In Search of Rwanda’s Génocidaires. French Justice and the Lost Decades, by David Whitehouse. Seraphim Editions, 360 pp, ISBN: 978-1927079294
In a few terrible months in the spring 1994, in the tiny African country of Rwanda, up to one million men, women and children were viciously murdered. In a planned programme of systematic extermination the killing was carried out by the army, the gendarmerie and a militia of unemployed youth trained to kill people at speed with primitive weapons. Three-quarters of the country’s minority Tutsi population was wiped out.
There were no sealed trains or secluded camps in Rwanda. The killing was in broad daylight. A political campaign, the genocide of the Tutsi, was intended to destroy forever an agreement in place to create a power-sharing form of government. The genocide broke the world’s most atrocious records. The speed of killing was unprecedented. An estimated ten thousand people were killed every day, mostly in large scale massacres in churches, clinics, hospitals and schools ‑ anywhere Tutsi families fled looking for sanctuary. An estimated 400,000 children were murdered. In order to economise on ammunition the children and the elderly were killed mainly by machete while most young adults were killed by firearms. The majority of the victims were under twenty-four years old. Whole families and communities disappeared. At one football stadium it is estimated that some two thousand five hundred families were entirely wiped out. At least a hundred thousand children were separated from their families, orphaned, lost, abducted or abandoned. Unicef determined that most of Rwanda’s children witnessed extreme forms of brutality and ninety per cent of them at some point thought they would die. More than three hundred children, some less than ten years old, were accused of murder.
So barbaric was the killing that lawyers and clerks, at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), where the leaders were put on trial, were provided with counselling to cope with the evidence. Some investigators became trauma patients. The violence against women in the genocide was so extensive that the ICTR made an historic determination on September 2nd, 1998, that sexual violence constituted genocide in the same way as any other act. A lack of accurate data means that only an estimate is possible but one figure puts the total number of rape and sexual violence cases at two hundred and fifty thousand incidents. The sexual violence was thought to have been an integral part of the genocidal strategy, in the words of the 1948 Genocide Convention, as the specific “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular group, targeted as such”. In one of the trials the judge determined that rapes resulted in physical and psychological destruction of Tutsi women, their families and their communities. Tutsi women had been targeted for sexual violence and this had contributed to “the destruction of the Tutsi group as a whole”. The sexual violence had included rape, sexual slavery, forced incest, deliberate HIV transmission, forced impregnation, and genital mutilation.
Some people who survived said they thought the apocalypse had come. The chief delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Philippe Gaillard, who stayed in Rwanda for the duration, said he had already seen what was happening in the paintings of Bosch, in the cast of monsters descending into the hell of Dante.
Not a day goes by without a television programme or newspaper article about the Nazis. Their crimes continue to haunt us. Meanwhile, whole aspects of the genocide of the Tutsi remain unexplored. Consider the Interahamwe, a savage and sadistic youth militia built as a central element in the killing machine and primarily responsible for the mass killings. Notorious for manning roadblocks which were strategically placed to prevent any possibility of escape, the Interahamwe was highly organised, with committees covering social and legal affairs, committees to discuss propaganda and documentation. It was intended to be nationwide – one militia member for every ten houses. It consisted mostly of unemployed youths who were trained and indoctrinated in military camps and taught to kill at speed by first immobilising victims by cutting the Achilles tendon. Someone described the Interahamwe as Rwanda’s weapon of mass destruction, its “neutron bomb”, for its ability to kill effectively and quickly. What then was the ideology propelling them forward?
The crime of genocide happens in stages. It implies the existence of a coordinated plan of action, a conspiracy to be put into effect against people chosen as victims, purely, simply and exclusively because they are members of the target group. A key stage is the promotion of an ideology which serves to legitimise any act, no matter how horrendous. Propaganda is used to indoctrinate followers into believing that the intended victim is outside human existence – vermin and subhuman. The idea that Tutsi were different and alien was nurtured for decades in Rwanda but by 1994 a torrent of propaganda saw a vile campaign against the minority, relentless in its incitement to hatred and violence. The central idea of the Hutu power ideology was the creation of a “pure Hutu state” with no Tutsi at all.
Last year, writing in The Guardian, a former UK Africa minister, the author Chris Mullin, began a review of a book about Rwanda with a note of irritation: “oh no, not another one”, not another book about Rwanda that is. What is to be gained by recalling the horror? In fact, as David Whitehouse shows, there is everything to gain. Our knowledge is limited on several aspects and certainly about the extent of French influence on events, one of the subjects at issue in this book. Some French journalists reached the astonishing conclusion that French officials were complicit in the genocide; French authorities had knowingly aided and abetted what happened by helping to train Hutu Power militia.
