The trial of one manilluminates the central mystery of rwanda's Genocide: How so many ordinary people could participate in so monstrous a crime

On that Friday morning this past March, at the moment just before noon when his defense against the charge of genocide began to fall apart, Jean-Paul Akayesu mopped his brow with a folded snow-white handkerchief. He took a sip of his bottled water. He straightened his necktie and fingered the lapels of his smart blue suit. On the floor beneath the witness stand, Akayesu's wingtip-clad right foot vibrated rhythmically, the heel bouncing up and down so violently that his entire body shook. "I did not hold a meeting," he said. "I did not participate in a meeting." His words by themselves were innocuous. But in the packed spectators' gallery behind him, behind the ceiling-high wall of bulletproof glass, the simultaneous translation filtered through our headsets with the impact of an electrical charge. The meeting in question occurred on April 18, 1994, in a town called Gitarama. This was two weeks into Rwanda's three-month genocide. The bludgeoned and severed bodies of the country's Tutsi minority were piling up three times as quickly as Jewish dead accumulated in Nazi Europe; upwards of half a million Tutsis would be killed by the end of June. The meeting in Giterama was chaired by Rwanda's prime minister at the time, Jean Kambanda. By all accounts save Akayesu's, Kambanda's message was simple: It was time for the assembled Hutu government officials to put aside their differences, to "come together and fight the enemy" -- that is, to exterminate the Tutsis without further delay. Akayesu at that time was the bourgmestre, or mayor, of Taba Commune, a rural farming community set amid banana palms and eucalyptus trees in the mist-shrouded hills just west of Kigali, the Rwandan capital. He was 41 years old, a father of five. He had been a popular mayor from a fledgling opposition party, a schoolteacher by training, well-educated, articulate, with no known history of criminality or bigotry. By all accounts, he actually resisted the genocide in those first two weeks. But after that fateful meeting in Giterama, according to the many survivors and witnesses who testified against him, Akayesu changed. He appeared to have made, they said, a cynical calculation that the wind was blowing in favor of genocide and the time had come to get with the program. He decided to lead the killings in Taba, and hundreds of his constituents obediently picked up their machetes and joined him. Exchanging his civilian coat for a camouflage military jacket, he made speeches denouncing Tutsi men, women and children as ibyitsu, "accomplices" of a Tutsi-led rebel insurgency. He set up roadblocks where Tutsis were identified by their pale-green identity cards and hauled away to their deaths. He personally hunted down fellow Hutus and beat them into betraying their Tutsi neighbors. As the slaughter intensified, several witnesses recalled with chilling precision, Akayesu incited his men to gang-rape Tutsi women, gloating, "Never ask me what a Tutsi woman tastes like." Hundreds of Tutsis sought refuge at the Bureau Communal, Taba's humble government compound of brick-and-stucco buildings around a red-dirt courtyard, hoping that Akayesu would protect them. Instead, said one survivor, "he killed us and killed our people." The images of calculated evil were difficult to square with the cornered figure squirming on the witness stand in front of this international tribunal investigating the Rwandan genocide. Akayesu had spent eight hours on the stand the previous day. He had portrayed himself as an ineffectual, indecisive, powerless man dominated by a murderous superior. "I was completely overwhelmed," he claimed. But today he was ensnared in a web of deepening contradictions. For the issue was not whether the defendant actually attended a meeting in Giterama, but what had happened there. Akayesu had testified the day before that there had been no mention of the killing of Tutsis. "No, no," he had said. "Honestly speaking, frankly speaking, there was never any question of Tutsis being killed, never never." As for himself, he testified, "I said nothing." Now, under intense questioning from prosecutor and judges alike, Akayesu blurted out that he had actually stood up at the meeting and denounced the killing of Tutsis. The prosecutor bearing down on Akayesu was an American, 34-year-old Pierre-Richard Prosper of Los Angeles. He asked Akayesu to read aloud from the transcript of a nine-hour interview he gave to investigators for the tribunal who first interviewed him after his arrest in 1996. They, too, had asked Akayesu about the Giterama meeting. Akayesu now read his reply to the court: "I did not hold a meeting. I did not participate in a meeting." Whether he was lying now or lying before was immaterial: He was cooked. After listening for 15 months to a parade of witnesses testify in detail about his conduct after that meeting, Akayesu had completely changed his story. "Well," he stammered, "I put aside the fact that I participated in a meeting. Ask me why. Ask me why I didn't talk about having participated in a meeting." Prosper put the question this way: "Is it because you knew what the message was at this meeting? The message of come together and killing the Tutsis? And is it because you knew that by admitting you were at that meeting, it would become evidence of your guilt, that you received the message and went out and implemented the plan in Taba?" "You are interpreting me completely differently," Akayesu protested. But now the judges piled on. One by one they fairly ridiculed the accused. Presiding Judge Laity Kama of Senegal was first: "Did he or did he not attend a meeting?" he asked. "That's the question." Prosper: "You heard the president, Mr. Akayesu." Akayesu: "Yes, I attended a meeting." Kama: ". . . So what do you mean by "I did not participate in a meeting'? Because people