Rwanda: blood on their hands – archive, 1994

<span>Photograph: Radu Sigheti/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Radu Sigheti/Reuters

Rwanda’s former Minister of Information, Eliezer Niyitegeka, looks more comic than intimidating. He wears a dazzling white suit, afro-hairstyle and has an AK-47 slung across his shoulder. He last set foot in Rwanda in mid-July. He and the other ministers of the ousted Rwanda government have taken refuge over the border in Bukava, Zaire. Not for them the miseries of Goma’s refugee camps. Many have settled into the Hotel Riviera, where comforts include pornographic movies after midnight. The exiled regime’s offices are furnished with computers and a satellite phone. Here they are attempting to rewrite the history of the Rwandan genocide.

Related: Thousands massacred in Rwanda

Perhaps as many as a million people died in three months of anti-Tutsi pogroms. Hutus who opposed the slaughter were exterminated as well. The ministers in exile who presided over the killings are now the targets of UN investigators piecing together evidence to put them on trial for genocide – they are also at the top of the list of people the new Rwandan government wants to execute if it can lay hands on them first.

Foremost among them is the ousted president, Theodore Sindikubwabo, a paediatrician who set in motion the slaughter of Butare’s Tutsis. His prime minister, Jean Kambanda, travelled Rwanda using the language of murder understood by all. The commerce minister – once imprisoned for murdering his wife; the justice minister – herself married to a Tutsi; the youth minister – who openly encouraged children to kill; all of them are preparing a common defence, intent on obscuring the world’s already confused view of Rwanda‘s calamity.

The time may come when the former ministers run for cover, along with the army chiefs settled into a Protestant evangelical mission in Goma, and the other alleged Rwandan war criminals scattered, as yet unfettered, across Africa and Europe. But for now they are on the offensive.

‘Why do you want to talk about these dead Tutsis? What about my human rights? I can’t even go home. Do you know there are people in my house in Kigali who are not even paying rent?’ Niyitegeka challenged me.

‘Neither of the two groups, the RPF nor us are saints. We know that massacres have been on both sides. I don’t see any difference,’ deposed prime minister Kambanda argued. But the main purpose of the defence is to ensure that one of the swiftest and most organised mass murders of modern times is seen, not as a political act, but as an African tribal bloodletting that nobody could predict and nobody could prevent. Among those keen to obscure reality is Eliezer Niyitegeka.

Niyitegeka comes from Kibuye province in the far west of Rwanda, bordering Lake Kivu’s placid expanse. Like most of once-crowded Rwanda, its terraced hills are shorn of trees so every scrap of available land can be made use of. It was once home to one of the highest concentrations of Tutsis in the country. Although Niyitegeka lived in Kidashya village, in the province’s south-western corner, his influence ranged across the territory. As Kibuye leader of the Democratic Republican Movement (MDR), he was well known if not universally popular.

Josue Kayijaho, a Tutsi doctor prominent in a leading human rights group, was at school with Eliezer Niyitegeka. ‘He’s not a good man, he was never a good man. We were both Seventh Day Adventists. Almost everybody was in our village. Eliezer used to lead the singing in church. In 1973, I was in school with him when the Habyarimana coup happened and thousands of Tutsis were massacred. I remember him promoting the massacres, urging people on. I fled to Burundi because it was bad,’ he said.

Niyitegeka went on to study journalism in Romania. By his own account he left disillusioned with communism. More accurately he was forced home after stabbing a fellow Rwandan. He thought the man dead. Then, in the early 1980s, by which time he had worked his way into parliament through the one-party system, the ‘dead’ man popped up and began court proceedings. Eliezer Niyitegeka proved too much of an embarrassment and was thrown out of parliament.

With the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 1991, Niyitegeka helped revive the MDR, which was previously known as an aggressively Hutu nationalist outfit. Niyitegeka’s modern-day faction was to prove much the same, embroiling itself in anti-Tutsi attacks which followed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invasion four years ago. This had been led by Tutsis whose families had been forced from Rwanda three decades earlier.

As the murders spread to Niyitegeka’s home province in August 1992 and hundreds died, Dr Kayijaho contacted his old school colleague. ‘I called him to ask what we could do to stop these massacres. I said leaders in Kibuye asked me to phone him as MDR leader. There was silence. I asked the question again. He didn’t say anything and then I knew he was involved in these massacres,’ he said.