A true reckoning of French involvement in Rwanda may never be possible. The French policy was determined within the confines of a special office in the presidential Élysée Palace known as the Africa Unit, operating through a network of military officers, politicians, diplomats, businessmen and senior intelligence operatives. At the centre was President François Mitterrand. The French had favoured the Hutu cause since the 1960s and state-sponsored discrimination against Tutsi and the massacres of them seemed to have been of little concern in the relationship France and Rwanda enjoyed. By 1990 an estimated one million Rwandan Tutsi were living as refugees in neighbouring states, Tutsi families who fled during murderous anti-Tutsi campaigns and who could no longer return home. This was Africa’s worst refugee crisis. Inevitably, if ignored too long, a refugee crisis risks becoming militarised. On October 1st, 1990 the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded Rwanda from neighbouring Uganda to enforce a refugee return. This was an army consisting of some two thousand young Rwandan refugees who had trained in the ranks of the Ugandan army and abandoning their positions had taken their weapons and supplies. Documents from the archive of President Mitterrand reveal the consternation in Paris which greeted the RPF invasion of Rwanda; this was clear aggression by Uganda, an Anglophone neighbour, against a Francophone country. Mitterrand believed that an Anglophone plot was under way to create an English-speaking “Tutsi land” and France leapt to the aid of its ally. The result was a three-year civil war. In French conservative, intelligence and army circles the English-speaking Uganda-supported RPF was anathema. In the past France had fought brutal, losing wars to keep its colonies and Rwanda would not be allowed to be “lost” to the Anglophones. French journalists later reported that so close were French military operatives to their Rwandan colleagues, embedded in elite Rwandan army units as technical advisers, that they must have known what was prepared by Hutu Power hardliners.
In his book, In Search of Rwanda’s Génocidaires, David Whitehouse, a British journalist working in France, largely deals with the aftermath. The book provides much new information. But at its heart is a question with no apparent answer; why is there such a high number of Rwandan genocide fugitives living and working peacefully in France where they are comfortably integrated into society? The French group of suspects is currently unique in size, unique for the seniority of its members and unique because of the lack of trials or extradition. An estimated forty genocide suspects, more than in any western country, includes a senior military commander, a priest, a gynaecologist, a doctor and academic. One French lawyer says these people came to France because they knew they would find a safe haven. While the author describes the failure to put any of them on trial as a “long-term procrastination”, one of his sources tells him that the reluctance stems from the fact that any trial would throw spotlight on an unsavoury aspect of French foreign policy. There are obviously hurdles to overcome in prosecuting a crime which took place so far away; the problems in gathering evidence at the scene of the crime are particularly difficult given the rocky diplomatic relationship which exists between the present governments of Rwanda and France. Yet even taking into account these practical difficulties one can only marvel at the snail’s pace of French justice. Every now and then, as you read this book, you have to pause in disbelief. After all, trials of Rwandan genocide suspects have been held in Germany, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
As Whitehouse makes clear, while the foot soldiers of genocide ended up in cholera-ridden camps in the neighbouring DRC, those in command of the genocide in the military, the local authority, politicians or in the church were given a more comfortable exile in Europe and North America. Many went to France because leading officers and civil servants had, in many cases, been educated and trained there.
There are said to be twenty-eight genocide cases currently in the hands of French investigating magistrates. Some of these have been open for twenty years. In 2010 a special unit for genocide and crimes against humanity offences was created as part of the Paris tribunal to accelerate and facilitate cases against fugitives on French soil accused of international crimes. This happened only because of constant pressure from French human rights groups Survie and the Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH). The activists in their ranks remain indefatigable in exerting pressure on the French justice system to get Rwandan suspects into court.
Most notable is the tireless work of a couple in France, Alain Gauthier, a French teacher, and his Rwandan wife, a chemist, Dafroza, who lost family members and friends in the genocide. Their painful and careful gathering of evidence on suspects living in France has become a way of life, family holidays long forgotten. It is a voluntary activity which consumes their lives. They have located suspects, compiled cases and gathered evidence from witnesses in Rwanda. In 2001 they created a collective, a citizens’ group to “provide moral and financial support for all those who bring legal cases against Rwandan genocide suspects principally those on French soil. It is called the Collectif des Parties Civiles pour le Rwanda (CPCR). As civil plaintiffs they have to do everything before the justice system will even consider a dossier.