say that you changed after that meeting." Akayesu was silent for a moment. His foot vibrated frantically. Finally he replied. "Ah, Mr. President, I can't remember." The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has received precious little attention in the West -- lamentably so. For unlike its counterpart for the former Yugoslavia, taking place in The Hague, the Rwanda tribunal holds the promise of bringing to book some of the biggest accused war criminals in its mandate. It also has the potential to demystify the "Dark Continent": to document for an international audience -- and for history -- how "tribalism" in Africa is a product not of ancient, inscrutable hatreds but of calculated tyranny. The tribunal, based in Arusha, Tanzania, was established in November 1994 after a United Nations commission found that the "concerted, planned, systematic and methodical" acts of mass extermination perpetrated by Hutus against Tutsis "constitute genocide." Together, the Rwanda and Yugoslavia tribunals represent the first international attempt since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II to prosecute individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. These ad hoc tribunals are widely seen as trial runs for the permanent International Criminal Court endorsed by 120 nations at a conference in Rome in July. The Clinton administration is opposed to a permanent tribunal, fearing that U.S. troops around the world could be hauled before it on specious grounds, but it supports the Hague and Arusha tribunals. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was an early, outspoken advocate. When she was ambassador to the United Nations, she repeatedly invoked the Nuremberg precedent. Prosecutions before such an international tribunal, she said, "will establish the historical record before the guilty can reinvent the truth." The United States is the largest contributor to the Rwanda tribunal, putting up more than $45 million thus far. David Scheffer, the Clinton administration's ambassador at large for war crime issues, has spoken of what he hopes will be "a powerful Nuremberg-like signal sent to the people of Rwanda." International support for the tribunal is not purely a function of high-minded idealism. World leaders, including President Clinton, have conceded that the international community failed abysmally in 1994 to prevent the genocide in the first place. The world averted its gaze when the massacres began, leaving Rwandans to their fate. The Clinton administration, soured by its experience in Somalia, was reluctant to intervene in another African nation in which American interests were not obvious. Even when it became clear that thousands of Rwandans were in danger, Washington blocked the United Nations from taking action. Clinton told the United Nations in 1994 that it had to learn "when to say no." At the height of the killings, State Department spokesmen were instructed not to use the word "genocide" for fear the term would create pressure to act. When Clinton visited Rwanda briefly during his African tour this past March, he conceded, "We did not act quickly enough." France was more directly implicated. The French government armed and trained Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana's army and allied militias, and there have been reports, denied in Paris, that France continued to arm the regime throughout the genocide. France finally sent troops into Rwanda in June 1994 in a controversial intervention that helped to put an end to the massacres -- but enabled the perpetrators to flee the country. The United Nations was no better. The week before my visit to Arusha, the former commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1994, Canadian Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, testified at Akayesu's trial. He said that his force could have halted the genocide had it committed sufficient troops and given them the authority to aggressively pursue those carrying out the massacres. In 51/2 hours of emotional testimony, Dallaire told of a fax he had sent to his superiors at U.N. headquarters in January 1994 warning that large-scale massacres were imminent. The fax was ignored. With this sorry record in mind, the new chief prosecutor for both the Hague and Arusha tribunals, Judge Louise Arbour of Canada, has compared the role of the tribunals to that of domestic criminal courts. "Criminal law kicks in when all other institutions have failed," she has said. "This is our last redemption, our last chance to contribute toward some sort of resolution of these situations." Notwithstanding corruption scandals and management problems in its first two years and continuing, maddening delays, the Rwanda tribunal has a chance to produce what the Yugoslav tribunal probably never will: a measure of justice for top conspirators, and a coherent narrative of how the conspiracy was organized. Many of the most senior figures in the genocide are currently in custody. In May in the same courtroom, standing before the same three scarlet-robed justices, former prime minister Kambanda pleaded guilty to six counts of genocide -- the first guilty plea in an international court and a landmark in the history of war crimes. Last month he was sentenced to life imprisonment. His cooperation with prosecutors is yielding ever stronger evidence against his co-conspirators. Akayesu's trial was notable for another reason: It set a precedent in the prosecution of sexual violence as a component crime of genocide. Tens of thousands of Tutsi women were raped during the massacres. Hutu propagandists specifically targeted Tutsi women, portraying them as calculating seductress-spies. Akayesu was never accused of directly participating in rape, but he incited his men and witnessed numerous assaults. An early witness in Akayesu's trial testified that she had seen rapes by men under his command. Judge Navanethem Pillay of South Africa, the tribunal's only female