At the Heart of Rwanda's Horror; General's
History Offers Clues to the Roots of Genocide
Emily Wax, Washington Post Foreign Service
NYANGE, Rwanda, Sept. 21, 2002
She remembers the days when her brother, the army general, landed
his "bird machine" in this hilltop village. In his dashing uniform and beret, he
ordered up a new house for her, a new house for their mother and rounds of
Rwanda's golden beer, Primus, for their childhood friends.
"It was like my brother was king," said Maria Mukako, her three
children clinging to her as flies buzzed around their bare feet. "Now I hear on
the radio that people are saying my brother is more like the devil."
Her brother, Augustin Bizimungu, former chief of staff of the
Rwandan army, sits with 53 others in a detention center in Arusha, Tanzania, awaiting trial by the U.N.-mandated International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He is accused of being an architect of the state-sponsored genocide that killed more than 800,000 people.
Over 100 days in 1994, after the assassination of President Juvenal
Habyarimana, Rwanda's Hutu majority carried out the organized slaughter
of the country's Tutsi minority and Hutus who sympathized with them. Under
Bizimungu's command, soldiers exterminated the "cockroach Tutsis" on a scale so massive that eight years later, just about every Rwandan has a parent or sibling -- or both -- who was raped, buried alive or hacked apart with a machete.
"He's one of our most important arrests," said Kingsley Chiedu
Moghalu, legal adviser to the tribunal. "Bizimungu was in a very important
position, leading the troops and giving out weapons. He had the power to stop the killing.
That's about as high and as important as you can get."
The masterminds of many of the 20th century's horrific mass killings
are widely known: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot. Yet the authors of
the Rwandan genocide remain relatively anonymous.
In dozens of interviews, Bizimungu's relatives, friends and former
army colleagues described a man immersed in conflict. During the genocide, he
veered from alleged atrocities to opportunistic charity, one moment allegedly
ordering massacres and rapes, the next protecting Tutsis' lives in exchange for
truckloads of beer.
In many ways, the roots of the genocide appear in the outlines of
Bizimungu's life. And those who know him see in his personal history and
that of the country keys to explaining how even ordinary Rwandans -- mayors,
teachers, priests and children -- came to participate in acts of horror.
Bizimungu was arrested in early August in Angola, where he had taken
among demobilized units of the UNITA rebels.
By Aug. 21, he was sitting in an air-conditioned, brightly lit
courtroom in Arusha, dressed in an ocean-blue suit and a white shirt, listening to the charges being laid against him. It took 2 1/2 hours. When the reading
was finished, he pleaded not guilty in a calm voice.
The indictment against Bizimungu describes several incidents where
he either ordered killings or turned his back on those who asked for help. There were 10 counts of genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and crimes against humanity.
On April 7, 1994, Tutsis and moderate Hutus poured into a military
camp in the northern town of Ruhengeri. Some knew Bizimungu, who had been stationed there in the early 1990s. He was a frequent customer of local bars, and continued to visit the town after his promotion.
"Augustin Bizimungu ordered his subordinates to expel these
indictment reads. "Two civilians begged Bizimungu for help. They were
within minutes." The prosecution further alleged that from Aug. 10 to
Bizimungu rounded up fleeing Tutsis in a Ruhengeri courthouse. Soon
civilians massacred the group.
Bizimungu has not yet selected an attorney. And because of the
cases at the U.N. court, he won't be brought to trial for about a year.
temporary counsel said Bizimungu was a victim of politics.
"Does he deny that he was chief of the army? No? But he is like
he is the victim of politics," said attorney Bharat-Bhushan Chadha,
the trial underway in The Hague in which former Yugoslav president
Milosevic is defending himself against genocide charges. "Bizimungu's
attacks a population. How can he have control of everyone when there was
Chadha said Bizimungu seemed serene in the detention center here.
see him, he smiles," Chadha said, shrugging his shoulders. "He is calm.
they are trying to blame him."
Rwanda has long been called the country of a thousand hills. Now it
called the country of a million dead souls. It is about the size of
contains 12 times as many people. Nearly every curvy slope is a plot for
cultivating food in a lush green country that looks like an enormous
Deep in these dense and impoverished hills is the village where
grew up. In the village there is a huge home that looks as alien as if
it were a
middle-class American ranch house, sitting five miles up a mountainside
The home belonged to Felecien Kabunga (RR: Félicien Kabuga), a rich tea farmer (businessman)and a
cousin of Bizimungu's family. Kabunga shunned Bizimungu's father for
and sick, relatives said. After Bizimungu's father died in 1976, his
left with six children. Bizimungu was the oldest son, living literally
shadow of Kabunga.
The village, in the Byumba precinct near the border with Uganda, is
the poorest in Rwanda. Homes have no running water. Teenagers are the
younger children because of malnourishment. Although Tutsis were killed
during the genocide, Hutus and Tutsis had lived side by side in relative
for years (centuries), villagers said.
Bizimungu grew up dreaming of winning over Kabunga, his sister and
said. And in the older man he found a willing patron.
"Bizimungu's family didn't even own cows," said Jean Claude
neighbor who is considered the village historian. "He didn't like
wanted a big house and big authority."
As the oldest son, he was the only child his mother sent to school.
was more interested in sports. Graying and 50, he still has a stocky,
"At first he wasn't interested in school. He had to do his first
said Andre Bakunzibake, who is still a teacher in the village's tiny
primary school. "Later, he was a good student in the military in
Neighbors and friends say it was Kabunga who secured Bizimungu's
military school in Belgium, the colonial power in Rwanda. The two men
in touch. Kabunga, who was related by marriage to the president's
pressed for Bizimungu's advancement in the army, eventually having a
his selection as chief of staff, officials said.
