Munyeshyaka, the priest who turned on his flock

Sara Bampiriye was carrying her son of three days when killings escalated in their home cell, Muhima in the former Rugenge Sector, just near downtown Kigali.
Senators during a visit of Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre look at some of the weapons that were used during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. (File)
Senators during a visit of Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre look at some of the weapons that were used during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. (File)

Sara Bampiriye was carrying her son of three days when killings escalated in their home cell, Muhima in the former Rugenge Sector, just near downtown Kigali.

The first sanctuary to come to mind for the then young family of four was the church, and Sainte Famille Catholic Church was conveniently just 400 metres away from their home.

They somehow evaded the marauding militia and made it to the church. Here, Tharcisse Mutabazi, 28, thought he had finally brought his young family to safety.

He was wrong.

“On the third day of our arrival at Sainte Famille, Interahamwe militia attacked the church, shooting from the compound and my husband, together with many other young men, fled the church—jumping through windows.

“There were several gunshots outside the church and a few hours later, when the shooting ceased, we got out of church and found many dead bodies littering the compound. My husband’s was among them,” she said.

Sara Bampiriye at her home. She says her husband Tharcisse Mutabazi was killed during 1994 Genocide at Sainte Famille Church headed by Father Munyeshya, at the time. (Athan Tashobya)

The chilling event of that day has changed the life of Bampiriye, now 43, because barely a week after having a child, she found herself in a situation where she had to feed her two toddlers and herself, besides having to ensure they all stay alive.

And the one man who forever haunts Bampiriye is Fr Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, the then vicar of their perceived sanctuary, who openly commanded the militia as they descended on the helpless fleeing Tutsi at the church.

Munyeshyaka is said to have worked closely not only with the Interahamwe militia, but also senior government and military officials at the time, and they were always seen together at the church premises.

“Even before that attack in which my husband was killed, Fr Munyeshyaka, used to carry with him a pistol hidden beneath his sleeveless jacket that looked like military fatigue, even during mass that he celebrated,” she said.

He was ruthless in his sermons and talked all sorts of evil things, calling the Tutsi ‘cockroaches’ that deserve nothing but death.

“For that attack that claimed my husband, Munyeshyaka was with the Interahamwe at the church when they launched the attack. Others (mainly men and boys) were later selected from among us, loaded onto trucks and taken away. Among these were my two cousins whose remains we have never recovered,” she said.

Bampiriye said besides commanding the militiamen to kill fleeing Tutsi, Munyeshyaka would select girls and women from among the refugees whom he handed to the interahamwe to rape them. He also participated in the rapes.

Bampiriye said killings at Sainte Famille Catholic Church were mostly done by soldiers who were mostly targeting Tutsi men than the women.

A portrait of Bampiriye's husband, Tharcisse Mutabazi, who was killed at Sainte Famille Church. (Athan Tashobya)

“With my children, we kept hiding inside the church gallery until RPF-Inkotanyi soldiers arrived and took us to Kabuga, where they had secured and created a refugee camp. Out of hundreds of young men who had sought refuge at the camp, not more than 10 survived,” said Bampiriye.

A survivor’s tale

Epaphrodite Nyilindogo, 45, is one of the few men who survived from Sainte Famille Catholic Church. However, his survival came after a series of attempted murder.

“On four occasions that I vividly remember, Fr Munyeshyaka came with dozens of militiamen led by Lt Col Laurent Munyakazi (who was later to be promoted to a Major General) and ordered young men to be loaded on trucks—from where they would be taken to unknown destinations,” Nyilindogo said.

Epaphrodite Nyilindogo, Genocide survivor, during the interview. (Faustin Niyigena)

They were all discovered dead.

“I could make sure that I am the last to enter the truck giving me an opportunity to jump off the truck on all occasions and lucky enough I was a fast runner; that’s how I managed to escape death,” he added.

Nyilindogo said Munyeshyaka would come to church with soldiers and other then ruling government officials to ask people hiding in Sainte Famille Catholic Church of their choices between swearing allegiance to the genocidal regime by joining the militia or being a part of RPF-Inkotanyi.

The ones who chose the latter would be abducted and taken away.

And to show that Munyeshyaka had clout over the Interahamwe, Nyilindogo says that he had forbidden them from killing people from inside the church and they always respected him on this.

“Those that were killed at church, they were shot from the compound and their bodies were almost immediately taken away on trucks, again on Munyeshyaka’s orders,” he said.

Sainte Famille Church in Kigali. (Adam Jones/Flickr)

Ibuka to carry on fight

Meanwhile, Fr Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, who has been facing trial in France for his alleged role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, was last week set free by the French judiciary.

The head of Ibuka, the umbrella organisation for Genocide survivors associations, Jean-Pierre Dusingizemungu, said they are not surprised by acquittal of Munyeshyaka, insisting that they would not give up their pursuit for justice.

“Munyeshyaka is now a French citizen and he is still a priest in that country. We all know how France aided genocidal regime, therefore the dismissal of his case is a politically motivated move, everybody knows that,” he said.

According to Dusingizemungu, this move is likely to not only hurt the already fragile relations between Rwanda and France but also the country’s relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.

“You know very well that justice delayed is justice denied; however, this is not the end of it as Ibuka will continue to fight until justice prevails,” said Dusingizemungu.

Who is Munyeshyaka?

Born in former Butare prefecture, now Southern Province, Fr Wenceslas Munyeshyaka was recently absolved of any role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi by the French judiciary.

Wenceslas Munyeshyaka

Munyeshyaka, who has continued his pastoral work in France, was absolved even before he had his day in court, having been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and his case transferred to France for trial.

The decision by the French court has particularly riled Bampire just like those few people who survived from Sainte Famille Catholic Church.

“It is unbelievable; it achieves nothing but denigrating all of us Genocide survivors who know Munyeshyaka well.

But I am not surprised; we never expected justice because he was being tried in France,” said Bampiriye.

Last week, the National Commission for the Fight against the Genocide (CLNG) said the dismissal of charges against Munyeshyaka is yet another demonstration of France’s continued reluctance to bring to book those responsible for gross human rights violations during the Genocide that currently live in France.

CNLG says Munyeshyaka was “responsible for the crime of genocide having planned, instigated, committed or otherwise aided and abetted others in the planning, preparation or execution of the Genocide”.

CNLG has since moved to lodge an appeal against the order of dismissal of the investigating judge in the case of Munyeshyaka.