Twenty-two years after the Rwandan genocide, Jean-Damascene Rutagungira still cannot bear the sight of the Catholic church in the eastern village of Kabarondo, where his family was massacred before his eyes.
Sitting in front of his house, set in the midst of corn fields and banana plantations, the fifty-something farmer, who lost his wife, three children and his mother in the attack, admitted: “Whenever I get close to that church, I go crazy.”
On Tuesday, two former Kabarondo mayors go on trial in France over the killing of hundreds of people at the church in April 1994, at the height of the genocide in which 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were killed by Hutu extremists.
Rutagungira will travel to Paris to testify against Octavien Ngenzi, 58, Kabarondo’s mayor at the time of the killings, and his predecessor Tito Barahira, 64, both of whom are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity in just the second trial of suspected perpetrators living on French soil.
Rutagungira is convinced the two men, who were sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by a local Rwandan community court, played a key role in the massacre in Kabarondo.
“If they hadn’t been there, there wouldn’t have been so many dead,” he insisted.
On April 13, 1994, a group of mostly Tutsi families who had sought shelter at the church came under attack from villagers backed by the genocidal Hutu “Interahamwe” militia.
Rutagungira and several others attempted to fight back with stones but they were no match for the gun and grenade-toting attackers and the soldiers sent in as reinforcements.
“There were a lot of dead. There were bodies everywhere in front of the church,” Rutagungira recalled.
– ‘It’s time to chop’ –
The militia then broke down the door to the church and ordered all the elderly people and children hiding inside, including Rutagungira’s family, to leave.
Rutagungira’s mother was among the first of those who emerged to be killed, bludgeoned to death despite her pleas for clemency.
An elderly woman who claimed to be Hutu followed. The woman appealed directly to Barahira, the former mayor, to save her, but he shoved her aside and she too was beaten to death, he said.
Next, said Rutagungira, the militia ordered the refugees onto their knees and told them to cover their faces. “And then one of them shouted ‘It’s time to chop’ and they began killing people with machetes.”
Rutagungira himself managed to escape and hide in a forest until Tutsi rebels from the armed wing of what is now the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front came to the rescue in late April.
Rutagungira said Barahira’s lead role in the killings in Kabarondo was clear, citing his decision to spare a Hutu man whose mother was a Tutsi as proof that he called the shots.
Richard Musoni, another survivor of the attack, also pointed the finger of blame at Barahira, who was arrested in 2013 in the southwestern French city of Toulouse.
At the start of the genocide, 38-year-old Musoni said, “people here didn’t want to kill Tutsis”.
It was Barahira, he said, who set the killings in motion, inciting attacks at a rally on the day of the church massacre where, armed with a spear, he demanded people get to “work” — code for killing Tutsis.
Rutagungira said Ngenzi, who was captured in 2010 in the French overseas territory of Mayotte, off southeast Africa, was also instrumental in the killings, quietly giving orders at the scene, with a gun tucked into his belt.
– Second French trial –
Oreste Incimatata, who was parish priest of Kabarondo at the time, described the two men as figures with “a lot of influence over the population”.
“They incited, they gave orders and they sent people forward to kill,” he charged.
Both Barahira and Ngenzi deny the allegations.
Barahira’s lawyer said he went to the church “to see if he could do something to help the refugees”.
Ngenzi’s lawyer has described him as “a good mayor” who was overtaken by events.
The mayors’ trial comes two years after that of Pascal Simbikangwa, a former Rwandan intelligence boss who was jailed for 25 years for his role in the genocide.
Simbikangwa’s trial was seen as a turning point in the quest to bring Rwandans suspected of involvement in the slaughter, who later fled to France, to justice.
France had, for years, been accused of dragging his heels on prosecuting such cases, creating tensions with Kigali.