WHEN KILLINGS of Tutsis started at a large scale throughout the country in April 1994, part of the now Burera District remained safe as it was already under the control of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA).
As opposed to other areas of the country, particularly the south and west where thousands of people were killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the current Burera District counts about a hundred victims buried in two separate memorial sites.
One of the memorials, in Rugarama Sector, is home to 16 people who were all killed before the 100-day Genocide, while another 97 victims are buried at Cyeru memorial site.
Among them is a dozen or so individuals who were also killed before the start of the mass killings in April 1994, officials say.
From the figures and testimonies of residents, a common image that comes out is that of an area that experienced targeted killings, particularly in the build up to the Genocide, and low scale killings between April and July 1994.
From witness accounts, one name continues to feature prominently on the list of notorious Tutsi persecutors and killers in the early 1990s: Tharcisse Muvunyi.
Muvumyi was then a Major in the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR).
He is particularly accused of having ordered the arrest and murder of dozens of Tutsis in the former Kinigi, Kigombe, Nkumba, Kidaho and Butaro areas, now in Burera and Musanze districts.
He is said to have been distinctive in his killing method, particularly executing his victims using a small, worn-out hoe, something that earned him the nickname ‘Gafuni’- a small hoe in Kinyarwanda.
Muvunyi was born in 1953 in Mukarange, in the former Byumba prefecture. In 1973, he joined the army and four years later he was given the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. In the following years, he rose through the ranks of the army, becoming a Major in the late 1980s.
When RPA launched the Liberation War in October 1990, Muvunyi had been posted to the now Burera District where he was commanding a unit of the FAR.
The unit he commanded was responsible for the area stretching from Rugarama to the Cyanika border with Uganda and the entire volcanoes massif area.
But the military man is said to have used his position and influence to abuse, persecute, hunt down and kill Tutsis branding them collaborators of the RPA.
Fabien Niyonsenga, 41, a survivor, still has fresh memories of Gafuni because of his modus operandi.
Niyonsenga, who says the officer was responsible for almost all atrocities committed in the area he controlled, still remembers an incident in which six Tutsi men were executed in public, allegedly on the orders of Maj. Muvunyi.
“He accused the people of being sympathisers and collaborators of the RPA. By executing them in public, he said he was sending a stern message to the community. It was done in public so everyone could see,” Niyonsenga said.
The victims were then dumped into a massive grave, he says.
Sources say the killings continued under the supervision of Muvunyi. They were mainly carried out using ifuni (loosely tanslated as a ‘worn out hoe head,’ leading to the ‘Gafuni’ nickname as, sources argue, had vowed to never “waste his bullets” on inyenzi (coakroaches).
Abetting killings in Butare
Muvunyi remained in the northern area from early 1990 to late 1991 when he was transferred to the Non-Commissioned Officers training school (ESSO) in Butare (now Huye). He was later appointed its commander and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
Despite the transfer of Muvunyi to Butare, the targeted killings continued in Burera, this time carried out by militia groups, who, survivors say, “had been given the green light to kill by a senior military officer.”
The killings continued until the area was secured by the RPA late in 1993.
Burera mayor Samuel Sembagare said the killings are an indication of how far the genocidal government was determined to exterminate Tutsis.
“They used all means, all institutions and any other possible way to reach to their target,” Sembagare says. “The military, the media, the leaders, the militias... all were mobilised to kill or to encourage the murder of the Tutsi.”
At the time of the Genocide, Muvunyi was one of the most senior military officers in the former Butare prefecture.
Between April and July 1994, he is said to have worked hand in hand with other senior local leaders in Butare to incite and encourage people to perpetrate massacres against the Tutsi.
Muvunyi was also accused of having participated directly in the provision of weapons to militiamen and ordered officers under his command, including his students at ESSO, to carry out massacres.
Guilty of genocide
In February 2000, Muvunyi was arrested in London, United Kingdom, and, six years later, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) sentenced him to 25 years in jail after finding him guilty of genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide and inhumane acts as a crime against humanity.
In an unprecedented move, however, in 2008, the Appeals Chamber quashed his conviction and ordered a partial re-trial.
The re-trial ended in 2010 with the court handing him a 15-year jail term. He again appealed though this time round, the sentence was upheld.
In 2012, Muvunyi was released from the UN Detention Facility in Arusha, Tanzania, after serving more than three-quarters of his sentence.
At the time, the ICTR announced that Muvunyihad been granted early release because of “his good conduct.” It is not clear where he is living at the moment, although most ICTR inmates are still under the care of UN in Arusha