Truth-telling, justice in Rwanda Genocide: Confessions from Hutus facing murder charges are significant because they are what the government needs from thousands of prisoners if Rwanda is ever to render justice for the 1994 slayings of 800,000 Tutsis.

Sun Journal

December 30, 1996|By Alan Zarembo | Alan Zarembo,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KIGALI, Rwanda -- His memory is a swirl of radio broadcasts, beer breaks and hillside mobs. Even the details that should be indelible are blurred, such as those connected with the morning two years ago when he killed his neighbor's two young children with a wooden club spiked with nails.

"I didn't want to. I didn't mean to kill them. I didn't know what I was doing," says Innocent Nsengiyumva, nervously hugging himself in a military office next to the cell where he has lived since arriving last month as part of the flood of Hutu refugees returning from Zaire.

Like some other returnees who have murder allegations lodged against them, Nsengiyumva says he was grateful when the authorities came to arrest him. He had moved back to his village but began receiving death threats.

The confessions Nsengiyumva and others are offering are significant because they are precisely what the government needs from tens of thousands of other prisoners if Rwanda is ever to render justice for the 1994 genocide of 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority, and if the Tutsi-led government that took power after the killings is ever to win acceptance within the country's borders.

Over the past two years, nearly 85,000 Hutus who remained in Rwanda have been denounced as murderers and jammed into fetid prisons. The first trial did not begin until last week. So far, no one has been convicted. There are major hurdles for the prosecution: Few witnesses survived, and most physical evidence is buried in mass graves or washed down muddy rivers.

But the highest hurdle is the conspiracy of silence in the prisons, where the old Hutu hierarchy has been reborn. Few inmates will admit that there was a genocide at all, much less that they took part.

The government hopes to break their silence by segregating the worst suspects in a special prison. Government ministers have been visiting the prisons to promote a new law that categorizes genocide suspects and allows rank-and-file killers to confess and name their accomplices and superiors in exchange for a prison sentence as short as seven years.

It is a tough sell.

"The new law is a trick," says Felix Mbyayinga, a 26-year-old inmate at the Kigali Central Prison, after a visit by the ministers. "They ask people to agree they have done something. But what is the guarantee that I will be released if I accept?"

The government recently published a list of 1,946 suspects that it hopes to put on trial and -- if found guilty -- execute. They include the genocide's planners as well as priests and local authorities 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 or where they passed."

Rwanda is for the moment more stable than it has been in years. Its most pressing problems -- the refugee camps in eastern Zaire and their use as bases for Hutu militants to launch raids -- are gone. And the country has strong support from the West, particularly the United States, which provides military training in "small-unit soldiering."

Washington also raised no objection when evidence showed that Rwanda was supporting the rebels in eastern Zaire who eventually dismantled the camps.

The return of about 500,000 Hutu refugees has shifted the problems to inside Rwanda.

Even though Hutus outnumber Tutsis in the Cabinet, the government is still perceived as a tool of domination by Tutsis, who make up about 15 percent of the population. The Tutsi-run army has been reluctant to turn over power to a civilian administration.

With the refugee influx, the need to sort the guilty from the innocent has taken on a fresh urgency.

Leaders are starting with their own. This month, a military court tried an army commander whose troops killed several thousand Hutus in an attack in April 1995.

As for the perpetrators of the genocide against Tutsis, authorities have held off making arrests until the last of the 535,000 Hutu refugees in Tanzania resettle themselves at home. Thousands of former soldiers and officials are marked for eventual arrest; prosecutors have been told to speed up the release of prisoners when evidence is scant, to make room for new suspects.

Fewer than 200 returnees have been arrested so far, according to United Nations human rights monitors -- and this angers Tutsi survivors of the genocide.

Many of them still live around military posts and markets TTC because they are too frightened to return to their villages, where the ruins of their houses have been swallowed by the bush. Their fear is that the murderers will strike again, this time to eliminate witnesses. A few have already been killed since the Hutu refugees returned.

Sam Gody, who survived the genocide by hiding in a septic tank for six weeks and lived off a crate of church wafers, recently came face to face with a returnee who helped kill his six brothers and sisters. Gody and two friends confronted the man, a farmer he had known for years.

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