In June this year, a former mayor of a town in eastern Rwanda was found guilty of genocide, extermination and rape. Sylvestre Gacumbitsi was sentenced by Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Arusha, Tanzania.
They convicted him of leading and participating in attacks on Tutsi refugees, gathered at Nyarubuye parish, scene of one of the worst massacres in the 1994 genocide.
“The Trial Chamber sentences Sylvestre Gacumbitsi to a single sentence of 30 years imprisonment for all the crimes for which he has been found guilty.” Judges say Gacumbitsi incited people to kill and rape, that he provided weapons and transport, and that he visited places like the Nyarubuye parish over several days, as survivors were finished off.
Nyarubuye means ‘a hard stony place’ and in 1994 the local open and stone strewn landscape offered few places to hide to those fleeing for their lives. Ferdinand Rwakayigamba was one of the lucky ones who somehow managed to find shelter at Nyarubuye parish and survive the slaughter.
Today he’s in charge of repairing a memorial at the parish. The bones of his wife and children are here somewhere, but he has no way of identifying them. “Today I am the only one remaining in an extended family of over 200 people, most of them died here, he says.
Jean Damascene Ngwabije lost all his family too. Before the genocide he was one of few Tutsis in the Republican Movement for National Democracy (MRND) party, one of those whose leaders planned the slaughter. His family was close to Mayor Gacumbitsi. A gifted singer, Ngwabije would sometimes accompany Gacumbitsi and other officials at party rallies, to entertain the public.
But a few months before the genocide, Ngwabije noticed Tutsis being forced out of the party, he opted to leave.
When the killing began, one of his brothers, Alphonse Kanyogote, went to Gacumbitsi for help. “He went to his house hoping he would hide him. Instead he killed my brother right at the doorstep and buried him on his land. We later dug up the bones in his garden. He also betrayed my elder brother Mulindahabi to the killers. Our family had been kind to him, we expected him to help us. Yet in my family I am the only one who remains,” Ngwabije claims.
Kanyogote’s murder was debated during Gacumbitsi’s trial. Judges accepted the murder took place, but said that because the prosecution had not included this allegation in their initial charges against Gacumbitsi, evidence about the murder could not be considered. Gacumbitsi was acquitted of murder. How do those who survived feel about this?
“For us we feel that those judges might as well have released him because there is no sentence there. They took it all so lightly. They have sentenced him as if he committed a common crime like raiding a shop. Murder deserves more than that, please bear in mind that over 26 and 30 thousand people died here… this is really hurting,” Rwakayigamba says.
Jean Damascene Ngwabije agrees with him. “To give Gacumbutsi thirty years is just too lenient. I think if you bear in mind what he did, then he deserves a death sentence…if he hadn’t been there, not one person would have died.”
Gacumbitsi’s family still lives in the same house they occupied before the genocide. They have not seen him in many years. His wife, Margueritte Mukasamayombe, thinks the sentence is too severe.
“I think 30 years are too much given that he used to lead people well. During the genocide people used to come to the house for assistance and he would help them. I saw it with my own eyes. Some of those he helped even survived. But a time came when even he was overwhelmed by the things that were happening and could do nothing to stop them,” she says.
Some disagree with that version of events. Jean Damascene Ngwabije says that Gacumbitsi played a key role in everything including rapes, and was indifferent to the victims.
“Before the war he had some Interahamwe (militia) boys he used to bring here, he would hold meetings and incite them. After that they started raping and defiling women, if the victims reported the rapes, he would tell them, what is wrong with having a little sex?” he recalls.
Away from Nyarubuye, debate continues on whether Gacumbitsi’s sentence is fair or not. ICTR Prosecutor Hassan Bubacar Jallow says justice has been done.
“We are satisfied with the verdict. It vindicates the case the prosecution has been trying to prove all along that Mr Gacumbitsi who was a leader in Rwanda participated extensively in the genocide and got others to participate as well, he killed, he raped and got others to do the same so we are very satisfied with the verdict,” Jallow states.
But the government of Rwanda is not satisfied. Chief Prosecutor Jean de Dieu Mucyo says the sentence does not accurately reflect the extent of Gacumbitsi’s crimes. “ For us thirty years is too little given all the evidence produced against him and the type of crimes he committed. Each of the crimes for which he committed, genocide, extermination and rape deserve a life sentence on their own. Yet for all of the crimes they gave him only thirty years,” he says.
Mucyo hopes Gacumbitsi’s sentence will be changed on appeal, to life imprisonment. If not, he says the Rwandan government will request that Gacumbitsi at least serve his term in a Rwandan prison.
Gacumbitsi’s lawyer Kouengoua also looks forward to the appeal. He claims that the ICTR was not fair to his client as it did not consider the evidence of defense witnesses.
“The way I see it now this is the justice of the victors over the vanquished. If I say I am satisfied I will be lying. I cannot be satisfied,” he says.
Gacumbitsi will remain in the UN detention facility at Arusha, pending his appeal.