judge, wanted details. Another witness described gang-rapes at the Bureau Communal. After Human Rights Watch and women's groups pressed the tribunal, the court adjourned for more investigation, and Akayesu's indictment was amended to include rape. "From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war," Judge Pillay told me. "Now it will be considered a war crime. We want to send out a strong signal that rape is no longer a trophy of war." I was attending Akayesu's trial on my first trip back to central Africa since 1994, when I witnessed Rwanda's genocide and its immediate aftermath. Those few weeks in June and July 1994 had left me haunted and bewildered. Churches filled waist-high with decomposing corpses, orphans pulled from the piles of their murdered relatives, mass cholera, hideous machete wounds -- there was a weird, surreal, science-fiction quality to Rwanda's catastrophe that defied easy emotions. I had no real desire to go back. It was not so much the scale of the crime as the breadth of complicity that soured me. But the search for justice was something I couldn't ignore. In the years since the genocide, commentators had rarely failed to note that what happened in Rwanda was not "just another tribal slaughter." But in more than a decade of reporting on Africa's conflicts -- from Liberia to Sudan, from Uganda to South Africa -- I had come to realize that there was no such thing as "just another tribal slaughter." They are all provoked from on high. In Africa, as elsewhere, the role of states and political leaders in fomenting ethnic and sectarian conflicts is the paramount human rights issue of the post-Cold War era. Akayesu's trial promised also to shed light on the ultimate mystery of Rwanda's genocide: How was it possible? The genocide killed more people more quickly than any mass slaughter in recorded history. This would not have been possible without the participation of hundreds of thousands of civilians. By some accounts, as many Rwandans killed as were killed. How could so many ordinary people participate in so monstrous a crime? Jean-Paul Akayesu was neither a psychopath nor a simpleton. He was not a top figure like the former defense minister, Theoneste Bagasora, Rwanda's Himmler, who is now in custody in Arusha, nor a lowly, illiterate, machete-wielding peasant. He was, instead, the link between the two: an archetype of the indispensable middle management of the genocide. He personified a rigidly hierarchical society and a culture of obedience, without which killing on such a scale would not have been possible. "It wouldn't have happened without him," said Ephraim Karangwa, Akayesu's successor as bourgmestre of Taba. "Two thousand wouldn't have died. At the beginning, people here did not want to kill each other. But when Akayesu started holding meetings and pushing people to kill, the killing started. The bourgmestre is a person whom people respect." Karangwa and I were sitting in Akayesu's old office at the Bureau Communal, a week after Akayesu's testimony in Arusha. The bourgmestre's office is a spare, bare-walled room with a metal desk, imitation leather couch and coffee table, but no electricity or telephone. The window behind me looked out on the red-dirt courtyard where four years earlier Akayesu made his speeches beseeching the Interahamwe Hutu militia -- "those with a common purpose" -- to hunt down and kill the "enemy." Across the road, in a leafy grove where barefoot boys tended cattle, two mass graves rimmed with wildflowers hold the remains of the 2,000 Tutsis murdered in Taba in 1994. Karangwa is a slightly built man with a scraggly beard and wary, darting eyes. Like most men with power in Rwanda today, he is Tutsi, a survivor of the genocide who lost many relatives. He had served under Akayesu as a police inspector. In 1994 he watched from a hiding place as Akayesu ordered the murder of his two brothers. In the middle of our discussion, the bourgmestre abruptly rose from his seat and dashed from the room. Upon returning, he explained matter-of-factly that he had spotted a stranger in the courtyard and dispatched his aides to investigate. It was an illustration of the tight control the bourgmestre exercises over his tiny rural community -- and of the tense security situation in Rwanda today as an ongoing Hutu-led insurgency and government reprisals deepen mistrust. "When you are a leader," Karangwa continued, "if you are in a position of authority, every time you tell the people something, they consider it the truth because you are an authority. They know you are there to lead them, and if you tell them to do anything, they know it is the truth." Even killing? "Yes. If you are the bourgmestre and you tell people that the Tutsis want to kill us so we must kill them, do you think that the people won't do that?" Of course, many other factors contributed to the genocide. There were a menacing insurgency, external arms deliveries to all sides, economic insecurities and acute population pressures. There was chicanery and lack of nerve by leading Western states, and dereliction of duty by the United Nations. Not least, there was bigotry. It was bigotry born of history, and of an elaborate system of myths broadly accepted by Hutu and Tutsi alike. It has often been remarked that Hutus and Tutsis -- the latter make up roughly 15 percent of the population -- meet none of the conditions normally associated with distinct tribes. For centuries they have spoken the same language, lived on the same hillsides and intermarried to an extent that the physical characteristics stereotypically attributed to each -- tall, thin and lighter-skinned for the Tutsi, short, stocky and darker-skinned for the Hutu -- are often blurred. But 60 years of colonial rule and 35 years of Hutu domination yielded deep-seated stereotypes, and reservoirs of envy, fear and mistrust that were ripe for exploitation. First the Germans and then the Belgians operated a system of "indirect