The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was first given a test run in communities that had large concentrations of Tutsi as far back as 1991. Among the targets was the current Bugesera District.
In the trial phase, authorities massacred Tutsi, apparently to test the reaction of the international community.
“That’s how the Bagogwe [then a marginalised group living in Bigogwe between the western and northern provinces] were massacred,” said Laurent Nkongoli, a renowned lawyer and a Commissioner in the National Human Rights Commission.
He said the killings also targeted Tutsis in Kibilira (former Gisenyi Prefecture), Kayenzi in Gitarama and even Karongi in Kibuye.
However, among all the killings that took place across the country, it was the Bugesera massacres that raised eyebrows and jolted local and international human rights activists as well as the international community into action.
“The massacres in Bugesera made it obvious that the government of the day was involved and was preparing something horrible,” said Nkongoli.
In March 1992, massacres took place in Ngenda, Gashora and Kanzenze. Conservative estimates put the number of Tutsis killed in those places at 300. The killings took place in just 10 days. The same source says that over 15,000 people fled to neighbouring parishes and Burundi.
Bernadette Kanzayire, the Deputy Ombudsman, was the coordinator of the Association des Volontaires de la Paix (AVP), a rights organisation that tried to bring the killings to the attention of the international community.
She said that the ruling party, MRND, jointly planned and supervised the killings with CDR, a political party of Hutu extremists.
“Some members of the MRND were killed in a conflict with other political parties and the president, who was also the party chairman, warned that he would revenge. But he had a hidden agenda because Tutsis were not supposed to be the ones paying the price,” said Kanzayire.
She said the real motive was to test run for the Genocide after the training of interahamwe, and Impuzamugambi, the youth wings of the ruling party and CDR respectively, who were to become an important tool in the 1994 Genocide.
“When it started, the then Prime Minister, Sylvestre Nsanzimana, tried to restore order but was instructed by the presidency to back off and not to mind about what they termed as a minor issue,” said Kanzayire, adding that the then Mayor of Kanzenze commune, Fidele Rwambuka, a member of the ruling party, was one of the leaders of the killers.
AVP and other human rights organisations filed a report confirming that “mass killings” took place and warned of a planned Genocide.
Another person who tried to raise the issue was Tonia Locatelli, an Italian volunteer who even tried to hide Tutsis from their killers, a move that led to her killing. She was buried in Nyamata.
As pressure mounted, the government responded by creating other biased civil society organisations whose leaders would go to France and Canada to defend the regime.
Messages that incited killings, she said, were aired by Radio Rwanda under Ferdinand Nahimana, the then head of Rwanda information office (ORINFOR).
Two reasons slowed down the killings, said Kanzayire,: One was the pressure by the civil society and the other was the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) Inkotanyi that warned the government that they would withdraw from the Arusha peace talks if the killings did not stop. The government then pretended to pursue the killers.
Kanzayire said that her AVP hired two lawyers; Laurent Nkongoli and the late Aloys Niyoyita, and filed a case against the killers.
“Some cases were prosecuted but we lost them because the judiciary was not independent and the government influenced the decisions. I remember the Interahamwe marching to celebrate the court decisions,” she said.