From Kabuga’s trial, we must learn how to prevent another genocide

Wednesday May 27 2020

A picture taken on March 22, 2019 shows skulls of victims of the Rwanda’s 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial, in Kigali. PHOTO | JACQUES NKINZINGABO 

By The EastAfrican

Can any statement describe the capture of Felicien Kabuga better than Martin Luther King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice?”

Kabuga, the writer of one of the darkest chapters in human history, has been accused of allegedly being the main financier and logistical backer of the genocide against the Tutsi.

One of the most chilling aspects of the level of the planning for the genocide was Kabuga’s alleged involvement in importing and distributing 500,000 machetes into Rwanda, between January 1993 and March 1994 just in time for the genocide to begin in April, 1994.

What a coincidence though, that Kabuga was captured just after the end of April, which is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month.

April is a sad month in Rwanda, with ceremonies to remember the one million people slaughtered during the mass killings.

Memorial sites


After the Genocide against the Tutsi, hundreds of massacre sites were found with skeletons and turned into memorial sites.

Bodies are still being found. Just last month as the country mourned, a dam that authorities in Rwanda said could contain 30,000 bodies was discovered. The information came from people convicted for genocidal crimes who are now being released from prison after serving their sentences.

One of those released led a friend to a pit latrine some years ago, from which they exhumed her family members. Also, every so often, torrential rains sweep away the soil, revealing new bodies.

The genocide began on April 6, 1994, and ended around July 18. Kabuga was captured on May 16, 2020. As you read this, 26 years ago in May 1994, the machetes allegedly imported by Kabuga were being put to evil and horrendous use.

James Waller, quoting Gerald Prunier, writes of the “perpetrators killing at speeds that surpassed the gas chambers of Auschwitz—approximately 333 murders per hour, five and a half murders per minute”.

The work

The reality of five and a half murders per minute only came to have full meaning when a perpetrator who now works on reconciliation told us how exhausting “the work” of killing people was. He actually referred to it as “work”.

The Tutsi in Rwanda had been systematically killed before, beginning in 1959, every time exiled Tutsi attacked Rwanda. There were pogroms against Tutsi by the then Rwandan government, accusing them of collaborating with the exiled Tutsi.

In 1975 and 1990, some Tutsi ran to safety into two churches, one in Ntarama and Nyamata. When the genocide began in 1994, thousands of Tutsi crowded into the two churches again, expecting to be safe, as they had been before. This time, however, the attackers followed them into the churches, wielding machetes and clubs, killing them.

Never again

The killers soon realised a logistical challenge, they couldn’t get past the dead bodies into the overcrowded churches. They began throwing grenades in. They killed 10,000 people in the Nyamata church and 5,000 in Ntarama church. Both churches are now memorial sites, never again can they be places of worship.

In both Ntarama and Nyamata, curators preserved the skeletons of the victims, belongings, including clothing of the victims, for everyone to see and learn. Many were killed at the altars. The walls have blood stains of children.

In Nyamata, there is a woman’s skeleton, killed by a sharpened pole driven through her body, entering her private parts and emerging through her neck.

Kabuga’s story is remarkably similar to Otto Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organisers of the holocaust against the Jews by the Nazi and logistics facilitator of the mass deportation of Jews to extermination camps. When the Second World War ended, Eichmann escaped and managed to hide until 1960, when he was captured, tried of war crimes in Jerusalem and hanged in 1962.

Hate speech

At the Rwandan Genocide Museum, there is a sign that says genocide does not take place in one day. It happens slowly, four deaths here, twelve deaths there, 100 deaths here, until one day, a million people are dead.

The buildup to the Rwandan genocide is eerily similar to situations many may be familiar with, such as hate speech by politicians, peddling ethnic-based stereotypes and inflammatory remarks on vernacular radio airwaves.

Kabuga’s trial will be a lesson in history, no doubt teaching us much on what went into the planning of the genocide and how to prevent another from ever happening.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides