FROM THE vast south-western plains of Bugarama to the hilly region of Bisesero, far in the mid-western district of Karongi, the name Yussuf Munyakazi still evokes nightmares among survivors and witnesses of the tragic 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Munyakazi, then a wealthy rice farmer who owned chunks of land in the current Bugarama Sector in Rusizi District, was a key figure in the massacre of Tutsis in the former prefectures of Cyangugu and Kibuye.
Testimonies have linked Yussuf, as he was commonly known, to a gang of dreaded militiamen who swept across the south- and mid-western part of the country between April and July 1994, hunting, torturing and killing Tutsis.
Witness accounts show that the elderly Genocide convict acted as the head of Interahamwe militia in the former Bugarama commune years before mass killings started.
During the Genocide, the militiamen always acted on his whims and he transported them to various areas of the current Western Province to ‘work’ (read to kill Tutsis).
Munyakazi’s gang is infamous for having been enlisted for help in areas where Tutsis stood their ground against the killers or where they had created resistance movements.
One of the situations where the gang was enlisted is the dismantling of resistance that had been mounted on a hill called Bisesero, in the present-day Karongi District.
It was not until May that things took another twist when local Interahamwe received reinforcement of soldiers, gendarmes and police and more militia from other parts of the country, mainly from Munyakazi’s Cyangugu.
Thousands of the Tutsis were then killed in just two days.
The massacre, witnesses say, was also made possible by a French army contingent deployed under an operation, Zone Tourquoise, which lured the Tutsis out of their hideout.
Wearing banana leaves
Noella Musabyemariya, a survivor living in Kagano Sector of Nyamasheke District, still remembers the day Munyakazi’s gang left for Bisesero.
She says that day it was common talk among locals that Yussuf was travelling with his men to Bisesero to ‘work’.
“There were lots of cars packed with killers. Some would perch on top of the cars, while others were suspended on the back of buses,” she recalls, adding that she saw all this from where she stood near the Nyamasheke-Kibuye road which the buses plied about 20 years ago.
Antoine Sebiroro, a survivor of the Bisesero massacres, says Yussuf’s militiamen wore “coffee branches and banana leaves.”
“They were chanting, Iye! Tubatsembatsembe (let’s exterminate them),” Sebiroro recalls. “They were packed in huge buses and trucks.”
Between May 13 and 14, a major attack was launched on Bisesero hill, leading to the death of more than 40,000 Tutsis, according to Eric Nzabihimana, 48, another Bisesero survivor.
“There is no doubt that Yussuf’s group played a major role in the extermination of Tutsis in Bisesero,” Sebiroro says. “The arrival of his gang boosted the morale and numbers of the killers.”
Convicted by ICTR
Munyakazi was born in 1936 in Rwamatamu commune, Kibuye.
At the time of the Genocide, he had moved to Bugarama commune, Cyangugu prefecture, where he was a wealthy landowner, farmer and businessman.
In the early 1990s, Munyakazi rose through political ranks to become influential in the then ruling Mouvement Républicain National pour la Démocratie et le Développement (MRND).
He was later elected patron of the Interahamwe in the region.
His gang is infamous in Bugarama, Kamembe, Mibilizi, Shangi and Bisesero, among others.
A Muslim and father of 13, Munyakazi was arrested in May 2004 in eastern DR Congo where he lived as an imam (a Muslim cleric).
Prior to his arrest, he had been on the US list of most wanted Genocide suspects, with a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest.
His trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) started in April 2009, leading to his conviction in 2010.
Munyakazi appealed the 25-year jail term, but the sentence was upheld by the appeals chamber of ICTR.
Aged 74 at the time of his conviction, Munyakazi was the oldest person to be found guilty by the Arusha-based court. He is serving his sentence in Mali.