The RPF’s military success forced the government to negotiate, and concede. The MDR, like other political parties, split. Niyitegeka was among party leaders who were opposed to compromise with the rebels. He led a faction that joined with hard-line elements in President Habyarimana’s MRND, and another extremist offshoot, CDR. They called themselves Hutu-Power, and came to control the Interahamwe militias that were to lead the slaughter. At the time they were portrayed as Hutu cultural organisations. Niyitegeka toured Kibuye province whipping up sentiment against peace accords. President Habyarimana’s death on April 6 opened the floodgates of violent mayhem.

When news came in that the president’s plane had been shot down, the extremists were quick to blame the RPF. In Kigali, Hutus who favoured the peace accord were murdered. Within days, Niyitegeka was installed as part of the new government which seized power. It is one of the questions former ministers, now framing their defence, find most difficult to answer. Why, if you were opposed to the unfolding slaughter, were you not only spared but permitted to take control of the government? ‘When they called to swear me in as Minister of Information, I had not left my house because there were those who wanted to kill me. Someone said there were about six soldiers who wanted to kill me and my children and my wife. I suppose I was lucky. I only accepted to be Minister of Information to save the country, to save the situation. I did my best and I don’t regret it,’ Niyitegeka said limply.

As the killing machine cranked into gear across Rwanda, the wheels started turning in Kibuye. Slowly at first, individual opponents of Hutu extremism, both Tutsi and Hutu, were picked off. The province’s Tutsis knew it was wise to keep a low profile. But many thought they had nothing to fear personally. Then Niyitegeka descended on his home province.

‘I went there to stabilise the situation. The problem was that the RPF had given the Tutsis weapons and there were infiltrators everywhere. Nobody prepared a massacre of the Tutsis, but we had to kill the infiltrators. If there were prepared massacres they were the massacres by the opposition, the RPF, not us,’ he now claims.

In fact, the speeches he gave in towns and villages, broadcast by Radio Rwanda and the notoriously extremist RTLM radio, had a far from settling effect. ‘I have trust in our armed forces. They will defeat all our enemies. And you, the population, should join the armed forces to eliminate every kind of enemy, wherever they may hide,’ he said in a speech broadcast on RTLM. For those such as the Hutu mayor of Kibuye town, Augustin Karara, the message was clear.

‘When Eliezer was moving around he was encouraging the people to kill. He couldn’t say it openly. He would say they were doing very good ‘work’ or they should ‘get to work’. Such a message meant killing Tutsis. He was on very good terms with some mayors where a lot of people were killed. He praised them openly for their ‘work’,’ Karara said. ‘In some communes there were MDR party leaders who were not on his side. He told people they had to be ‘dealt with, dealt with the same way they deal with sympathisers’. Some were killed.’ There were other euphemisms popular with political leaders and those leading the killing. Peasants were urged to ‘clear the bush’, which was understood as an instruction to kill Tutsis, ‘the bush’ in which the RPF might hide. At other times people were told to ‘clean around their houses’, which was meant to spur them into slaughtering their neighbours.

Kibuye town was about as far from the frontline as you could get, yet the Interahamwe claimed to find those they called ‘inyenzi’ or cockroaches – the RPF and its supporters – at every turn. The militia delighted in prolonging the suffering of their victims, sometimes leaving them squirming in the road next to their severed limbs, not quite dead, futilely fighting for life. Bullets were not to be wasted. The victims were not limited to those who might prove able to fight. Small children, old women, the crippled, anyone could be selected. Those who were not party to the slaughter usually walked by. It was the safest thing to do.

Escape from Kibuye was nearly impossible. Interahamwe roadblocks were scattered along the only overland route out of town. Tutsis were sitting targets scurrying across the bare hills. And where would they escape to? Some looked longingly across Lake Kivu to Zaire just a few miles away, but there were few boats to hand.

The hunted were encouraged by the provincial governor, Clement Kayishema, to flee for the traditional sanctuary of the church. The message was passed by word of mouth, by police knocking on doors, on the radio. Go to the church, or the football stadium. There will be safety in numbers. We will protect you. Thousands of Tutsis crammed into both sites. Everyone knew the church would be safe because even at the most dangerous times of the past 35 years, its sanctity had been respected. This year was different.

On Sunday, April 17, Karara, the town’s Hutu mayor, noticed new faces on the streets. ‘Groups of men were discussing something. Some came from outside town. They went around collecting men. Some came willingly, they were enthusiastic to kill. Others were forced to go. Then the army passed out guns and the church was surrounded. The governor went up there but he didn’t try to stop it. A lot of people think he was behind it. The militia and the army and police took part. Not all, but those that didn’t stood by. Those who escaped the bullets and grenades were cut up with machetes,’ he said.