rule" whereby Tutsi chiefs controlled the Hutu majority and extracted its labor on behalf of the colonial power. The system was buttressed by an explicit racial ideology. The Tutsis were held up as a superior race, gifted, morally uplifted and born to rule. Hutus, in turn, were considered dumb beasts of burden. Education privileges for the Tutsis, and a system of population registration, reinforced these stereotypes. When the colonialists were driven out in the late '50s and early '60s, the Hutus took their revenge, killing upward of 10,000 Tutsis and driving as many as 300,000 into exile. During the years of Hutu rule, massacres of Tutsis took place with increasing frequency. No one was ever held accountable. The rest of the world paid no heed. "People had been taught for a long time about killing," Ephraim Karangwa reminded me. The slide toward genocide gained momentum in October 1990, after the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-led rebel insurgency, invaded from Uganda. The RPF's aim was to pressure the Habyarimana government to allow Rwanda's exiled Tutsis to return. Three years of fighting ended in stalemate, and Habyarimana was forced to enter into a power-sharing agreement with the Tutsi rebels. By then extremists within Habyarimana's embattled regime were formulating a plan to subvert the agreement and destroy the rebels by exterminating their base of support. A key component was a virulent propaganda campaign, crafted by prominent Hutu intellectuals, which inflamed the old fears and resentments. On April 6, 1994, Habyarimana's plane was shot down -- most likely by his own hard-line allies. The president's assassination was immediately blamed on the Tutsis -- providing the pretext for the massacres to begin. Within days, neighbor turned against neighbor in a murderous frenzy. It was a measure of the psychosis that gripped Rwanda then that some of Taba's Tutsis returned again and again to the Bureau Communal even as the killing accelerated, in the hope, they said, of a swifter end to their agony. "I sought refuge there because I knew that people who were going there would be killed by bullets," testified a 35-year-old mother of four, identified in the vernacular of the tribunal's precarious witness protection program as Witness JJ. "I didn't want to be killed by machetes and clubs." Witness JJ's all-too-graphic testimony conveyed the unfathomable horror of those events in Taba. She had been raped six times by stoned and drunken Hutus wielding clubs, machetes and pickaxes in the compound's cultural center, with Akayesu looking on. She had watched helplessly as her sister was raped and then hacked to death with machetes. Her husband had already been shot. In all, seven of 10 in her immediate family were killed. But perhaps the worst betrayal was that of a Hutu couple with whom she left her 20-month-old son. She thought she could trust them to protect him; instead they killed him. "I hate myself," she whispered on the witness stand. In July 1994 the Rwandan Patriotic Front finally routed the Hutu regime and ended the genocide, and a million Hutus fled the country, including many of the genocidaires. In a familiar pattern, the Hutus re-armed, using U.N. refugee camps as a base, and they have been fighting ever since to return to power. Many supporters of the Arusha tribunal believe that justice will lead to reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis. That is an unrealistic goal. There are too many other factors in play. History is accumulating, and so is bigotry. But bigotry alone does not explain mass slaughter. Racial stereotypes, envy, resentment, scapegoating, fear -- all helped to make genocide possible, but not inevitable. Cynical and desperate leaders manipulated and exploited these emotions. But what sort of environment spawns such leaders in the first place? Not just Rwanda but much of Africa offers clues. In many instances the prime villains are political and military leaders known as Big Men. Many of them -- like Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko (who died last year) and Kenya's Daniel arap Moi -- came to power during the Cold War era. Such leaders are especially vulnerable now -- and therefore especially dangerous. As in the Balkans, Afghanistan and parts of the former Soviet Union, the divisive potential of ethnicity has been magnified amid the shifting ground between tyranny and anarchy. Many suppose that anarchy and tyranny are at opposite ends of a linear spectrum. But often they are side by side on what might better be described as a circle: Each is a product of the other. What they have in common is the absence of legitimate law. The Big Men dominate by using little men, cynically maneuvering for power and booty while thousands perish. Harnessing proxies, arming ethnically based militias, cultivating warlords, propagating hate and fear, preying on ignorance, manufacturing rumors and myths, demonizing dissidents -- these are the tactics of the crafty despot with his back against the wall. Inflamed ethnic passions are not the cause of political conflict but its consequence. In Sudan, where northern Arabs through the decades have dominated the state and decimated southern Sudan by pitting one black African tribe against another, they say, Aktul al-abid bil abid -- "Kill the slave through the slave." In South Africa, where "black on black" violence killed 20,000 and nearly derailed the transition to black majority rule, the white Afrikaner police who fueled the fighting called it the kleur teen kleur beginsel -- "the color-against-color principle." A widespread misconception of the post-Cold War era is that ethnic conflict is a byproduct of "failed states." Rwanda represented the opposite: a state that was all too successful in mobilizing along rigidly hierarchical lines from the top down. From the head of state and his ruling clique of conspirators down to the last village bourgmestre, Rwanda was a model of order. But