In Rwanda, Suicides Haunt Search for Justice and Closure

Jeanviere Nzamwitakuze, 31, was widowed by one of 69 suspected perpetrators of genocide who have killed themselves rather than face the public in traditional courts.
Jeanviere Nzamwitakuze, 31, was widowed by one of 69 suspected perpetrators of genocide who have killed themselves rather than face the public in traditional courts. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 17, 2006

SHYORONGI, Rwanda -- In the years after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Innocent Mulinda, 39, started a family, tended to his red-earth farm and won a local election for a government job. Rumors that he had participated in a murderous militia in this hillside town seemed behind him.

But that changed with sudden vengeance last April, witnesses said, when a confessed militia member told a traditional, open-air court that Mulinda was not merely a fellow militiaman but a leader who carried an AK-47, manned roadblocks and exhorted others to kill.

Hours after the testimony, when darkness had fallen across his neighborhood of mud-walled homes, Mulinda drank a bottle of pesticide. He would leave behind a wife, two young sons and oddly conflicted feelings among Rwandans longing for tidy justice with a full confession and a punishment befitting his crimes.

Mulinda's agonizing death, which his wife said took more than two days, was among a rash of suicides and attempted suicides that Rwandan officials have recorded in the past year among genocide suspects as traditional courts have begun to hear cases. Between March and the end of December, 69 suspects killed themselves and 44 others tried to. Many others attempted or committed suicide, officials say, in the months before record-keeping began.

It is not clear what motivated the suicides -- belated guilt, shame, fear of prison or fear of exposing friends who also participated in the 100-day ethnic slaughter, in which most of the 800,000 victims were hacked to death with machetes or beaten to death with clubs.

And though survivors express little sympathy for participants who killed themselves more than a decade later, some say their hopes for closure -- a full public accounting of crimes and accomplices, as well as details about the victims' final hours -- have been dashed by the suicides.

"No person has the right to punish themselves," said Benoit Kaboyi, executive secretary of Rwanda's largest association of genocide survivors. "They have to suffer for what they have done."

Rwanda's 8 million people are jammed into a country smaller than Maryland, making it one of the world's most densely settled agrarian societies. In many places, nearly every patch of reddish earth is cultivated in a patchwork of fields that stretch up, and often over, Rwanda's countless hills.

Many of the killings happened as ethnic Hutu militias rampaged through steep hillside villages in search of Tutsis, a minority ethnic group, or those who sought to defend them. In Shyorongi, a roadside market town about 12 miles north of the capital, Kigali, militias killed an estimated 6,000 people -- more people than there are residents today.

Those accused of organizing and inciting the genocide are being tried at an international tribunal in neighboring Tanzania. Rwanda's overburdened criminal justice system is handling allegations of murder and rape.

Mulinda's case was handled by one of the more than 12,000 traditional courts, called g acaca for "under the tree," where ordinary citizens are trying, convicting and setting punishments for those accused of such lesser crimes as looting and being indirectly involved in deaths.

These courts cannot hand down the death penalty but can sentence perpetrators to lengthy prison sentences or community service, and order that restitution be paid to victims. They also can refer cases of rape and murder to the criminal justice system if clear evidence emerges.


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