At a time when Rwanda sunk into darkness with the slaughter of over a million people within just 100 days, there are certain individuals who stood out as key masterminds.
Probably unexpected to many was the fact that even mothers were not only actively involved in the plans to exterminate a part of Rwandans, but also had their sons on their hit-squads.
Generally, the most commonly held view of women participation in or complicity to Genocide has been limited to refusing to hide Tutsi, running chores for killers — some were their sons or husbands — by preparing meals for them, fetching drinks and encouraging them to kill or in other cases, blowing the cover on the hideout of Tutsi.
But much as the majority women generally played secondary roles, there are a number of them who played the lead role in the massacres.
These were mainly women who held positions of superiority within the community: political and church leaders, intellectuals or wealthy businesswomen.
One of them is Pauline Nyiramasuhuko who was then the Minister for Family Welfare and Women Promotion.
The rape minister
One outstanding thing is the irony that surrounds Nyiramasuhuko’s personality. At the time of Genocide, her main responsibility was to protect women in this country, yet she chose to unleash mobs on them to rape, torture and murder them.
Nyiramasuhuko was born in 1946 into a modest family in Ndora, in the then Butare prefecture. In April 1992, she was appointed minister for women’s affairs, a position she retained in the subsequent Genocidal cabinet that called itself ‘Guverinoma y’Abatabazi’.
She remains better known as the woman who ordered the rape of Tutsi women and their daughters in the former Butare prefecture reportedly instructing militia to rape Tutsi women before killing them, all under her watch.
The other irony is that among the rapists she commandeered was her own son Arsene Shalom Ntahobari, who was then aged 24 and a student at the National University of Rwanda.
The United Nations estimates that between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the three months of Genocide in 1994 among them those who were raped on Nyiramasuhuko’s orders.
Nyiramasuhuko, a mother and a social worker by training, is said to have spent most of her days between April and July 1994 in Butare helping, coordinating, assisting and encouraging the killers.
Laurence Kanayire, a Genocide survivor, says Nyiramasuhuko was common sight in Butare town, regularly travelling in a car driven by her son Shalom.
“She was always accompanied by so many soldiers and militia,” she recalls.
She remembers particularly one incident when Nyiramasuhuko went with a group of young militia men to the offices of the then Butare prefecture and took away young Tutsi university girls.
“We never saw the ladies again. Certainly they were murdered after being raped,” she says.
Kanayire also says Nyiramasuhuko was active on roadblocks in and around Butare town.
The exact number of women who were raped on Nyiramasuhuko’s orders and the people killed by militia under her command will certainly never be known, eyewitnesses say.
In 2011, the Arusha-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found her guilty of conspiracy to commit genocide, genocide, crimes against humanity (extermination, rape and persecution) and war crimes and sentenced her, together with her son, Arsene Shalom Ntahobari, to life in prison, the heaviest sentence the tribunal can mete out.
Nyiramasuhuko, whose case remains on appeal level, is the only woman to have been tried and convicted by any international criminal tribunal.
But Nyiramasuhuko’s role was not an isolated case. Her cabinet colleague, Agnes Ntamabyariro, now 84, has also been convicted for her role in the killings of Tutsi.
Ntamabyariro was arrested in Zambia in 1997 and is the only member of the genocidal government who was tried in Rwanda. Her trial began on June 19, 2006.
In 2009, she was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to life in jail by the Nyarugenge Intermediate Court, a decision she appealed against and the case is still before the High Court.
Bemeriki, the journalist
Valérie Bemeriki, a former journalist, is another woman who has been convicted of Genocide crimes.
Born in 1955, she was a presenter on the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), a radio station that remains a global reference when it comes to what hate media can do in conflict.
Prior to joining the RTLM in 1993, Bemeriki worked for the ruling MRND party as a propagandist, sometimes writing for the Interahamwe’s (MRND’s youth wing) publication Umurwanashyaka, sources say.
During her time at RTLM, the virulent Bemeriki became famous for regularly reading out names of Tutsi she said were accomplices and collaborators of the RPF/Inkotanyi, often resulting in the murder of those individuals.
Bemeriki, one of the most prominent voices of RTLM, said during one of her broadcast: “Do not kill those cockroaches with a bullet — cut them to pieces with a machete”.
She was arrested in 1999 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. During her trial, she pleaded guilty to to Genocide, inciting violence and complicity in murder. She was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009.
Kampire, the University don
Therese Kampire was a lecturer who taught politics at the former National University of Rwanda, now part of the University of Rwanda.
Kampire appeared before a Gacaca court in Butare and in 2007 she was convicted and handed a 19-year prison sentence.
She was particularly found guilty of complicity in the murder of the wife of Pierre Claver Gasana, a former professor of physics at the same university, who was also killed during the Genocide.
Mukankusi, the educationist
Virginie Mukankusi, a school inspector in the capital Kigali, was executed by firing squad with three men outside Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, for Genocide in April 1998.
She was executed on the same day as 22 other Genocide convicts who included politician Froduald Karamira for their role in the Genocide. These were the only individuals who were executed under the Rwandan law after the Genocide. The death penalty was later scrapped from the penal code.
Mukankusi is said to have been the first woman to be convicted for her role in the 1994 Genocide.
Sister Gertruda and Maria Kizito: The Sovu nuns
Consolata Mukangango, known as Sister Gertrude, and her colleague Julienne Mukabutera (Sister Maria Kizito), were both Benedictine nuns. They were found guilty of having participated in the massacre of more than 7,600 people at the Sovu convent in Butare. Sister Gertrude was the Mother Superior of the convent.
After the Genocide, the two nuns were transferred to the Maredret convent in Belgium. They were later arrested and their trial ended in 2001. A Belgian court sentenced sister Gertruda, who was born in 1958, to 15 years in jail while Maria Kizito, born in 1964, was sentenced to 12 years in jail.
But apart from those who were convicted, there are also a number of other women who remain wanted for their alleged roles in the Genocide. Among them is the former First Lady Agathe Kanziga, Sperancie Karwera, who was an advisor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and MRND’s director of information and propaganda. In 2013, she was said to have been shortly detained in France but her fate remains unknown since. Kanziga also stays in France.
Rose Karushara, who was a councillor in Kimisagara sector in Nyarugenge district, is wanted by the international police agency (INTERPOL) to answer charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.