rigid hierarchy was not to be confused with the rule of law. Rule of the gun was paramount. Anarchy -- the law of the jungle -- does obtain in parts of Africa, but the jungle is inhabited by men. Anarchy is a vacuum that brings out the worst in men and selects the worst among them. The pursuit of power is a life-and-death struggle. Those who excel are men (and sometimes women -- the clique that plotted Rwanda's genocide revolved around the president's wife, Agathe Habyarimana) who distinguish themselves through boundless cunning and ruthlessness. The most successful of all become tyrants, and the anarchy in which they thrive is called tyranny. Lesser men survive by going along with the group, suspending personal judgment in exchange for protection. They may appear to be acting on mindless, "primitive" impulse; in fact, they are making rational calculations of self-interest. Rwanda was a clear example of the state as a racketeering enterprise. Juvenal Habyarimana had governed Rwanda for 21 years after the model of his kleptocratic mentor, Mobutu of Zaire. Amply funded and armed by the French, Habyarimana ran lucrative rackets in everything from development aid to marijuana smuggling. He and his in-laws operated the country's black-market foreign exchange bureau in tandem with the Central Bank. Habyarimana was implicated in the poaching of mountain gorillas, selling the skulls and feet of baby primates. His brother-in-law was the main suspect in the murder of American anthropologist Dian Fossey. This was the mafia-like culture in which the genocide was hatched. On the afternoon before Akayesu took the witness stand, I had lunch with Pierre Prosper, the prosecutor. He is an affable, intense, athletic-looking man with piercing brown eyes and a boyish smile, the son of Haitian immigrants. His main prior experience was prosecuting Colombian drug cartels and street gangs in Los Angeles. I asked him about the world in which Akayesu operated. Without hesitating he compared it to the criminal culture in Colombia. "In Colombia, businessmen are opportunists taking advantage of a criminal environment for personal gain," he said. "It was the same for politicians in Rwanda." In Rwanda, Prosper said, there were true believers -- the fanatical racial theorists of "Hutu Power," the ideology behind the mass killing. And there were a great many common criminals who used the genocide as a pretense to loot and steal. But in the final analysis, Prosper said, "you need all three: the ideologues and the opportunists and the thugs. Otherwise it just won't happen." I asked Prosper about Akayesu's claim that he had no choice, that he was completely overwhelmed by his superiors. "He's shown zero remorse," Prosper replied. "He could have done nothing. He could have gone into hiding. If he had some moral value, he could have fled." Indeed, some 2 million Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi alike, fled the country in the first two weeks of the genocide -- possibly the largest movement of refugees anywhere in history. There has been much talk recently about a "new generation of leaders" in Africa, a veritable pan-African alliance of strong, enlightened men supposedly bent on breaking the grip of "Big Man" politics. Clinton endorsed this view on his trip to Africa last spring, when he embraced leaders such as Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Ghana's Jerry Rawlings and Rwanda's new Big Man, Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame. But even the best-intentioned leaders are constrained by the mafia logic of the environment in which they are operating; the faces may change, but the rules of the game remain the same. This may be the most important objective of the tribunal: to change the rules, not just for Rwanda but for much of the rest of Africa as well -- to replace rule of the gun with rule of law. "Looking at my neighbors, I thought they were friends," said the man with the quizzical eyes. "I was very much surprised that they were among the people who came to try to kill us." Isadore Munyakazi was 42 years old and balding. He wore a dirty-blue shirt, faded brown, threadbare trousers and rubber flip-flops. It was June 1994. We were sitting on benches in the filthy remains of an abandoned corner store, in a rubble-strewn, rebel-held town called Kabuga, on the outskirts of Kigali. Rwanda's genocide was still unfolding in the south. The climactic rebel siege of Kigali was underway. Hundreds of dazed survivors of the massacres, some of them wrapped in gauze that barely concealed their ghastly machete wounds, loitered in the looted and gutted ruins nearby. Isadore and a friend of his, Bonaventure Niyibizi, were trying to explain to me how tens of thousands of their countrymen could have been lured, incited or coerced into participating in mass murder. Isadore, a career civil servant, had survived with his wife and children but lost 20 immediate relatives. Bonaventure, 40, had been the top Rwandan working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Kigali before the Americans were evacuated in April 1994. His mother, who was 70, was killed in what he later learned was a sadistic three-day execution: The killers severed her Achilles' tendons the first day, hacked off her legs the second day, and returned on the third day to dump her body in a river. His sister was killed with her five children. His wife's sister and her three children, his wife's four uncles and all of their children -- as many as 50 relatives in all were murdered. "Really," he sighed, "I cannot understand it myself." On the day before our meeting, I had visited a plain brick church by a dirt road to the south that was filled with about 200 freshly slaughtered corpses. This was the pattern across Rwanda: Many thousands of Tutsis sought refuge in churches or were herded there by Hutu government officials promising protection. One of Akayesu's fellow defendants in Arusha, Clement Kayishema, a