One quiet December morning, as mist was lifting over the Western Province in Rwanda, soldiers banged on Fulgence Rukundo's door. They called him by name and said that he had stolen a cow. Neighbors came out to see what the commotion was about. Rukundo opened his door. He said he was innocent, but went with the soldiers.
Rukundo, 28, was slight but muscular. His wife had given birth to a baby - their second child - ten days before the soldiers came for him. Rukundo was well known in the village as a jovial, good-natured, fun-loving man. As he was taken from his house by the soldiers that morning, surprised villagers started calling each other on their mobile phones. Word of his arrest spread. Many people followed him and the soldiers at a distance.
The next couple of hours were to be his last.
Since 2016, Rwandan soldiers and police officers have been involved in killing people suspected of committing petty crimes, like stealing bananas, sugarcane, or a motorcycle, or using illegal fishing nets, a new Human Rights Watch report says.
Human Rights Watch documented 37 executions of suspected petty criminals and offenders, in what appears to be part of a broader strategy to spread fear, enforce order, and deter any resistance to government orders or policies. Villagers told Human Rights Watch's researcher how in community meetings local and military authorities had publicly told people that new "laws" or "orders" call for killing thieves and other criminals. Family members were told not to mourn those who were executed, as if sympathizing with those killed was itself a crime.
The soldiers walked with Rukundo to a nearby banana plantation, where there was the carcass of a cow. The cow had been slaughtered, part of its flesh taken, the remains a bloody mess. They accused Rukundo of stealing and killing that cow and commanded him to carry it while they walked. Rukundo picked up the bloody parts and struggled to wrap the flesh around his body, carrying the head and legs, smearing himself with blood and soil in the process.
Rukundo and the soldiers then walked on. Rukundo could barely walk under the weight of the carcass. More people now followed at a safe distance, murmuring fearfully. No one dared speak up against the spectacle, even though some sympathized with Rukundo as he trudged along on the dirt road, grappling with the weight of the dead cow's body parts. He kept pleading, saying to no one in particular that he did not steal or kill the cow.
The group finally arrived at a primary school, where a community meeting, chaired by the Mayor of Rubavu district and attended by soldiers and local authorities, was being held. The meeting came to a halt when Rukundo and the soldiers arrived.
They discussed the case of the stolen and killed cow for only a short time. With an air of finality, the mayor said, "We have a thief here; we now kill thieves." He said there was no choice but to kill Rukundo. Some people in the crowd applauded, while others begged for Rukundo to be forgiven. Rukundo begged for mercy, maintaining that he was innocent. But it was too late, a decision had already been made, and the soldiers took him away.
Worn-out from the weight of the carcass, Rukundo could barely walk much further as the soldiers escorted him to another small banana plantation near the school. The soldiers told the crowd to go away, and many ran. A few stayed to watch, but at a safe distance.
Rukundo, now exhausted, asked the soldiers if he could sit down and rest for a while. The soldiers agreed. He sat on the ground for a few moments before they told him to stand up again. Witnesses then heard three bangs tear into the morning air. The soldiers shot him in the arm, thigh and head. The remaining witnesses scattered.
The mourning for Rukundo was short and private. Everyone is afraid of being tainted with his presumed guilt, of demonstrating any closeness to someone who was once their friend.