Dafroza tells Whitehouse that the history of the genocide cannot be written unless there are trials. It was the people who planned it whom they were after. She believes that the obstacles preventing French justice from operating were political rather than judicial.
Last year, the twentieth commemoration year, came a well-earned victory. For the first time a Rwandan was put on trial charged with genocide in a Paris criminal court. Pascal Simbikangwa, a member of the Hutu Power inner circle, had been apprehended in possession of a number of fraudulent identity documents hiding under an assumed name in Mayotte, a French overseas department. His trial lasted six weeks and was vigorously defended. The prosecutors concentrated on his role during the killing, when he encouraged the murder of Tutsi by Interahamwe, supplying them with weapons. Simbikangwa told the court he never witnessed any violence or saw any corpses. Whitehouse devotes several pages to the trial but it merits an entire volume. Simbikangwa was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity on March 14th, 2014, and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. His appeal takes place this year.
According to Justice Hassan B Jallow, who was appointed prosecutor of the ICTR in 2003, the greatest difficulty in fulfilling its mandate has been a lack of international cooperation. This was indispensable for the administration of international criminal justice. The ICTR does not have law enforcement powers to make an arrest so it relies on government cooperation. Article 28 of the court’s statute called on every country to cooperate with the ICTR. There has been a continuing reluctance by some governments to apprehend and put on trial in national courts those génocidaires who fled. Jallow singled out the French judiciary. He pointed to the case of the Catholic priest Wenceslas Munyeshyaka from the Sainte-Famille parish in Kigali whose church during the genocide was packed with desperate families. The priest is accused of selecting Tutsi to be killed and raping several women. A complaint was first lodged against him by genocide survivors in France in 1995. Munyeshyaka continues to this day to live and work as a priest in France, celebrating Masses, confessions, communions and marriages. The failure to make progress in the case earned the French government a rebuke in June 2004 from the European Court of Human Rights. The wheels of justice in France were not grinding at all. In 2006 Munyeshyaka was sentenced to life in absentia in Rwanda. In 2008 France finally accepted jurisdiction over the Munyeshyaka case from the ICTR, a case which the ICTR “continues to monitor”.
The role of the Catholic Church in the circumstances of the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi is far from fully addressed, as Whitehouse readily admits. It may take several more decades to uncover. Whitehouse certainly raises enough serious questions. How did the White Fathers manage to get Athanase Seromba, a priest wanted for the crime of genocide, to Rome? Why did the Vatican resist requests from the ICTR for his extradition? Why were requests refused by the Italian government? Seromba finally had his day in court. He became the first Catholic priest to be brought before an ICTR court room where he was accused of paying the drivers of bulldozers to demolish his church in western Rwanda with two thousand of his terrified parishioners sheltering inside. The Interahamwe waited outside for anyone who attempted to escape. Seromba is serving a life term for aiding and abetting genocide.
For almost a century, bishops, priests and nuns, both Rwandan and foreign, were deeply mired in Rwanda’s politics. The former archbishop Mgr Vincent Nsengiyumva was for a long time a member of the central committee of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s ruling one-party Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement (MRND). Rwanda was considered the most Christianised country on the African continent. In pre-genocide Rwanda the Catholic Church was the most important institution after the state, with a presence in the remotest parts of the country. Next to the government, the church was the largest employer, running social, educational and medical institutions. In some churches in Rwanda the racist ideology of the Hutu Power movement was preached from the pulpit – the Tutsi families sitting on one side of the aisle and the Hutu the other.
As the twentieth commemoration was getting under way in January last year, the force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, the Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, gave an interview in which he urged that the genocide of the Tutsi remain a focal point for the whole of humanity. When the genocide began Dallaire was ordered to withdraw his blue helmets; he refused and stayed with a volunteer force of 470 all ranks. Dallaire said we must not be permitted to witness the creation of a pecking order in which some people are considered worth saving, as though more significant or more human than others. This cannot be something we just accept. We are all equal and all those who are vulnerable need protection. It was important to stay involved with these issues. Otherwise our silence gives succour to the perpetrators of genocide and those who deny that it happened.
Linda Melvern is an investigative journalist and author. She is a former member of the Sunday Times Insight Team. She has written six books of non-fiction and specialised in the UN. For the past twenty-one years she has investigated and written about the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi of Rwanda. She is an honorary professor in the Department of International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales.