Kwibuka25: reliving the horror in an ICTR courtroom

Rose Burizihiza, at Mukura Genocide Memorial in Huye District. Most of her loved ones are buried at the same memorial site. Photos by Anne Dushimimana

It is a day she will never forget as long as she lives, she says.

She is seated in the witness box, scared of the intimidating environment she finds herself in – full of foreigners, none of whom could fathom or perhaps care what she went through during the Genocide against the Tutsi – but she is determined to see this to the end.

It is in the name of her daughter, her husband, her parents, brothers and sisters, among many of her family members, neighbours and friends who were killed by the same people she is about to testify against, as a witness.

Suddenly, after taking the oath, she sees a familiar face from group of lawyers, guns blazing, ready to defend their clients whose horrific acts she is here to testify about.

This is in 2003 and Rose Burizihiza, now 49, is at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania as one of the prosecution witnesses in the infamous Butare Trial.

The case is no ordinary one for many reasons; it involves six people accused of being at the heart of the killings of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in the former Butare Prefecture.

But, most importantly, she is here to testify to the crime of rape, which, five years back, the same tribunal had determined as an act of genocide and a crime against humanity, in a landmark ruling.

The suspects – now convicts – had as their leader, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, who was the Minister in charge Family Promotion and hailed from Butare.

She superintended rape of women in the area among other horrific crimes against humanity.

Ironically, among the suspects was her own son, Arsene-Sharlom Ntahobali.

“Suddenly, as I swing my eyes around the courtroom, I suddenly see a familiar face among the lawyers; it must be a dream, I tell myself, I looked again and I was shocked to see the man I knew so well among the killers,” she says.

He is not in the dock, where the rest of the Butare killers – his ilk – were, but among the lawyers, with stacks of papers on a desk before them.

“I cried out so loudly; that is Biroto! He is an Interahamwe and was among the militia leaders in Butare (currently part of Huye District and surrounding areas);” she narrates of the events 15 years ago, as if it was yesterday.

The man she is referring to was Joseph Nzabilinda, commonly known as Biroto, who worked with the defence team to defend his own accomplices.

She says that the officers at the court initially thought she was being hysterical; which was not unexpected in her circumstances, so they proposed an adjournment so she could compose herself before returning to the stand.

“I still insisted that I knew the man; I knew him so well and I was not ready to see him remain free, more so defending his fellow killers,” she said.

When she stuck to her guns, she was asked to produce evidence, with court officials insisting that it should be a case of mistaken identity, because they knew the man in question as not Rwandan and could, therefore, not have been anywhere near the Butare massacres.

“I returned to Rwanda and, fortunately, managed to get records of him from the local officials, then headed back to face him,” she says, with a sense of triumph.

Confronted with the hard facts, Nzabilinda decided to strike a plea bargain deal with prosecution at the same court, and was eventually handed a paltry seven-year sentence, which he has since served up.

Meanwhile, Nyiramasuhuko and her son Ntahobali are currently serving life sentence, which was upheld on appeal.

The witness

Burizihiza hails from Cyeru Cell, Mukura Sector in Huye District; the same area where convicted Prime Minister of the Genocidal regime, Jean Kambanda came from, which probably explains the viciousness of the massacres that took place in this area.

“It was not easy to survive here. Kambanda brought fuel to burn Tutsi households to set an example to other Hutus. Most of the survivors here are women who have been raped,” she said.

She would go on to testify against many other genocidaires at ICTR, and in other countries, including Canada, the United States and Europe.

This is besides the dozens of suspects convicted partly due to her testimonies during the Gacaca courts – a semi-traditional mechanism introduced to try suspects of the Genocide.

Left to tell a story

Burizihiza attributes her prominence in giving testimonies to one particular Interahamwe militia called Pascal Habyarimana, a former local leader, who, after killing her husband and entire family, decided to keep her captive for the biggest part of the Genocide.