‘They wanted me to buy beer for the killers to make the killing easier. Afterwards there were some people who were still alive and wounded. I took some people to the hospital. The militia asked me what I was doing with those ‘inyenzi’ but let me take them. Then they went there and killed them,’ Karara said.

The next day the scene was repeated at the stadium. Probably 10,000 people were killed. But still it was not the end of Kibuye’s Tutsi population. Fresh corpses continued to litter the town, but significant numbers of Tutsis survived by sheltering in the hospital, private homes and seeking out the few hiding places in the bare hills. A dozen Tutsi nuns were holed up in their convent, sheltering a small group of orphans but unable to leave.

Eliezer Niyitegeka former minister of information in Rwanda sits next to the UN security officer at the 21 April 2004 International Court tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha.
Eliezer Niyitegeka former minister of information in Rwanda sits next to the UN security officer at the 21 April 2004 International Court tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha. Photograph: Getty Images

Then two weeks later, Niyitegeka returned to the town, this time in the company of prime minister Jean Kambanda. The prime minister summoned the province’s mayors and other notables for what was billed as a meeting to ‘stabilise the situation’. Augustin Karara went along. ‘The prime minister thanked everybody for their work. He said the enemy is the RPF but then he said ‘inyenzi’ are everywhere and they must be treated in the same way. The mayor of Gishyita stood up. He complained he had too many ‘inyenzi’ in his area and he had only been able to kill three or four hundred people. He asked for help. The prime minister told him to make a report. At that time there were bodies everywhere. People were being murdered but the prime minister didn’t once say ‘stop the killings’,’ Karara said. Troops and militia were later dispatched to Gishyita to help the mayor with his ‘problem’.

‘Eliezer spoke after the prime minister. He said we had a revolution in ‘59 and it failed because it wasn’t properly done. This time he said we must do it properly, we must finish the war against the RPF and its supporters,’ Karara said. ‘They didn’t say the words ‘kill the Tutsis’ but in Rwanda people understood what was meant.’ The call to finish the 1959 revolution was a popular one with extremists. The Hutu rebellion at that time had overturned traditional Tutsi powers, abused in the run up to independence, and had led to hundreds of thousands of Tutsis fleeing as refugees. Their sons and daughters had come back 30 years later as the RPF. The message of the new Hutu revolution was not to permit such a thing to happen again. In essence, it was a call to kill every Tutsi, no matter how young. It was an instruction that was to be swiftly followed after the meeting.

There had been one brave voice there, Karara recalled. It belonged to a Dr Hitimana: ‘At that time there was a doctor who asked for some food to feed the Tutsi children in the hospital. He was insulted in public. Eliezer Niyitegeka told the doctor he should not be worrying about those children, about ‘inyenzi’,’ Karara said. ‘There were about 20 children at the hospital. They were all killed that day. The doctor fled to Kigali.’ It was the start of another rampage against the remaining Tutsis. This time very few were to survive.

Relaxing in Bukavu, Eliezer Niyitegeka has a different recollection. ‘When I went to Kibuye I met the mayors. I saw one who was giving people beer so they would kill people. I asked, how is it possible to give people beer and then encourage them to kill? I also got a report that the mayor in my home commune was stealing things from people after he killed them. I wrote to him and I made a report to the government, to the prime minister copying to the president, asking him to remove the mayor. Unfortunately, they didn’t. I am not an angel but I did my best in that situation,’ he said.

‘In my native hill in Kibuye, in my house, some Tutsis hid so they wouldn’t be killed. Unfortunately, people found out and killed them. But it shows they believed in me,’ Niyitegeka argued.

He is not alone amongst those implicated in the genocide in claiming to have protected Tutsis. Kambanda says he did the same. The former governor of Kigali province, Francois Karera, even produces a 13 -year-old boy called Ntukanyagwe he says is a Tutsi he saved from certain death. Karera effectively runs the largest Hutu refugee camp in Goma through his control of the Interahamwe who fled there.

There are many other instances of Tutsis placing their faith in those with authority who, in some cases at least, appear to have used the Tutsis as a shield against the RPF or as a defence against the charges they now face.

Among the first victims in April was Niyitegeka’s predecessor as Information Minister, Faustin Rucogoza. He was a Hutu, but that cut no ice with the fanatics. Rucogoza had threatened to shut down the extremist RTLM radio, which from the start pressed the case for the killing. As Information Minister, Niyitegeka had the authority to at least try to silence RTLM and to use Radio Rwanda to oppose the slaughter. Instead, while Tutsis were murdered in their hundreds of thousands, as children were slaughtered or encouraged to kill, as women were raped, as churches and hospitals were transformed into extermination centres, Niyitegeka says he could not interfere with press freedom.