pediatrician-turned-prefet, or governor, is accused of ordering more than 2,000 Tutsis into a Catholic church on April 17, 1994, with a promise that he would protect them. Instead, witnesses testified, Kayishema fired a gun in the air and ordered members of the army, the communal police and the Interahamwe militia to set upon the trapped Tutsis with guns, grenades, pangas, machetes, spears and cudgels. In a vacant lot a block away from where Isadore, Bonaventure and I were sitting, I had interviewed six admitted members of the Interahamwe who had been captured days earlier by the Tutsi-led rebels. They were illiterate peasants, husbands and fathers, with thickly callused hands. Most of them had spent their entire lives cultivating sorghum and sweet potatoes on the steep mountain slopes of eastern Rwanda. Defeated, scared, disheveled, wearing grimy secondhand clothes and sneakers or rubber flip-flops, they spoke in dull monotones under the watchful eyes of their Tutsi captors. They appeared to be men of the herd; each one said he had never killed before. Evidently calculating that to deny their crimes was pointless, and might be fatal, they spoke with surprising candor. "Many people contributed to killing one person," one of them told me. "Because we feared the blood of the victim, each man feared to kill alone. We would kill in groups. Even that old man hiding in the sorghum plantation -- when we discovered him, Leonard, the militia leader, ordered everybody to hit the old man. Even after he was dead, everybody was supposed to take part in the killing. I used a club." Their explanation was simple: They killed because they were forced to. Others were killed for refusing to kill, they said. But further questions yielded a more complicated picture. Fear, not hatred, may have driven them to kill, but it was fear not just of their leaders. It was also fear of those whom they sought to exterminate. Emmanuel Kamuhanda, 18, wore a mangy purple corduroy jacket, bluejeans, and plastic high-top sneakers. Sullen and withdrawn, he spoke very quietly, and did not look me in the eye. When I asked him how many people he had killed, he replied, "There were many. Perhaps those who had the lists know better. I can tell you in my village we killed 15 people. After my village we went to other villages and killed many. To say there were hundreds would be an understatement. The top leaders of the militia, when they marched us to kill, they had a list of the victims. We were shown who to kill on the list. If you resisted, they would threaten you. They said you must kill or you will be killed." When I asked Emmanuel why he was ordered to kill, his reply suggested he understood the reasons for killing, and that they made sense to him. "The government always told us that the RPF was Tutsi and if it wins the war all the Hutus will be killed," he said. "As of now I don't believe this is true. But at the time, because it was the government saying so, using the radio, and because I had not known the RPF before, I believed that the government was telling the truth." Sitting now in that corner store with Isadore and Bonaventure, I could hear Radio-Television Libre Milles Collines (A Thousand Hills Free Radio-Television), the state-allied broadcasting arm. "Defend your rights and rise up!" a voice on the radio was singing. There were drums and guitars in the background. A popular crooner named Simon Bikindi was beseeching his fellow Hutus to carry on the slaughter without delay. He called the Tutsis inyenzi, or cockroaches. I put the familiar question to Isadore and Bonaventure: How is such a horror possible? Isadore began by stressing factors peculiar to Rwanda. "Illiteracy is part of it," he said. "Politicians say, "If you don't do this, it will go back to the '50s. You will be like a slave.' Illiterate people will believe it. They believe what they hear on the radio. They believe what their leaders say." I asked Bonaventure if he agreed that illiteracy explained the disaster. "Remember the rule of law," he replied after a moment. "It did not exist. People in the country have not learned about the rule of law. There has been no justice in Rwanda." I asked how Rwanda could possibly overcome this disaster. "There is only one way," he replied. "That is to find the people who have been responsible for this and to bring them to trial according to the law." Isadore agreed. He drew me up a list of those he would bring to trial. At the top was Theoneste Bagasora, the notorious defense chief widely viewed as the mastermind behind the genocide. Isadore scribbled more names. The list grew, until finally he wrote: "all the prefets, all the bourgmestres, all the conseilleurs." "Educated people," he explained. "The administrative chain from the president on down . . . They are galvanizing the killers." I asked Isadore if he would bring his neighbors to trial -- the ones he thought were his "good friends." He thought for a moment and shook his head. "To me they are just instruments. If you will bring these people to justice, you'll take everybody. It will be an endless process." Bonaventure vehemently disagreed. "People who have murdered have to be punished," he said. "The level of responsibility is not the same, but you cannot say this person who took a machete and killed this baby -- that he is not responsible. He must be responsible for his acts. Ignorance is no defense." Ubutabera is the Rwandan word for justice. Four years after the genocide, more than 120,000 accused genocidaires are in custody, housed like vermin in stench-filled, disease-ridden, densely packed prisons. The present government is gamely endeavoring to try them, but the results are not pretty. Rwanda's judiciary, like most of the rest of the state, was dismantled, looted and abandoned in 1994. Even with $18 million in foreign support, much of it from the United States, Rwanda's fledgling system of poorly educated, hastily trained judges, prosecutors and investigators