18 February 2005

Rwanda: Butare, an 'Intellectual' Town That Outdid Itself, Even in Genocide

Arusha — Tucked away in the southernmost part of Rwanda that borders neighbouring Burundi, is the dreamy and picturesque town of Butare, a town that prides itself on being better than other Rwandan provinces. In fact, during the 1994 genocide that claimed a million lives, more than 20 per cent died in Butare.

From the beginning, the former Belgian colonial masters hand-picked Butare as a jewel among their Rwandan possessions and named it 'Astrida', in honour of Queen Astrid of Belgium.

Even when the Catholic Church first set foot in Rwanda, it was at Save hill, a few kilometres from the town centre, that the white fathers chose to build their first mission in 1900.

The town grew in stature as it became home to countless educational institutes - including the National University and Nyakibanda Seminary - most of them run by the powerful Catholic Church. In these schools, the country's elite was educated.

When the genocide against Tutsis erupted after the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, the whole country immediately went into a killing frenzy, save for Butare.

French Professor André Guichaoua, an expert witness called by the prosecution in what is known as the 'Butare trial', went as far as labelling it, "the rebel province."

Many people who had managed to escape killings in other parts of the country found safe haven in Butare, but their sense of security would soon be shattered one fateful day, two weeks after the massacres had begun in other regions.

A tale of a President, a Premier and a Mother who lit the fire

The new Rwandan interim government set up after Habyarimana's death had many heavy weight politicians originating from Butare.

Top of the list was the new President of the interim government, Theodore Sindikubwabo, a septuagenarian who was actually seen as a front for a hard-core group of army officers, the real power brokers.

Other natives of Butare were the Prime Minister, Jean Kambanda, the chief-of staff of the Gendarmerie (Para-military police), General Augustin Ndindiliyimana, and the minister of women and family affairs, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko.

It is the Prosecutor's view that the Butare leaders were under enormous pressure to set an example in their own back yard.

Thus on April 19, 1994 President Sindikubwabo, accompanied by other senior military and political figures, held a ceremony to install a new Préfet (Governor) of Butare. He castigated the population for not "working", a euphemism for not taking part in the massacres.

In his now famous speech broadcast on national radio, the new President violently denounced those who felt that what was happening was not their concern. He told them to "get out of the way and let us work".

The controversial speech has been interpreted differently by many concerned parties and the defence of Nyiramasuhuko, one of the six co-defendants in the Butare trial, intends to call as a witness Eugene Shimamungu, a Rwandan linguist.

While government and military officials in many parts of Rwanda played an active role in organising the massacres, Butare had until that date been spared, apart from Nyakizu commune. Ladislas Ntaganzwa, the mayor of Nyakizu, has been indicted for killings there but he is still at large.

The Interahamwe, the youth wing of the former ruling party, the Mouvement républicain national pour la démocratie et le développement (MRND) spearheaded the killings. Arsène Shalom Ntahobali, Nyiramasuhuko's son, co-defendant, is alleged to have been an Interahamwe leader.

Safe haven no more, even for a Queen

The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) attributes Butare's delay in fully backing and putting into action the massacres of Tutsis to a number of factors.

"Historically, this prefecture had a large Tutsi population living in harmony with the Hutu majority," reads an indictment against former Butare officials currently on trial at the ICTR. "Since the inception of the multiparty system, the Parti Social Démocrat (PSD) dominated the political scene in Butare and the MRND played a lesser role in that area than elsewhere in the country. Hence the Interahamwe organisational structure was less elaborate and its membership was lower."

The prosecution also argues that of Rwanda's eleven préfectures, Butare was the only one with a Tutsi Préfet (Governor), Jean-Baptiste Habyarimana, who had openly opposed the massacres and managed to maintain calm in his prefecture.

Habyarimana was arrested and killed shortly after Sindikubwabo's speech. The next day, reinforcements of the presidential guards, the Para-commando battalion and Interahamwe militia, were airlifted to Butare to signal the beginning of the killings.

Among the first victims was the former Queen of Rwanda, Rosalie Gicanda, described by the prosecution as "a historical symbol for all Tutsi".

When the killings ended, two-and-a-half months later, the body-count lay at 220,000 dead. Despite beginning the killing spree much later than the other provinces, the Butare figures were the highest in the whole country.

Butare's elite brought to book

When the ICTR was set up in 1994, the first person to be sentenced was former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, a native of Butare. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 after pleading guilty to six charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The former president, Theodore Sindikubwabo, is believed to have died in exile and no charges were brought against him. The trials of General Ndindiliyimana and Pauline Nyiramasuhuko are currently going on.

Of all the people charged with the crimes committed in Butare, Nyiramasuhuko stands out above the rest. Not only is she the first woman to be charged with genocide by the tribunal, she is also charged with rape.

Pauline Nyiramasuhuko is jointly charged with her son, Shalom Arsene Ntahobali, an alleged former militia leader in Butare, and four other leaders from the town: Lieutenant-Colonel Alphonse Nteziryayo and Sylvain Nsabimana, both préfets of Butare during the genocide; Joseph Kanyabashi and Elie Ndayambaje, both mayors.

A doctor, a soldier and a priest

But those senior politicians and military figures are not the only ones connected with Butare to face trial. Not for the first time at the ICTR, the suspects' list also has the name of a man of God on it.

Father Hormisdas Nsengimana was a former Rector of the catholic-run Christ Roi school in Nyanza in Butare province and is charged with the killing of Tutsi priests and students living at the school. He was arrested in Cameroon in March 2002 and is awaiting trial.

Then there are the military officers: Lieutenant-Colonel Tharcisse Muvunyi was the commander of the Non-Commissioned Officers' school (ESO) based in Butare; his deputy, Captain Idelphonse Nzeyimana; and the former commander of Butare army barracks, Captain Idelphonse Hategekimana.

While Muvunyi and Hategekimana are currently in the UN's custody, Nzeyimana is still at large. Muvunyi's trial is set to begin February 28. All the above allegedly committed crimes in Butare, although they were born elsewhere.

Another non-native of Butare was Colonel Aloys Simba. Though he retired years before, Simba was in charge of "civil defence" during the genocide in both Butare and neighbouring Gikongoro.

The primary role of members of the civil defence was to track down and kill Tutsis and others perceived to be accomplices of the rebel Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), now in power in Kigali.

Joining this long list of Butare's elite is former minister of education, André Rwamakuba.

Rwamakuba came from Kigali rural province, but lived and worked as a medical doctor in the town for many years and most of the crimes he is charged with were allegedly committed there. He is accused of killing Tutsi patients, some in their hospital beds.

When the dust finally settled in July 1994, Butare itself accounted for more than 20% of the estimated one million dead across the country.

For a town that prided itself as being the "cradle of knowledge", Butare in 1994 sent out a loud message that it was still above the rest, even in the killing game.

Copyright © 2005 Hirondelle News Agency. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.