/ 27 September 1996

The Rwandan monster who killed his friends

This week Jean-Paul Akayesu became the first Hutu to go on trial for the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, reports Chris McGreal

JOSEPHINE MUKANKUSI cannot even look back on her wedding with happiness for she remembers who was there.

Her brother was just a young boy when she married in 1970. Even so, his betrayal has been hardest to fathom. The uncles who came to congratulate Josephine and her young husband, Edouard, showed no malice then. And there was Jean-Paul Akayesu. He used to drink at their house and rose to become mayor of their hillside commune at Taba in central Rwanda.

“I would like to ask them all why they did this – my brother, my uncles, Akayesu. Akayesu was a friend of my husband’s. They grew up together. He knew our children. We thought he was a good man. The same people who drank at our wedding murdered my family. I want to know why,” she said.

Rwanda’s age-old divisions did not discourage Josephine, a Hutu, from marrying a Tutsi man. Mixed marriages were relatively common around Taba. Three of Josephine’s younger sisters followed her lead and married Tutsis. It had never bothered Akayesu either, until the start of the civil war in 1990 threw the loyalties of all Tutsis into question.

Akayesu, as local chairman of an extremist Hutu political party, could no longer afford such friends, but he did not go out of his way to bother them. And when, in April 1994, war turned to genocide, Akayesu again appeared at Josephine’s door.

“He said we should stay calm and nothing would happen to us. Now I think he meant to confuse us,” she said.

The Mukankusis sensed betrayal. They had already fled as their Hutu neighbours descended to loot and destroy their prosperous home built from Edouard’s years of labour as a mason. A local schoolteacher, who taught one of Josephine’s six children, oversaw the demolition. Two days later the Hutu extremist militia, the interahamwe, began hunting Tutsi men.

>From her hiding place in the bush, Josephine saw the fate of those who fell into the hands of drunken young thugs who sometimes wore absurd outfits, even women’s clothes or wigs, as if to take on another persona.

Always they carried machetes or, an interahamwe favourite, thick wooden clubs studded with nails and other bits of metal. Invariably they were led by the better- educated members of the community. Doctors and teachers were particularly active. So was Akayesu.

`We were all together in the bush but we could see what was happening and my husband was afraid he would attract the interahamwe who would kill the children. So he left,” Josephine said. “He was looking for a hiding place when the interahamwe grabbed him. They led him to a pit latrine and stabbed him with sharpened sticks and beat him with machetes. He was still alive when they threw him in. Then they threw stones at him until he died. Even children and women were stoning him.”

One of Josephine’s sisters, Vestine, had also fled her home. Her husband, Bernard, urged her to go to her Hutu parents for the sake of the children but she refused to be separated. A Hutu soldier, a friend of Bernard’s, offered them shelter in his house.

“The soldier would go out, kill Tutsis and come home describing the horrible deaths people were suffering. My husband offered to pay the soldier to shoot us if they came for us,” Vestine said.

“A problem developed because his wife thought I was sleeping with the soldier. When the soldier was transferred, the wife threw us out and told Akayesu we were there.”

It wasn’t long before the interahamwe came looking for Bernard. He was hidden deep in a banana plantation. Vestine bribed them but she realised it was too dangerous to remain where they were. She would head for her parents after all. Bernard went to his brother-in-law, Simon Bivahagumye, travelling through the hills at night.

Simon liked Bernard but feared he would bring the interahamwe knocking at the door, so he offered to help find somewhere safe. The two men left at night but could not escape the militia. Money changed hands. Bernard fled. Simon returned to his home.

The interahamwe thugs fought over the bribe. It was said everybody in the area heard them. When word spread about the cause of the commotion there was a lot of surprise. Most people had presumed Bernard was already dead. The militia descended on Simon’s house. He was accused of hiding Bernard and helping him escape. Simon, his wife and two sons were shot.

Josephine’s grief at Edouard’s murder was tempered by the lone responsibility of protecting her children. She fled the bush for the temporary safety of a kind relative.

“My aunt was a good Samaritan and gave us a bed. But her husband was interahamwe who spent most of the day killing. In the evening when the husband returned, I would hide in the plantation. But the woman gave us food and let us sleep in the beds during the day. We stayed there for about six weeks but my aunt heard they were killing people who sheltered Tutsis. She was afraid and asked us to go,” she said.

Josephine headed for the one place she was sure of a welcome – her parents’ house – even if others knew it was the place to look for her. Getting there carried its own dangers. The roadblocks were terrifying but Josephine talked and bribed her way through each one. Two days after arriving at her parents, a group of men descended on the house. They wanted Josephine’s boy. She pleaded that he was just three years old. No matter, they said.