is hopelessly out of its depth. The makeshift courts have tried some 330 people for genocide and condemned 116 to death. In April, firing squads executed 22 of them. There is a saying in Kigali that life expectancy in Rwanda today is 12 hours renewable. Even the government recognizes that the best hope for justice lies outside its borders, under international auspices. The International Conference Center in Arusha, Tanzania, is a musty, run-down cement-walled facility built by the Chinese in the 1970s. Arusha is a faded provincial backwater, about an hour's drive south of Mount Kilimanjaro and the Kenyan border. Electricity is erratic. The phones are unpredictable. My evening interview with Pillay, the South African jurist, was briefly thrown off track when the lights went out; she and I chatted in pitch darkness for a few minutes before an emergency generator rumbled on and the lights returned. By now everyone agrees that Arusha was a terrible choice of location for the tribunal. It is hours from Rwanda itself, and witnesses and investigative staff have to be flown back and forth. It is a five-hour bus ride from the regional hub, Nairobi, Kenya, the base for the international press, which is thus unable to give it regular coverage. The tribunal's lawyers and supporting staff work in bare-bones offices with stains on the walls and boxes strewn about. The law library is a single, spare room with one long table and mostly empty bookshelves with a smattering of legal texts (there is, at least, a complete set of the Nuremberg trial transcript). Everything from computers to stenographic equipment to slide projectors to microphones has had to be airlifted in, not to mention staff qualified to operate and maintain them. There is no forensic lab. An audit released last year by the U.N. inspector general found rampant mismanagement and waste. In response, Secretary General Kofi Annan replaced the tribunal's registrar and its deputy prosecutor. The most recent audit found that "improvements were observed in virtually every area." For all its problems, the tribunal buzzed with high-stakes drama in the days leading up to Akayesu's appearance on the witness stand. Three other defendants were also on trial that week, and several others from among the 25 suspects currently in custody appeared in court. In Trial Chamber 2, Clement Kayishema, the alleged "Butcher of Kibuye," sat stone-faced as witnesses recalled the massacre of the 2,000 Tutsis at the Catholic church in Kibuye. And Bagasora, the former defense minister, made an appearance in Trial Chamber 2. He had been President Habyarimana's right-hand man, a key figure in the "Clan de Madame," the tight circle of racketeers surrounding the president's wife, and a prime suspect in the president's fatal plane crash. Bagasora was arrested in 1996 in Cameroon. Stocky and aloof, he appeared in court looking incongruously professorial in a blue suit and crimson bow tie, with wire-rim glasses. But the week's main event was Jean-Paul Akayesu's last stand in his own defense. The defendant was already badly shaken by the end of Friday morning's testimony. His conflicting accounts of the crucial April 18, 1994, meeting in Giterama had left his credibility in shreds. Now in the afternoon prosecutor Prosper focused on Akayesu's relationship with the leader of the Interahamwe in his region, a notorious thug named Silas Kubwimana. In effect, Akayesu was being asked to account for the awkward personal logistics of his pact with the devil. Prosecution witnesses had testified that after the April 18 meeting in Giterama, Akayesu began appearing at public meetings in Taba, wearing his camouflage jacket, standing side by side with Silas Kubwimana, urging his constituents to "fight the enemy." This public alliance, witnesses said, legitimized the massacres in the minds of an otherwise reluctant public. (Kubwimana remains at large.) How, Prosper wanted to know, did Akayesu expect the population to interpret his message any differently? "I worked with the population," Akayesu replied. "The population knew my stand . . . As bourgmestre, even though a weakened one, I am sure the population understood my message. Whereas this Silas, whose behavior and character was well-known, I am sure that a large number of the population, those who were present, were just jeering at him." Prosper: "You were opposed to what Silas Kubwimana was saying . . . Is that correct?" Akayesu: "Completely." Prosper asked Akayesu to describe his relationship with Kubwimana. Akayesu replied: "Mr. Kubwimana . . . he was a leader of all killing activities . . . He was all powerful in Taba." Prosper turned the court's attention to the transcript of Akayesu's nine-hour interview with tribunal investigators in 1996. Then as now, Akayesu was asked, "What was the role of Silas Kubwimana in Taba?" The prosecutor asked Akayesu to read his reply to the court. "He told us that he had been assigned the responsibility of keeping the peace in Musambira, Runda and Taba communes." A mandate for peace? the interviewers had asked. "Yes," Akayesu had replied, "that means holding meetings with people and things of that sort." There was a buzz in the spectators' gallery. The absurdity of Akayesu's earlier story was all too obvious. Judge Kama: "As compared to what you have said, you described Silas, that he was a real demon and you even said yesterday that he was a hired killer. That is to show how dangerous he was. {But in 1996} You were asked to give his role and you said that he had a mandate for peace? This hired killer, he had a mandate for peace? I am surprised!" The spectators around me were in an uproar. The judge was mocking Akayesu in open court. Akayesu appealed to the judges to "look at the context . . . Indeed Silas knew his role. He had a mandate. He had a role. The role was to preach the message of peace." Kama was incredulous, his voice dripping with sarcasm: "Should I understand that . . . he had