Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


A woman on trial for Rwanda's massacre

Pauline Nyiramasuhuko is the first woman charged with genocide and using rape as a crime against humanity.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2003



ARUSHA, TANZANIA

With her hair pulled neatly back, her heavy glasses beside her on the table, she looks more like someone's dear greataunt than what she is alleged to be: a high-level organizer of Rwanda's 1994 genocide who authorized the rape and murder of countless men and women. Wearing a green flowery dress one day, a pressed cream-colored skirt and blouse set the next, the defendant listens stoically to the litany of accusations against her.

Skip to next paragraph

From behind a heavy blue curtain, the faint voice of a witness known only as "R.E." details the horror: Her father was clubbed to death; her mother died, sick, hiding in the forest. She saw young girls taken away to be raped and old men put on trucks which came back empty.

"Witness R.E., can you tell this trial chamber who said people should be killed, women and young girls should be raped?" the prosecuting attorney asks the voice during questioning.

"It was Pauline," comes the quiet reply.

"Pauline" is Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the first woman ever to be charged with genocide and using rape as a crime against humanity.

In 1994, in the hills of Rwanda, over the course of one hundred days, an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers were brutally murdered by Hutu extremists. Nine years later, here at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Ms. Nyiramasuhuko is one of many high-ranking Rwandan officials finally facing justice.

Once the pride of her hometown

Nyiramasuhuko was, once, the pride of Butare, a southern Rwanda town known for its top-notch university. She started as a social worker, made friends in high places, went off to law school, and eventually climbed the ranks to become one of the most powerful women in government.

When Hutu killing squads began turning on their Tutsi neighbors, Tutsis flooded Butare where relations between the two main ethnic groups had always been good. But the government dispatched Nyiramasuhuko to her old hometown to "make order."

Together with her only son Arsene Shalom Ntahobali and four other Butare prefecture officials, she is charged with forming and executing a plan to exterminate the Tutsis in Butare.

It is alleged that they organized, ordered, and participated in massacres against the population, trained and distributed weapons to militiamen, prepared lists of those to be eliminated, and manned roadblocks to identify Tutsis and ensure that none escaped.

Witnesses, one after another, tell harrowing stories of Nyiramasuhuko personally encouraging Hutu gangs known as Interahamwe to "select the nicest" women and rape these victims before killing them.

From morning until evening, Nyiramasuhuko sits there, earphones on, listening to the proceedings. Some 70 others wait to testify. The trial is expected to last for at least two more years and, if convicted, Nyiramasuhuko faces life in jail.

Her son sits a row ahead of her in the courtroom, cleaning his fingernails with the edge of a briefing paper. During the breaks in proceedings he sits still, avoiding eye contact with his mother. He is alleged to have personally kidnapped and raped about ten Tutsi women, killed several dozen, and overseen hundreds of other atrocities.

The legacy of rape as a weapon

According to the UN, at least 250,000 women were raped in Rwanda in 1994. Most are not alive to tell their tales, while others are dying of AIDS contracted through the rapes. There are, according to aid organizations, close to 5,000 children in Rwanda today who were born of the 1994 rapes. Mr. Ntahobali, like his mother and the other officials, has pleaded not guilty.

The ICTR was Established in 1995 in the sleepy town of Arusha, Tanzania. Its mission is to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of genocide. Last week, after a four-month recess, the case against Mrs. Nyiramasuhuko and five others - the biggest trial at the tribunal to date - reopened.

"For a long time there was impunity in Rwanda, but we have ended that and are giving an example to the rest of the world," says Holo Makwaia, a ICTR prosecutor. "It may take time, but others will be deterred and will know that if they commit crimes, they will be brought to task."

'Your time has come'

Just last month, two other men who had pleaded not guilty - Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, and his son Gerald Ntakirutimana, a doctor - were convicted in this court for their part in the genocide. The Ntakirutimanas were accused of herding large groups of Tutsi men, women, and children into a church and hospital compound in the Kibuye region of western Rwanda and calling armed Hutus to come and kill them.

"Our dear leader. How are you?" wrote the members of the parish to their pastor on the night before they were massacred in the church. "We wish to inform you that we have heard that tomorrow we will be killed with our families."

American author Philip Gourevitch used these lines for the title of his book on the genocide, helping to publicize the case of the elder Mr. Ntakirutimana, who had fled Rwanda to Laredo, Texas, after the genocide.

The prosecution said Ntakirutimana replied to the letter with the words:

"There is nothing I can do for you. All you can do is prepare to die, for your time has come."

The convictions of the Ntakirutimanas were only the ninth and tenth rendered since the tribunal opened. One man has been acquitted and nine trials are currently in progress, but most of the 70-odd detainees indicted by the ICTR - all ringleaders of the genocide - are still waiting their day in court. About a dozen have yet to be apprehended.

The cross examination of "R.E." continues.

"What day of the week was it? What month?" demands the defense counsel. "I don't know," she replies, her voice shaky. "All I know is that I thought I was going to die that day."

Nyiramasuhuko adjusts one of the shoulder pads of her pretty dress and jots a note. She is listening, but it is impossible to know what she hears of the pain.

Permissions