Rwandans struggle to find words


Killings: Ten years after the genocide, apologies and fully accurate accounts remain difficult to come by.

April 10, 2004|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SHYORONGI, Rwanda - Evariste Ahimana can't even utter the word "one" to tell how many people he killed in Rwanda's genocide. He just holds up a finger to represent what he did - clubbing a neighbor named Augustin Murinda, whom he liked and often drank with - at the behest of strangers from the next village.

Since returning to this village after his release from prison last year, Ahimana has walked past the house of his victim's brother every week as he climbs the hill to the church. Walking downhill after prayers and confession, he has never stopped to apologize.

When he passes the brother on the narrow dirt paths of the village, the two men greet each other, but their eyes never meet.

"I'm planning to say `sorry' one day," Ahimana says. "It's not so much reluctance to go as lack of strength." Leaning on a wooden stick in his house, with pictures of Mary and Jesus tacked to the wall, he says he can't be held responsible: An armed mob forced him to kill the man.

"Those people are to blame," he says. "Not me."

It's a refrain of many of the ethnic Hutus who confessed to killing Tutsis in the genocide that started 10 years ago this week, leaving as many as 1 million Rwandans dead. "They" are responsible. The mob. The former government. Satan.

The genocide was wild and impersonal, the killers say. It swept in "like the wind." It was "like a car accident."

Still waiting for justice, many survivors are angered by the provisional release of thousands of genocide prisoners. The killers' inability to take responsibility for their horrific acts and the long wait for justice have made Rwanda's struggle for reconciliation harder.

Issa Munyambabazi is waiting. He is waiting for Ahimana, the killer of his brother, to come to him with the word "sorry."

"It's hard," Munyambabazi says. "It's very hard to reconcile with someone who has not said `sorry.' They never feel sorry for killing. It's in their blood from when they were babies. If they're not saying `sorry,' why shouldn't we go and take revenge?"

Many perpetrators of genocide speak of reconciliation as some kind of external force - a government policy that will fix things between them and the neighbors whose families they killed. But without justice or genuine remorse, many survivors say, there cannot be reconciliation. "How can you say there can be reconciliation with people who killed your family and made you sad all your life?" asked Yves Kamuronsi, 22, who at 13 exhumed his parents and brother from a nearby rubbish heap and buried them in his back garden. "I don't think they feel really sorry. They killed someone, and I think on another occasion they can kill again."

Pilot Ntezirayo agrees. The 45-year-old, provisionally released from prison last year, was part of a genocidal mob but denies laying a finger on anyone. He blames the former government. If authorities order it again, "then that's it, it's the start of the killings."

With 135,000 prisoners initially accused and 100,000 remaining in prison without conviction in 2003, the government provisionally released 23,000 who qualified by confessing. They are supposed to face traditional community tribunals called gacaca, in which killers would face the families of victims, and survivors would hear the circumstances of the rapes and murders of loved ones, perhaps for the first time. The wounds would be torn open again, but the government says this time it is in order to heal.

But the killing has not quite stopped. In one of the freshest graves lies the body of Francois Seramuka, 54, a Hutu who hid a Tutsi neighbor in his house in Rukoli village, east of the capital, Kigali, during the genocide. He told many local people that he would testify in the gacaca against neighbors who, having tanked up on his homemade banana wine, boasted in 1994 about whom they had killed. Late last month, he was hacked to death with a machete.

Several other witnesses have been killed recently, but more common is the community pressure on witnesses not to testify or the letters from perpetrators intimidating survivors. The killings, community pressure and prisoner releases have frightened survivors and deterred potential witnesses, says Aurea Kayiganwa, head of advocacy, justice and information at Avega, the Rwandan organization representing widows of the genocide.

The government estimates that 1 million people were killed in the genocide. As the Hutu leadership of President Juvenal Habyarimana faced attacks from the predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriot Front, based in Uganda, the authorities and media demonized Tutsis as the enemy. After the president's plane was shot down April 6, 1994, authorities immediately exhorted the population to kill all Tutsis. Tutsi sympathizers also were slaughtered.

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