He repeatedly raped the then 24- year-old, whom she would return to after his day time killing spree.

“On many occasions, he told me that I would be the last Tutsi alive and I will live to testify that there was once a people called the Tutsi,” she said, explaining that he would drag her to the roadblocks where she would witness people being killed.

Habyarimana is among the people she testified against in Gacaca courts, and was sentenced to life. Recently, he died of natural causes in prison.

“Before taking me captive, Habyarimana threw to the dogs my two sons who were toddlers; one two years and another four months old. The daughter was already died. Fortunately, the dogs didn’t eat my boys,” she said.

The two sons are now young adults; one graduated from university last year, while the other is in his final year at university.

Contemplating suicide

During her time in captivity, Burizihiza said she contemplated committing suicide many times, but was restrained by the information she got that her two sons could still be alive.

“The one scene that has not left me in these 25 years is this one time Habyarimana brought me to the scene where they were going to kill my husband. They threw him into a hole to die a slow death and every morning he would bring me there to hear how he cried for help, until his last breathe,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.

She witnessed the death of almost all her family members and neighbours as she was brought to the killing sites by the same man, only to be taken back to his home.

Trauma and testifying

When the Genocide was brought to an end, Burizihiza found herself a widow with her two little sons; all her family and in-laws had been killed.

“I was full of hatred; the images of my kith being killed always came back to me. I was traumatized and I didn’t know if one day I would be able to live a normal life again,” she said.

At the beginning, she contemplated revenge, but there was no way to do it. She would not talk to Hutus, thinking that they were all the same, she said.

However, with time, she realised that the only way of healing was to talk about what she had witnessed and participate in bringing justice to the genocide victims.

“I testified many times and said what I saw. I was always available for any court that needed testimony from me. Even in Gacaca, I would walk miles to give testimonies of what I saw during the Genocide,” she said.

She didn’t have fear to testify against genocide perpetrators and she didn’t want her identity concealed, she says.

This, according to her, would bring some sort of confusion in her testimonies, which may end up leading to miscarriage of justice.

“My wish was to tell and testify against these criminals face to face, as it was during 1994 Genocide. They were aware I knew many things about them, as they always brought me with them as a way to kill me a slow death,” she said.

Burizihiza testified against many top of the genocide in the former Butare, including Desiré Munyaneza who was sentenced to life imprisonment by Canadian courts.

“For me, bringing justice to victims was the shortcut to my healing from trauma. I was not able to sleep with all these things in my head. I would take papers and write down what I saw whole nights to relieve the pain I felt,” she said.

Facing insecurity

In the aftermath of the Genocide, Burizihiza says she started to face insecurity from genocide perpetrators before even Gacaca court started. They knew she knew a lot and she was ready to testify against them.

“I remember one day they threw a grenade into my home, but God saved me and my boys, no one was injured,” she said before adding; “but I was unfazed”.

In 1998, the government gave her shelter in military camp, to ensure her security, she sad.

“When they saw they couldn’t find me, they started to accost my children at school. I decided to send them to boarding schools far from Huye,” she said.

It got worse during Gacaca but her security was taken seriously by Rwandan army and police, she said.

Justice served

Burizihiza said she is happy now that at least justice has, to a great degree, been served for the victims of Genocide, including her daughter and husband.

“Many people were arrested and convicted; some even had the courage to ask for forgiveness and showed where they put their victims who have since been accorded decent burial. It is a good thing that contributed to the healing, unity and reconciliation,” she said.

“I remember, after the Genocide we asked ourselves whom we were going to live with. But with justice served and the support from government, we found it was possible to live together as Rwandans,” she says.

I personally felt free in or around 2012.

However, she says, some survivors are still facing and are greatly affected by the horrors of the genocide, especially those who were very young.

“Some still face a great degree of trauma; others especially the old suffer loneliness and are helpless because they don’t have families to support them. The government and the communities should continue to give them a hand to be able to live,” she said.