Thirteen years before mass killings started in April 1994, Kibeho in Nyaruguru District was a subject of intense media coverage and a hot subject of discussion mainly because of the reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary to school girls–apparitions that were recognised by the Roman Catholic Church in 2001.
Since 1981 when they were first reported, Kibeho became a popular place of worship and a destination for thousands of pilgrims from around the world who considered it a holy place.
So when killings erupted in 1994, Tutsi–believing in the miracles and the respect people had for that ‘holy land’–took refuge in Kibeho with hopes that they would be spared.
Instead, they were killed in the most inhumane way, while the church they had taken refuge in was torched.
Testimonies from survivors, residents and Genocide perpetrators in the area indicate that killings there were committed by hundreds of Interahamwe who had teamed up mainly with gendarmes (equivalent to current Police).
But one name remains ubiquitous among the Genocide masterminds in Nyaruguru: Damien Biniga.
At the time of the Genocide, Biniga was the deputy governor of Munini–comprising former Mubuga, Rwamiko, Kivu and Nshili communes, now in Nyaruguru and Nyamagabe districts, Southern Province.
He had been posted to the area in the early 1990s in what survivors say was a “well-hatched plan to prepare the Genocide and ensure that nothing is foiled.”
Born in 1948 in the former Muko commune, Gikongoro prefecture, Biniga is said to have trained as a medical practitioner but chose to join politics. In the mid 1980s, he was a Member of Parliament for Gikongoro before he was appointed in 1990 as the deputy governor of Munini.
While a leader of Munini, Biniga was known to be an ardent supporter of the then ruling party, Mouvement Républicain National pour la Démocratie et le Development (MRND).
Sources say he helped recruit and train Interahamwe in the area, becoming their de facto commander during the Genocide.
His incendiary speeches, hate acts and constant persecution of Tutsi population in the area had even earned Biniga the moniker of Binigampinja (literally translated as ‘child strangler’) even before the 1994 slaughter.
Some sources argue that the nickname was borne out of the killing of children alongside their parents on his orders, but others argue the name is more attached to the general persecution, hate and slaughter of Tutsi he oversaw in the area.
But whatever lies behind the nickname, the name Binigampinja is negative and has to do with the killing of Tutsi before and during the 1994 Genocide.
In its March 1999 report, “Leave no one to tell the story: Genocide in Rwanda,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) described Biniga as a “brutal” leader and “hard-core” MRND supporter.
HRW detailed an incident in September 1992 when Biniga allegedly clashed with supporters of MDR who had organised a protest calling for his transfer.
“At one point, the people of Kivu commune—presumably adherents of the MDR—were so angry at his favouring the MRND that they blocked the road to prevent him from passing through their commune,” reads part of the HRW report.
Testimonies from residents seem to corroborate the account. A source privy to the incident told this paper that Biniga only left the area when a plane was sent to airlift him.
Other sources said Biniga was active in encouraging discrimination against Tutsi in the area, working through Interahamwe militia to spread hate messages within the local community.
A number of other human rights organisations and international groups have also documented Biniga’s alleged role in the Genocide. Some of them were documented by African Rights and published in 1999 in a compilation titled: “Damien Biniga: A Genocide Without Borders, Witness to Genocide.”
Although it suspected he did not personally kill anyone, Biniga is said to have been the commander of militia who swept through the current Nyaruguru District and neighbouring areas hunting, torturing and killing Tutsi, particularly in Kibeho area.
He is said to have been omnipresent (being present everywhere at once) during attacks that targeted Tutsi in the Genocide and is cited among key figures that instigated and encouraged the massacres of Tutsi in the former Gikongoro prefecture, and later in the neighbouring Butare.
Emmanuel Sebazungu, a resident of Kibeho, says Biniga was influential during the Genocide.
Sebazungu says his posting to Munini was part of a plan to execute the Genocide.
“He seemed to be on a mission. He was sent here to supervise the execution of the Genocide plan,” Sebazungu, who was at the time a teacher, argues.
Survivors say Biniga led the attack on Kibeho church in which Interahamwe and gendarmes he commanded killed thousands of Tutsi who had taken refuge there.
Jerome Rugema, 35, who survived the killings in Kibeho, described how a ‘scrub of killers’, many dressed in banana leaves, attacked the church, sprayed bullets and hurled grenades into the crowd, before militiamen armed with machetes, clubs and other traditional weapons came in to “finish off those who were injured or had survived unharmed.”
To complement their heinous and horrendous acts, the killers later torched the church.
An estimated 28,000 victims are buried at a memorial just outside the church.
Biniga also led the attacks against Tutsi in Mpunge, Kuwarurari and Kidakama areas, according to testimonies.
“If people like Biniga had not encouraged discrimination and sowed the seeds of hatred, Genocide couldn’t have happened at the large scale it took,” Sebazungu argues.
“Of course, he conspired with other leaders, police and military officers. But as a high-ranking leader who invested his body and heart into the massacres, his role remains extremely immense,” he says.
FDLR high-command member
The whereabouts of Biniga, the man who Nyaruguru survivors regard as the ‘butcher’ of their relatives, remain unknown.
But sources who talked to The New Times said when the Genocidal government was defeated, Biniga fled with others to DR Congo. It remains unclear whether he is still living there or whether he might have moved to another country.
However, a study published in 2008 by the Rwanda Demobilisation Commission, titled; “The Leadership of Rwandan Armed Groups Abroad With a Focus on the FDLR and RUD/Urunana,” claimed that Biniga was at the time the in charge of protocol in FDLR political wing.
The same report indicate that Biniga was originally a target of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), but his file was later passed on to the Rwandan prosecution.
He is also on Interpol’s list of the most wanted Genocide fugitives.
But it is until he is tracked down and arraigned in a court of law to answer for his acts that survivors in Nyaruguru will feel they have been given justice.
“We want justice to prevail. We request authorities to make an effort and bring him to justice,” Sebazungu says.