Serving time for Rwandan genocide in Nyamagabe prison
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It’s a hot day on an April morning at Nyamagabe prison in Rwanda’s Southern Province. Men dressed in either pink or orange prison garb walk around a yard nestled in one of the country’s many hills. There are more than 3,300 génocidaires here at Nyamagabe, including Désiré Ngezahayo.
“You must respect order. And especially if it comes from the head of state. They said the head of state made a recommendation: execute quickly,” says Ngezahayo.
He’s speaking of Theodore Sindikubwabo, the interim president during the genocide who went on the radio on 19 April with his orders. In 1994, Ngezahayo was the mayor of Chanika town.
At 60, he has spent 20 years in prison, with another four to go but he describes each day after 7 April 1994, the day the genocide started, with near military precision.
Ngezahayo’s appearance is impeccable - pink prison-issue short-sleeved polyester top and matching Bermuda shorts that reach mid-calf, homeboy style. His white socks almost touch his shorts. Black dress shoes complete the ensemble.
He sits down in the prison director’s office and places a big notebook on his lap with two smaller notebooks on top. The cover of one has a Bollywood-style photo. He will arrange the glasses case on the notebooks while speaking manicured French for the next half hour.
“In 100 days, I swear I did not kill a single person. My hands are clean,” he says, as he rubs them together above his notebooks.
Some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, many by machete, in an estimated 100 days, making that genocide the most efficient in modern history.
The former mayor, or bourgmestre, of Cyanika, a small town in the Southern Province, walks us through the days of the genocide, giving the date, who attended the meetings, and what was said. He has had 20 years to think about those 100 days.
“On 13 April the prefecture told the mayors to go to the meeting at Kikongoro,” he begins, mentioning a nearby town. The mayors were told to install roadblocks to control the advance of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR) rebels.
He had heard on the radio that Rwanda’s president Juvénal Habyarimana had died when his plane was shot down on 6 April and everyone started to kill in Kigali.
“The Tutsi left and ran to the churches. A lot of Tutsi went to the church in Cyanika. They went afterwards to Murambi,” he says, referring to the site of a massacre of between 40,000 and 50,000 people.
On 18 April all the important people in the area, including army staff, went to a meeting in Kikongoro.
“We didn’t start killing immediately. Then-president Theodore Sindikubwabo came on the radio on 19 April and told us to kill Tutsi,” he said.
That day he waited to hear the grenades that would signify that the military had started killing but he did not hear anything until very early on the morning of 21 April, a little after midnight.
“We heard the bombs in the distance so everyone ran over there because they had to help them kill the Tutsi,” he says.
He didn’t go but fellow inmate Faustin Twagirimana, 41, was there. He was working as a cook for the army and they put him in charge of handing out the machetes, axes and grenades at Murambi.
Twagirimana introduces himself, and says people call him "the Gorilla" in prison. He’s bald, short and squat, with bloodshot brown eyes. His nickname suits him. He’s wearing a slightly dirty orange prison uniform. There is a hole in his right grey sock, poking out above his black leather sneakers.
It was in the early hours of the morning when he gave out weapons, he says in Kinyarwanda. Although it was dark, Twagirimana estimates there were 500 people there to kill and the army maintained a cordon around the school to supervise.
Then a policeman gave him grenade.
“I was a little scared. But because this was a government decision, they gave the order to kill. It began like that, but,” he hesitates, “it wasn’t very clear.”
Did he kill anyone at Murambi?
“Yes, I threw the grenade, but I don’t know how many people I killed,” he says.
He wasn’t able to see because it was dark. But afterwards he thought about what he did. “It was horrible to see someone you shared things with dying. And you killed him. It’s incomprehensible,” he adds.
While he maintains he participated in the genocide, Twagirimana also invoked the Nuremburg defence, saying he followed orders. His answers become increasingly conflicted as his story unfolds.
“I feel ashamed but, because the government says to kill people, kill enemies in general, the problem is the government’s, not mine. I knew there would be no backlash,” he says.
Ngezahayo, the former mayor, says he was not in Cyanika when the Murambi murders began. The mass killings there spread across the communities at breakneck speed. “All the Tutsi in Cyanika were massacred, the people in Murambi were massacred. At Kadoura they were massacred. The Tutsi were massacred at Kikongoro, too.”
He was ordered by the prefecture to bury the bodies found in the cathedral. There were around 5,000. It took four days. Did he see the dead bodies of any of his Tutsi friends or neighbours? He had been the mayor of Cyanika since 1982.
“Yes, I knew people there,” he replies crisply.
On 26 April, he reports, 10,000 people had been killed in Cyanika over six days.
Ngezahayo says he did not kill anyone but admits he was complicit in the genocide.
“I didn’t stop the killings. And another thing, I didn’t tell the Tutsi to flee because they would be killed. That’s the second crime. And the third crime - I put up roadblocks all over,” he says.
In the aftermath of the genocide, the prisons became extremely overcrowded. In an effort to ease the prison population two million alleged génocidaires were sentenced in local community justice gacaca courts between 2001 and 2012 alone.
Some townspeople defended him at the gacaca, saying he was not there during the attack and that they had never seen him wield a machete. Originally sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life in prison after the death penalty was abolished in 2007. Former mayor Ngezahayo received 24 years in prison at the gacaca.
“After the gacaca, I should have had 20 years in prison. I should be out by now.” In his next breath, he gladly accepts the ruling.
“Now my heart is content. I’m happy. Voilà. And I’m happy with the sentence I received.”
Twagirimana went searching for Tutsis with a group during the genocide but he says he did not kill anyone after the grenade attack. Hutu men were required to go out and kill Tutsis, so he said he went out but never killed anyone while hunting down his townspeople.
Hutu who did not kill were not given any meat at the end of the day or any other food. So Twagirimana stole Tutsi cows and other food from houses. He maintains that he hid two Tutsi, who are still alive, and his family hid four more.
“I went with the killers so they wouldn’t come to my house and find the people hidden there,” he says.
When asked to describe what he saw while with the killers, he avoids the question. “I saw many people die. I already told this story to ask for forgiveness,” he says.
In 2003 the Rwandan government said it would reconsider the sentence of any génocidaires who asked for forgiveness. Many did, including Twagirimana. He had been in jail since 1995.
He was destined to spend more time in prison, however, and in 2007 was re-sentenced again to 19 years. He’s already been behind bars for 15 years and believes he will be let out in a few months.
The Gorilla is angry that he is still in prison, saying that rich Hutus who avoided doing time do not want him to tell the truth, believing he could implicate them.
Ngezahayo also has issues because he has spoke out about what happened, giving testimony against those who were directly involved with him. He’s been to court in Arusha, Tanzania, the seat of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, to testify twice.
The former mayor has made his peace with what he did, he says. He’s asked forgiveness and testified against others. He’s been threatened within prison, too.
“If you talk, you will never leave prison, some inmates have told me. They’ve threatened me.” The prison warden moved him to another cell block after the threats grew. He’s now the main conflict mediator amongst the prisoners in his cellblock.
“They have refused to accept the blame. I have told them they should, but they refuse,” he says. “I think we should apologise to all Tutsis.”