Baptiste Gatete, the man who was ‘skilled at cruelty, wicked to the soul’

WHEN former acquaintances talk about Jean Baptiste Gatete, they paint the image of a man who is skilled at cruelty and so wicked that he invested his life and soul in exterminating Tutsis.
Kiziguro Memorial Site, in Gatsibo Sector, stands in honour of those who were killed in the area. The majority of the Genocide victims fell to machinations of Gatete. (Jean-Pierre ....
Kiziguro Memorial Site, in Gatsibo Sector, stands in honour of those who were killed in the area. The majority of the Genocide victims fell to machinations of Gatete. (Jean-Pierre ....

WHEN former acquaintances talk about Jean Baptiste Gatete, they paint the image of a man who is skilled at cruelty and so wicked that he invested his life and soul in exterminating Tutsis.

Gatete, who served as the bourgoumestre (mayor) of Murambi commune in the eastern part of the country, is known to have been the leader of a militia group that swept across his commune and the neighbouring districts hunting down, torturing and killing Tutsis. 

This earned him the moniker of ‘the Butcher of Murambi’.

Although at the time of the Genocide Gatete had already been removed from his mayoral position, witness accounts show that he not only maintained influence in the area but also chalked it up with a degree of viciousness.

From 1987 to 1993, the man who had trained as an agricultural engineer served as the leader of Murambi and his position made him influential in the district.

Gatete was a diehard member of the ruling party, the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND), and a key figure in the creation of the party’s militant youth wing that he commanded as they scoured Murambi and neighbouring districts on a killing spree.

Bright and cruel

Pastor William Ndongozi, of Gahini Anglican Church, says under the orders of Gatete, each sector established a 150-member militia group. The militia was later given basic military training, including how to operate rifles.

Ndongozi says Gatete was as brilliant as he was cruel since his childhood. The pastor recalls a young Gatete tear apart pages from a school dictionary as he read it.

“He was caught red-handed and punished. He pleaded for mercy, promising to restore the damages, so he sat down and wrote back everything from the six page sheets he had destroyed,” Ndongozi says.

In another incident, Ndongozi recalls that Gatete once carried two fibre balls to school, but, apparently, he had placed a stone inside one of the balls. He tricked his colleagues into kicking it.

“That was something unexpected from a young man of his age,” Ndongozi says.

Early career

Gatete was born in 1953 in Murambi commune in the former Byumba prefecture (now part of Gatsibo District, Eastern Province).

In 1987, he was appointed as mayor of his native commune. He would in the early 1990s lead a hate campaign against Tutsis in the commune.

Witnesses say Gatete targeted mainly wealthy people and elites he accused of being collaborators or sympathisers of the Rwanda Patriotic Army who were then fighting to oust the facist regime.

Pastor Ndongozi says many people were arbitrarily detained or killed under Gatete’s orders.

He particularly recalls an incident in 1990 when dozens of Tutsis were rounded up and taken to Byumba military camp where they were killed.

“No one could dare ask for their whereabouts; we just kept silent,” he says.

In 1993, Gatete was relieved of his duties under growing pressure from human rights organisations, political parties and international community amid allegations of persecuting Tutsis in his district. 

However, he remained influential in the area and continued to exercise a certain degree of authority over the communal police (gendarmerie) and the militia.

He was later appointed as a director in the ministry of women and family affairs.

On April 6, 1994, hours after the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana, Gatete is said to have travelled from Kigali to Murambi where he called an ‘emergency’ meeting the next day, ostensibly to discuss how to execute his extermination plan.

As mass killings erupted, thousands of Tutsis in the area fled to Kiziguro Catholic Parish expecting sanctuary.

On April 10, Gatete called another meeting in which he finalised plans to execute Tutsis sheltered in the church. The next day, he went to Gabiro Barracks and returned with two bus-fuls of soldiers.

“The soldiers teamed up with local militiamen to surround the church, which they later attacked,” Jean de Dieu Twahirwa, a Genocide convict, says.

More than 3,700 people were killed at the church.

Twahirwa says Gatete was the “supreme commander” of the militia in the area.

The survivor says as the massacres escalated, militiamen forced some Tutsi men to undress and take the bodies of the dead to a mass grave about 200 metres from the church.

Undressing them helped ease their identification as once at the mass grave, they were also killed.

A commission was also instituted under the orders of Gatete to identify every Tutsi to be killed so as to ease the tracking of those who were still alive, according to Fr Laurent Rutinduka, an area-born.

Today, a memorial site sits at the place in honour of those who were killed there. The mass grave, about 30 metres deep, was also safeguarded as a reminder of the atrocities committed in Kiziguro.

From Gatsibo, Gatete would later take his blood-thirsty gang to the neighbouring Kayonza District where they continued to hunt down and kill Tutsi.

Forty years in jail

When the country fell into the hands of the Rwanda Patriotic Army, Gatete fled. He was arrested in 2002 in the Republic of Congo. 

In March, 2011, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found Gatete guilty of genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison.

But Gatete appealed the sentence and the following year, his sentence was reduced to 40 years in jail.

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