Kabunga was an ardent anti-Tutsi, neighbors said. He is currently a
accused of participating in the genocide.
In military school in Belgium that anger at Tutsis among Hutu cadets
reinforced and flourished, with the cadets advocating ridding themselves
Tutsis, neighbors said. Bizimungu's sister said he didn't take such
seriously, but neighbors said he would have done anything to be
to stay in power, even if it meant killing.
On the knobby dirt streets of Ruhengeri, Bizimungu's name evokes
today. When he was the local commander, he was known to make speeches
unfair power of the Tutsis.
From late 1990 to 1994, Bizimungu and other military leaders
build what they called a "Machiavellian plan," according to the
that would keep Hutus in power over the Tutsis, a historical struggle in
Rwanda, where the tall, angular-faced Tutsis were favored by the Belgian
During the revolution of 1959, at the end of Belgian rule, the Hutus
power in a peasant revolt and thousands of Tutsis were killed or fled to
Uganda (Brundi, Congo and Tanzania) .
In the early 1990s, when rebel Tutsis of the Rwandan Patriotic Front
launched attacks, the Hutu government began planning a campaign to kill
Bizimungu was part of that planning, which consisted of fanning
hatred and violence, distributing weapons to militiamen and preparing
people to eliminate, according to the U.N. indictment against Bizimungu.
The plan was discussed around Ruhengeri, but some people found
actions more confusing than his words. He drank with Tutsis. His driver
Tutsi. And he often joked with friends that there are "a few cockroaches
Still, he led meetings in Ruhengeri in January 1993 at which he
his troops. "The enemy is known, and the enemy is the Tutsi," he was
saying by residents of Ruhengeri who heard the speech. The indictment in
tells an identical story.
On April 7, 1994, the sounds of slaughter spilled out over Rwanda's
city. Roadblocks were set up with armed soldiers. Lists of Tutsis were
Constant radio announcements commanded Hutus to kill their longtime
Troops scoured the city, rounding up Tutsis and killing them.
Nine days into the genocide, Bizimungu was promoted from major
military chief of staff (to major general and military chief of staff).
Army sources said Kabunga had stepped in again,
for his appointment.
Bizimungu replaced a man who was said to be neither brutal nor
enough. Bizimungu proved to be both.
Under his leadership, the young Hutu Power forces became infamous
atrocities such as cutting fetuses out of pregnant women, burying
and gang rapes in which the victim died of her wounds, of sheer terror,
Bizimungu traveled between Ruhengeri, where he ordered specific
and Kigali, the Rwandan capital, according to both interviews with
the U.N. indictment. "The plan was to exterminate the civilian Tutsi
so [Hutus] could remain in power," the indictment states.
Even so, several Tutsis were close to Bizimungu, including his
survived the massacre.
While it was going on, Bizimungu developed a relationship with the
of the Hotel des Mille Collines, Kigali's only haven for Tutsis and
Hutus. Truckloads of beer were traded for protection. Bizimungu wanted
his troops happy during the slaughter. And he wanted to nurse his own
Twice he stepped in to save the Tutsis in the hotel, according to
and a Human Rights Watch report.
In late April, as international opinion and Tutsi-led troops, known
RPF, began to descend upon Rwanda, Bizimungu took the threat of a
embargo seriously. He went on the radio and urged ethnic fighting to be
but also said: "Stand side by side and help the government forces fight
enemy, the RPF."
"Bizimungu's pressure was to keep his army armed and going," said
DesForges, a Rwandan historian who wrote a Human Rights Watch report on
genocide. "The variations in his behavior don't necessarily reflect any
or benign personality. He asked for ethnic fighting to stop when he was
about losing ammunition. He was a military man and he was concerned with
the war. But it was too late."
In May, a U.N.-mandated arms embargo was put into place against
troops. Their stocks were not replenished.
On July 4, with the army collapsing, RPF forces captured Kigali and
still in control. More than a half-million Hutus fled to what is now
Congo ( 1 million to Congo, half a million to Tanzania and a 1/4 million to Burundi).
Bizimungu went with them and continued to lead his Hutu Power troops
Arusha is a town of sunny, California-like days, cool nights and
views of Mount Kilimanjaro. In Arusha, Bizimungu waits in the U.N.
center, the first of nine genocide suspects to be arrested after the
Department announced on July 29 that it would pay up to $ 5 million for
information leading to their arrest and transfer to Arusha.
Analysts say his arrest is important to the stabilization of the
to ending the war with Congo. While in Congo, Bizimungu formed the rebel
for the Liberation of Rwanda, made up of Hutu Power forces (the former
governement forces and hutu political parties militias).
The rebels tried to seize control in Rwanda in 1997-98 and again
last year (they never stopped carrying out cross border incursions from Congo since 94).
There is edgy hope for peace between Rwanda and Congo's government.
pledging to disarm and repatriate the Hutu militiamen blamed for the
In turn, Rwanda said it has begun to withdraw 1,600 of its estimated
troops from Congo.
But for his family and for the survivors of genocide, there is the
question: Will Bizimungu receive the justice he deserves?
"Do you know what Bizimungu means in our language?" asked Eveste
Gendahimana, a neighbor of his sister, as he leaned forward and
whispered. "It means, God Knows."