,'' says Atsu-Koffi Amega, former head of the Supreme Court in the West African nation of Togo. He was appointed by the UN Security Council to head a panel of experts that has recommended establishment of a war-crimes tribunal to investigate Rwanda's genocide. In early November, the Security Council approved setting up a tribunal.
Rwandan officials say the UN-authorized tribunal is likely to try only a small number of the most senior alleged organizers. So Rwanda intends to have its own tribunals.
Th UN-approved tribunal will not permit death as a maximum penalty, so it won't be held in Rwanda, which allows execution. ``Capital punishment was used in Nuremburg in 1945 [for World War II war crimes], why not here?'' asks Rwanda Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, a Hutu.
The UN tribunal will cover only crimes committed this year; Rwanda's will examine acts as far back as 1990, when the government claims genocide was first planned.
Both tribunals may end up trying at least some people in absentia, especially the former high officials, unless extradition efforts are successful.
Determining each prisoner's level of involvement in the slaughter will be a major hurdle. Those in Kigali and elsewhere in Rwanda are not considered to be the main culprits. ``The prison here has only peasants who carried out plans drawn up by others,'' says Rwandan Minister of Information Jean Baptiste Nkuriyingoma. ``The leaders are in Kenya, Zaire, Europe.''
Many of those interviewed during two recent visits to the Kigali prison claim they were arrested so returning Tutsis could occupy their homes. Prosecutor Nsanzuwera admits this may be true in some cases.
But a group of prisoners in the same cell smiled and nodded when told that the government intends to try people in order to punish the guilty and set the innocent free. They said they want trials, claiming they were innocent.
Some prisoners claim they are accused of killing people who they can prove are still alive. Others say they have witnesses who can be called to their defense, whenever trials begin.
Most initially admitted killing someone, ``then they changed their mind,'' claims Kigali Prison director Adrien Sinayobye. But many claim they were tortured into confessions. Mr. Sinayobye says it is not likely that more than ``1 percent'' were tortured.
Prison becomes sanctuary?
Passions among Tutsis here against suspected Hutu participants in the genocide are still raw. A number of suspected Hutus have been killed in revenge by members of the RPA, according to senior Rwandan government and UN officials.
``These people in prison are much safer there,'' says Gerrard Gehima, a senior official in the new government.
Asked why children are locked up, Mr. Gehima charges that ``some children have killed 100 people.''
In the Kigali prison, 12 year-old Teoneste Twagirayesu, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, says he doesn't know why he's still in prison.
In August, he says, the RPA arrested his pregnant mother, himself, and several younger brothers and sisters. After their arrest, friends of the military officer assigned to his neighborhood occupied the family's house, according to a letter he received from his mother, who has been released.
She was able to persuade local authorities to get the house back, he says.
``I think [the reason for his family's arrest] was to take our house,'' he says.
Another prisoner said most of the inmates are farmers. ``They don't know anything about politics. They don't know why they are here.''
But Prosecutor Nsanzuwera says much of the genocide was ``carried out in the hills,'' rural areas, at the urging of local authorities.
Leon (he did not give his last name), who lives in the tiered bunk cell, says he graduated with a Masters of Public Health in 1986 from the University of Illinois and was a child health and family planning official in the previous regime. In clear English, he blames his arrest on ``retaliation'' by Tutsis against Hutus.
In the dark, cramped women's section, one woman says she was arrested July 29 while working in a hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross. ``I am a UNICEF employee,'' she says, a fact UNICEF confirms.
``The RPA came and arrested us ... all the intellectuals at the hospital. They said we participated in the killings,'' she says.
Most Rwandan Tutsis insist on punishment of the guilty. But even Tutsis who have lost large numbers of relatives in the genocide say they can live as neighbors again with those who were forced to join in the killing, in order to rebuild a nation and not have another round of ethnic slaughter.
Still, that won't be easy.
``How can we bring people together ... the boy of nine who killed, and the boy who saw 32 people in his family killed?'' asks the RPF's Mr. Rutaremara.
[Editor's note: At the request of the interviewee, for security reasons, her name has been removed from this article].