“They were not killing girls, only boys. They marched me to the hill and took the baby from my back. Then they killed him in front of me,” she said.

One by one the four sisters gravitated toward their parents’ house. Uwidikije was already there with her only child when Josephine arrived. Then came Marceline with her four children. Her husband had been murdered while trying to defend his house from a demolition squad. A week later Vestine arrived. With their parents, and two younger unmarried sisters, the house was overflowing. The murder of Josephine’s youngest boy left 14 other children. Their protection was all that mattered to the family.

The Tutsi rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was drawing ever closer to Taba. The sisters knew they had only to keep their children from the interahamwe’s for just a few more days.

Akayesu, as mayor, had already overseen the murder of hundreds if not thousands of Tutsis. There were few adult Tutsis left but the militias knew there were still children, and word spread the girls were no longer to be spared. Akayesu even ordered Hutu women pregnant by Tutsi men to be cut open and their foetuses killed.

The sisters moved quickly to find hiding places for their children. The older ones were shown how to hide themselves in the banana groves. The youngest were told that if strangers came they were to hide in cupboards or under the beds.

There was one visitor who worried everyone but who it was all but impossible to keep away. The sisters only brother, Malachias, lived not far away and would drop by the house. The family knew he helped man the roadblocks where so many Tutsis met their end. Josephine and Vestine did not trust him to protect his own family, but their parents assured them Malachias would not bring about the death of his nieces and nephews.

It wasn’t long before the first groups of men came knocking. Often they were led by Akayesu and mayor of the neighbouring commune, Jean Mbarubukeye. They had become a team intent of mopping up the last of the Tutsis before the RPF arrived.

“They came to search day and night. We would change the hiding places when we saw people coming across the hill to the house. Sometimes we would use dried banana grass. If you pile it high you can put the small children in there and tell them to keep very still. Sometimes we would put the children inside the house. Or we would hide them in the bush,” she said.

Bernard apparently knew nothing of the murder of Simon and his family as he headed for another brother-in-law’s house in Akayesu’s commune. Vestine’s husband was one of the few Tutsi men still alive in the area. It was only a matter of time before the interahamwe thought to look for him there, but he was increasingly desperate.

Bernard had little chance of escape. With the RPF’s guns echoing through the hills he had become the most hunted man in Taba. Word spread that he was passing secret messages to the Tutsi rebels, and stashing weapons. Yet when they found Bernard he was alone and defenceless.

“As they led him to the main barrier beside Taba market they were cutting him with machetes. He was very badly hurt and bleeding. He hit Silas, the president of the interahamwe. The bodyguards shot him dead. That was his end. I think he attacked Silas so they would kill him quickly,” Vestine said.

Bernard’s death reminded the mob there were still more Tutsis to be dealt with. Akayesu was at the front as they marched on the house. Silas was at his side, angry and shaken at Bernard’s defiant assault. He wanted Vestine to pay. As the mob ascended the hill, the children scattered to their hiding places. Josephine had gone to buy food. Vestine was outside the house. “Akayesu pointed me out to Silas. They beat me and they beat my father for offering his daughters to the Tutsis. It just went on and on until I nearly couldn’t see anymore. I just lay there. My eyes filled with blood,” she said.

But Vestine could see the mob moving toward the house. At the forefront was her brother, pointing out the hiding places of the children. They came from cupboards and under beds, from beneath the dried grass and from the banana plantation. Akayesu assured the children that everything would be all right, as he had assured their parents that nothing would happen to them after the genocide started. He told the children they were going for a treat. They should just follow him.

The older children picked up the small ones and they began the walk to the barricade near the main road junction.

“The children carried each other to their deaths. Akayesu told them he was taking them to give them cakes. They went to their deaths with pleasure,” Vestine said.

Akayesu did not wait around. Perhaps, with the RPF close by, he did not want to be at the scene of his last crime.

Some of the mob recognised some of the children. The mob included one of their teachers, and mothers of their classmates. But mostly they were drunken young thugs who the following day would turn and run without a hint of resistance into the face of the RPF onslaught. The 14 children were clubbed and cut to pieces. They were almost certainly all dead by the time they were thrown into the pit latrines.

An hour later Josephine returned home. She saw Vestine, bloodied and beaten. The children had gone. She ran for the barricade. “I begged them to kill me too. They were supposed to be merciless but they refused. They said `Sorrow will kill you’.”