20 years later, Gikondo remains blood-stained

Yesterday marked exactly 20 years since thousands of Tutsi were brutally murdered, raped and mutilated in the former Gikondo Commune, a suburb of the then Kigali Prefecture. 
A youngster holds a candle symbolising Rwanda’s hope despite its brutal past at Amahoro Stadium on Monday. (Timothy Kisambira)
A youngster holds a candle symbolising Rwanda’s hope despite its brutal past at Amahoro Stadium on Monday. (Timothy Kisambira)

Yesterday marked exactly 20 years since thousands of Tutsi were brutally murdered, raped and mutilated in the former Gikondo Commune, a suburb of the then Kigali Prefecture. 

Before the Genocide, Gikondo was presumed a Hutu-extremist stronghold and it was no surprise that the first mass killing took place in the same area, precisely in the premises of Pallottine Missionary Catholic Church, which was run by Polish priests. 

The few who survived the killings are still haunted by the horrifying memories of the extreme brutality exhibited by the Interahamwe militia, who not only killed, but also undressed their victims for ‘souvenir’ by taking the blood-stained clothing. 

Just a day after President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, as the widespread killings started–mainly of dissenting politicians in Kigali–the Tutsi who lived in Gikondo sought refuge at Pallottine Catholic Church expecting that they would be spared. 

“I lived in Gikondo where my father operated a business; there were several relatives living in the same neighbourhood. When Habyarimana’s plane went down on April 6, we knew we would be killed and the following day, we remained indoors,” said Telesphore Rutayisire, who was 31 years old during the Genocide.

He added that on April 8, he moved in a group of about 10 people–all relatives–to the church since they had heard that some Tutsi had sought refuge there. 

“Along the way, we passed many roadblocks that were manned by the gendarmes and Interahamwe; they simply let us pass because they knew where we were headed and, of course, they wanted us to gather in one place so that they could kill us easily,” Rutayisire said. 

At the church, Rutayisire and his family survived for the night but the priests told them that one of their parishes in Masaka had been attacked and Tutsi there killed. 

“On the morning of April 9, the priests attempted to call for help in vain; the militia had surrounded the parish compounds. We decided to go and say our last prayer inside the church. 

“As we neared the end of the service, the militia and the gendarmes walked into the church. It was a shocking scenario; one lady walked toward them as she attempted to leave the church and she was shot dead inside the church,” said the survivor. 

Since the militiamen needed to separate Hutu from Tutsi, they shot at the roof and at the altar to scare off people but Rutayisire persisted and remained in the church.

Those who fled were paraded outside and separated along ethnic lines. 

“Hutu were sent out of the church premises, while Tutsi were hacked to death and mutilated,” said Rutayisire. 

A people betrayed

In her book, A People Betrayed, the author Prof. Linda Melvern documents the brutality that portrayed the Gikondo massacre where she quotes a survivor saying, “They did not limit their action to killing; there was bestiality (the stupid brutal quality of a beast). There was a pile of identification cards with the ethnic designation of Tutsi burnt to destroy all evidence that these people had existed.”

“The next day the Interahamwe came back. They discovered injured survivors hiding in a small chapel. The militia poured petrol in through the windows of the chapel and threw in hand grenades.” 

The accounts in Melvern’s book are corroborated by Rutayisire who witnessed the burning of injured survivors. 

“When I left the church, I met with militiamen just a few metres from the church. They hacked and undressed me, then took my clothes thinking I was dead. The next day, they came back and burnt the survivors to death... most of those who had survived were children; they were burnt alive. I just survived because I was at a distance,” said Rutayisire.

Today, Rutayisire’s wish is to have men responsible for this brutality brought to justice. The killings in Gikondo were not only limited to the church but extended to all parts of the commune. Tutsi were killed and damped in mass graves, sometimes alive.

The massacres in Gikondo are synonymnous with the name Sylvere Ahorugeze, a Genocide suspect who has evaded justice for 20 years.

Ahorugeze, a former director of the Rwandan Civil Aviation Authority in 1994, resided in Gikondo. Survivors have severally accused him of killing their families. 

“On April 7, all my relatives, close and distant, gathered in my house as we planned how to flee. We were 29 people under one roof at a time when Ahorugeze came in and shot at us. They all died and I was the only one who survived,” said John Ntalindwa. 

Today, Ntalindwa says his frustration is that Ahorugeze has not been prosecuted. 

“It’s unbelievable how a man I saw with my eyes killing my entire family is still out there enjoying a lavish life and governments there cannot do anything about it,” said Ntalindwa.

Although Ahorugeze has succeeded in evading justice for the last 20 years, the Grand Chamber of European Court of Human Rights in June 2012 rejected his appeal challenging a Swedish court’s decision to extradite him to Rwanda. 

Ahorugeze was arrested in 2008 in Sweden as he tried to renew his family’s passports at the Rwandan embassy.

His extradition was initiated by Sweden but after being held in custody for three years, the supreme court ruled that there was no reason to detain him, while the decision from the European Court of Human Rights was expected. Following his release, he returned to Denmark where he was residing previously. 

Since Ahorugeze resides in Denmark, a country that turned down Rwanda’s request to extradite him, the Rwandan authorities are seeking fresh ways of convincing the Danish judicial system to rethink the decision.

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