‘RTLM was an independent radio station. Anyway, nobody complained about RTLM except the UN commander, General Delaire, who didn’t like what was said about him. I asked RTLM to offer him airtime for his views and they did. If others had complained, they could have had time to put their view.’ If a Tutsi had come out of hiding to demand a right of reply to the calls for his murder, he would have been granted it? ‘Why not? I called the chief of broadcasting of RTLM. I told him he has to try to moderate the broadcasts. But it was independent. What could I do?’ he asked.

Shut it down? ‘What about press freedom? Can you, as a journalist, say we should breach that?’ Niyitegeka responded.

As UN investigators, the new Rwandan government and human rights groups compile their cases, members of the ousted regime have been shaping a multi-faceted defence. It begins with a general denial of responsibility.

Former prime minister Jean Kambanda argues that his government did not seize power until three days after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, by which time the worst of the massacres were over. Reminded that when the interim government was installed most Tutsis in Kibuye, for instance, were alive and when it collapsed they were not, Kambanda changes tack.

‘I admit the killings went on but that is the RPF’s fault. If the RPF had agreed to a ceasefire, we could have used the army to stop the killing. To say the government did nothing is a lie. On April 10, my foreign minister asked the French ambassador to send troops to contain the situation,’ Kambanda said.

It is a dubious claim. The appeal to France – which did dispatch forces at the start of the civil war – amounted to a cry for help in repelling the RPF, not in saving the Tutsis.

But the foundation of the defence is that the massacres were a spontaneous reaction, an unpredictable and uncontrollable tribal killing in response to the murder of President Habyarimana. It is an explanation favoured by Kambanda and Niyitegeka, perhaps in the expectation it will fit the international court’s perception of Africa.

The truth, as brave Hutus such as Kibuye’s former mayor can testify, is something quite different. The politicians, army leaders and others with a vested interest in blocking change, exploited ethnic rivalries to inflate real Hutu fears of revived Tutsi domination. It was designed to preserve political power they knew was sure to be lost under the terms of the peace accord.

‘These were poor people. They believed what their leaders told them. There was no danger in Kibuye at that time but their leaders made out the ‘inyenzi’ were everywhere and were going to kill them or steal their property. I did my best to discourage the killings. With some good policemen we smuggled Tutsis away. If I had had help from the government, if it had said stop the killing, people would have listened. It never did that. Never,’ he said. ‘It was difficult to understand that the government was supporting it. It took a long time for me to realise.’

Niyitegek bemoans life in exile. There are rare expressions of remorse, for having lost the war. There are bellicose threats to start it again. And there is plenty of self-pity over life in a country with no law and order. In September, Zairean troops stole his Mercedes at gunpoint, and he has discovered RPF soldiers have occupied his home in Rwanda. He says he would not mind but they are not paying rent.

‘I came with two cars. They have been taken. Life is very difficult. I would like to go to Europe or somewhere else but I have no money. When we arrived in Goma they took the money we had and put it in the bank in Zaire. Now we can’t get it out. They say we have to pay for all the damage done by the refugees,’ he said. The Rwandan currency, gold and foreign exchange confiscated by the Zaireans had been looted from Rwanda‘s central bank.

An Interahamwe Hutu militiaman holding a machete in Gitarama, centre Rwanda, 12 June 1994.
An Interahamwe Hutu militiaman holding a machete in Gitarama, centre Rwanda, 12 June 1994. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

In Kibuye, plants are thriving now on top of a mass grave sloping behind the church. But they cannot stifle the stench that still permeates the building. The church walls are scrubbed clean but the outbuildings remain as they were on the day of the massacre. Bloody handprints and footprints speckle the walls like a child’s painting. Recent rains washed away the topsoil from another mass grave near the stadium, exposing the rotting corpses. The UN used bulldozers to cover them over again.

Augustin Karara was replaced as mayor by the RPF. After a long interrogation it cleared him of any role in the massacres. He was one of many brave Hutus who did what they could to protect Tutsis at considerable risk to themselves, disproving the extremists’ claim that the killing was nothing more than tribal warfare.

Those in Kibuye town who did not flee still shy away from discussing the genocide, and more particularly what occurred at their church. But Karara says that quietly and slowly they are beginning to face up to it.

‘Now they feel ashamed. They are very ashamed. It is very shameful,’ he said.