Usually, people come to Huye regional stadium in Butare province in the South of Rwanda to watch football matches between teams.
Today it’s different. People are coming to attend a Gacaca court session where the Minister of Defense, General Marcel Gatsinzi will testify in what is called an ‘information gathering’ session.
It’s the biggest in Butare province since the process started in mid-January 2005.
General Gatsinzi is one of the army officers from the former government of Rwanda, who now serves in the new government. Before the genocide, he was the commander of a military school for non-commissioned officers, known as ESO, short for Ecole des Sous Officiers. He also became the Army Chief of Staff for a short period during the genocide.
According to Gacaca protocol, any witness at an information-gathering session is required to begin their testimony with memories of relevant events since 1990.
General Gatsinzi says he was among those hunted in 1990 because some high ranking army officials allegedly called him an accomplice to the rebels. He says after the RPF invaded the north of the country, led by Rwanda’s current president Paul Kagame, he was sent there to lead the defense against them.
Gatsinzi told the court that he escaped many attacks on his life. The first was at Rwamagana camp.
“A grenade exploded under the chair on which I had been sitting. Some of the soldiers I was with were injured”, explains the General. “I informed the headquarters that a sergeant from the military police Muhima unit had attacked us and that soldiers had shot him down in self defense. I asked them what was going on but they only laughed at me and kept quiet”.
Later, Gatsinzi was ordered to return from northern Rwanda to the ESO military school.
Shortly before the genocide, General Gatsinzi was made Army Chief of Staff in Rwanda. He replaced Deogratias Nsabimana, who had been killed with President Juvenal Habyarimana, when the small airplane they were travelling in was shot down by persons unknown, as it approached Kigali.
When the genocide started, General Gatsinzi says he used his powers the best way he could to stop it by issuing orders to the army to stop massacres and to maintain control. He claims his orders were defied by some subordinates, but not by all.
“I had good working relations with people from Butare particularly soldiers and gendarmes. So they respected the orders. I remind you that I spent one week on that post, from 7th to 15th when they removed me. Tell me if anyone died here during that period,” asks Gatsinzi.
But some of the people who lived in Butare before and during the genocide think General Gatsinzi has a lot to answer for, particularly his alleged influence over military students at the ESO, who allegedly participated in the torture and massacre of Tutsis in Butare.
“Most of the students were from Ruhengeri and Gisenyi in the North of Rwanda. They were youngsters”, says Gatera one of the Butare residents gathered at the stadium “Tutsis lived in the same neighborhoods with Hutus. They did not have their separate village. How did those students know where the Tutsi homes were?” he asks.
“I want to ask the General, this question: he says some soldiers disobeyed his orders. What punishments did they get for their disobedience?” asks Nzarubara another resident.
To these and any other questions about his responsibilities as a senior military commander, Gatsinzi replies by proclaiming his innocence.
“I never gave orders to arrest and to torture Tutsis”, he says. “There are many former soldiers in prison who were there. If any of them says I gave the orders, let him also say when and from where I gave the orders”.
At the end of his testimony, General Gatsinzi promised to appear at future Gacaca sessions, as required. He also promised to tell the truth and emphasized that he helped people during the genocide.
“Whenever I arrived in Butare, people always said that when I was present they would have peace for a while. If they really say the truth, they remember that,” says Gatsinzi.
This particular Gacaca court is still at the ‘information gathering’ phase.
But more people want to put their own questions to General Marcel Gatsinzi questions, a sure sign that the Minister may indeed be back on the witness stand, when the trials start.