changed his role? From being a hired killer he became a dove bringing the news of peace?" "I did not say everything," Akayesu replied. "We are in a definite context . . . His role was to maintain peace, although that is not what he did." The audience was aghast. A Reuters reporter sitting behind me leaned over and whispered in my ear, "He's finished." Prosper then turned the judges' attention to yet another excerpt from Akayesu's by-now-disastrous 1996 interview with the investigators. The question put to Akayesu back then was, "What was your relationship with Kubwimana?" Prosper asked the defendant to read his reply to the court. "In fact," Akayesu read, "we know each other very well but we are not close. I kept my distance from him." Judge Pillay intervened. "Mr. Akayesu," she began in her quiet, unassuming manner, "you say you kept your distance from Silas Kubwimana. So when did you associate with Silas?" Akayesu: "In fact, it was due to those meetings . . . on those dates that Silas could be found standing next to me or being next to me and it didn't last long. It didn't take much time . . ." Pillay: "Did he ever visit you in your home?" Akayesu: "I know he went to my house, but when you talk of a visit you are thinking of a friendly relationship. He did go to my house, but I wouldn't say he came to visit me, no." Pillay noted that Akayesu had just minutes earlier insisted that he had associated with Silas only at meetings. Now it turned out he was in Akayesu's house, as well. Pillay: "What was he doing there?" Akayesu: ". . . It was the beginning of May and that was the time when meetings had to be held. The boss comes to my house and then we go to the office because meetings were being held at that time, peacekeeping meetings." The judge paused for a moment. The word "boss" seemed to come out of nowhere, so much so that Pillay asked Akayesu whether the translation was correct. He said it was. Pillay: "When did he become your boss?" Akayesu: "Well, I used the expression boss to show what he was doing because indeed on that same morning he told me very ironically, "You continue resisting the Interahamwe, very soon you are going to see, you are going to see what would happen.' You see, he was making verbal threats. He was threatening me verbally . . . He arrests and imprisons people. It is what I mean when I say he was my boss . . ." Pillay: "And, Mr. Akayesu, you didn't say that when the prosecution's investigators asked you what is the relationship between you and Silas. You should have said, "He is my boss.' " Akayesu reached for his bottle of water. "Your Honor," he said at last, a note of desperation in his voice. "I must say that all these things that I'm said to have said, I did not say them either. It is not possible." It was too late. Jean-Paul Akayesu had told one lie too many. At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, September 2, the gallery filled to overflowing in Trial Chamber 1. The mood was tense and expectant. The Rwandans in the crowd -- some two dozen survivors, witnesses and government officials were flown in for the occasion -- seemed particularly on edge. A hush fell as the three judges in their scarlet robes filed in. The defendant rose, impassive in his smart blue suit. Judge Kama delivered the verdict: guilty as charged on nine counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, including rape. It was the first conviction after a trial for genocide by an international court, and the first time that rape was defined as an act of genocide. A rush of relief passed over the crowd, but there was little visible exulting. Akayesu winced briefly as the verdict was announced, but otherwise betrayed no emotion. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. In the guilt-ridden wreckage of contemporary Rwanda, Akayesu's conviction is a drop in the bucket. Four years after the genocide, there remain more than half a million unsolved murders. The 120,000 Hutu suspects remain in custody and higher-ups in the old Hutu Power chain of command have yet to be tried. And the country is still at war. But Akayesu's trial has meaning beyond Rwanda. The world stood by and watched in 1994, in part because of deep-rooted stereotypes of Africa as a sub-rational zone of ancient hatreds, impervious to outside intervention. The Arusha tribunal grew out of a belated recognition from afar of what Africans like Bonaventure and Isadore knew all along: that bigotry in Africa, no less than elsewhere in the world, is fueled by injustice. Half a century after the Nuremberg trials, the Arusha tribunal's judgment against Akayesu establishes justice in its most basic sense -- accountability to the law for criminal acts -- as an answer to bigotry in its most monstrous form, genocide. That is a small measure of justice for Rwanda: that at the end of a blood-drenched century, in which some of the great civilizations of the world likewise descended into barbarism, this tiny, tragic speck of a country, tucked away in a part of the world long maligned as the Heart of Darkness, has yielded a glimmer of light.

Bill Berkeley is completing a book about ethnicity and conflict in Africa. He is a co-author of War Crimes: The Legacy of Nuremberg, to be published this fall by TV Books. CAPTION: Tutsi children walking amid machetes left near the Rwanda-Tanzania border by fleeing Hutus in 1994. ec CAPTION: GENOCIDE TRIBUNAL: Left to right, defendants Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former small-town mayor, and Jean Kambanda, prime minister during the massacres; Judges Lennart Aspegren of Sweden, Laity Kama of Senegal and Navanethem Pillay of South Africa; and prosecutor Pierre-Richard Prosper of the U.S. States. ec CAPTION: AT LEAST 2 MILLION Rwandans fled the '94 slaughter for places like this Hutu refugee camp in Zaire. ec CAPTION: A SESSION at Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II. The Rwanda tribunal is modeled after those war crimes trials. ec