Two Years after Genocide, Rwanda Gets Day in Court Trying 'Ordinary' Killers, Such as a Hutu Farmer, Could Take Decades

Article excerpt

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. …

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