Two Years After Genocide, Rwanda Gets Day in Court
Trying 'ordinary' killers, such as a Hutu farmer, could take decades
KIGALI, RWANDA — Innocent Nsengiyumva is an ordinary killer by Rwandan standards.
A farmer in his mid-20s, he joined a hillside mob hunting Tutsis in the spring of 1994, and then followed Rwanda's former leaders to Zaire. He returned along with an avalanche of Hutu refugees last month. Now he is imprisoned with more than 85,000 other genocide suspects.
What makes him unusual is that he has done what the government needs tens of thousands of others to do if it is ever to achieve justice in Rwanda: He admits to murder.
"I didn't want to. I didn't mean to kill them. I didn't know what I was doing," Mr. Nsengiyumva says as he tells how he murdered his neighbor's two children.
Proving that a horrific crime happened in Rwanda is not difficult. Millions of bones fill mass graves, entire families are gone, and survivors tell how they hid in pit latrines or under corpses. Proving individual guilt in a courtroom is another matter.
The slaughter was so thorough that few innocent witnesses are alive to testify. So many ordinary Rwandans joined in the killings that it would take decades to try even a fraction of them. So the government has enacted a law that allows rank-and-file killers like Nsengiyumva to confess and turn in their accomplices and superiors in exchange for a prison sentence as short as seven years.
Few inmates are talking. The Hutu hierarchy that commanded the massacres has been reborn in the prisons, and a conspiracy of silence reigns.
Many will not even admit that there was a genocide.
"The new law is a trick," says Felix Mbyayinga, an inmate at Kigali Central Prison. "They ask people to agree they have done something. But what is the guarantee that I will be released if I accept?"
The government hopes to break solidarity by segregating the alleged big fish into a prison of their own. It recently published their names in a list of Category 1 suspects - 1,946 people ineligible for any punishment less than the firing squad.
Some live in exile, some in prison. They include the genocide's planners, local authorities, militia members, and, in the words of the law, "notorious murderers, who by virtue of the zeal or excessive malice with which they committed atrocities, distinguished themselves in their areas of residence."
With the return of a half-million refugees from Zaire last month, plus that many more now pouring home from Tanzania, justice has taken on a fresh urgency. The current Tutsi-led regime's political survival may depend on it. The regime has some legitimacy because it drove out the Hutu authors of the genocide. But to maintain power, it needs to sort out the guilty from the innocent.
On Tuesday, Rwandan authorities began mass arrests, detaining more than 2,300 Hutu refugees suspected of involvement in the 1994 genocide of minority Tutsis. Thousands of former soldiers and officials are marked for apprehension.
Prosecutors have been told to speed up the release of prisoners when evidence is scant, to make room for new suspects. By the government's own admission, 20 percent of the inmates may be innocent, turned in by neighbors who wanted their homes, land, and some sense of compensation for their dead relatives.
Justice officials say trials are scheduled to begin Friday.
Nsengiyumva says he was grateful when authorities came to arrest him. "I don't want to go back to my village," he said in an interview outside the military jail where he is being held in a damp cell with about 20 other men. "People could kill me. Even now if they release me, I can't accept."
For weeks in 1994, he followed the gang of killers led by soldiers and local officials. He says he enjoyed hunting the Tutsi enemy but was sorry to kill. He said was ordered to do it, though not by any specific individual.
"If you were there - things were strange," he says. "I can't find any way to explain it to you. Can you imagine the radio saying, 'Go kill these people?' "
"The message got to the local authorities. They mobilized the soldiers and the militias and they were going to the villages getting civilians to kill people. We accepted. They said we were fighting for the country."
The slaughter became routine, he says. "We used to go back to our houses for lunch. After lunch we got together again."
For the first week, he says he only watched others kill, "like a child watching something his father is doing." His turn came when the crowd spotted the children. They didn't try to escape or scream before the attack.
"They were just there, and I killed them," he says. "There were so many people there."