“I didn’t intend to commit genocide. It is my children. I didn’t plan to kill my children”, Ancila says
Ancila Mukaminega a prisoner, was married to a Tutsi. She says she killed her five children with poison to spare them from a more terrible death at the hands of the Interahamwe, Rwanda’s ruthless death squads in 1994.
Alphonsine Nyiramagambo, a mother of four, worked at Bank of Kigali. She is charged with masterminding massacres in Gikondo, but she pleads not guilty. She is detained at Kigali Central prison.
“Before I came to prison I did not know that there were women who participated in the killings during the genocide. I thought they had committed minor crimes like looting but not killing”, Alphonsine said.
Mugirase Sezariya, a mother of six is in prison, charged with the murder of her neighbour Octave Kayihura.
Sezariya used to live in the area of Nyamirambo, near Kigali city centre. She denies the charge adding that she did not see any women commit genocide. That’s not to say women were not involved.
“I didn’t see any woman killing but we used to hear about women who strongly supported the killings like Bemeriki Valerie who was a journalist at RTLM. Women rather played a big role in identifying and listing those to be killed”, Sezariya indicated.
These are the voices of some of some of the five hundred women charged with genocide related crimes, and now detained at Kigali Central Prison.
Women are often seen as victims of conflict but less-often as perpetrators.
In 1994, it seems some women as well as men, may have participated with enthusiasm in the massacres.
One of the people who say he suffered at the hands of women during the genocide is Jean Baptiste Sakindi.
He was twenty-five, when four women armed with grenades, guns and other weapons crashed into the small house where he had been hiding for days with his cousin Kayiranga who was ill.
Jean Baptiste says the women drugged and raped him continuously for three days.
“One of them climbed on top of me and the other went under me. I don’t know how to explain this, it is very difficult to put in words, and it was like pornography. It was pornography” Jean Baptiste says.
According to Jean Baptiste, this ordeal lasted three days. He says the women also took drugs to energise them and took turns on him, even until he was bleeding and in great pain. He says the drugs ensured that they could rape him whenever they wanted. After they finally left him alone, he says he was unconscious for two days. So how does he regard women now?
“Women, when I think about women, I think of them as compassionate people. On the hand I also think of them as the most hateful and evil minded people. However I like to think of the women who raped me as Interahamwe not just as women and this helps me not to generalise”, Jean Baptiste argues.
Console Mukanyirigira of the survivors association AVEGA agrees.
“Sentimentalism aside, it is known that women are very compassionate people and that is why we think that if the genocide had not been planned and women not prepared for their role in slaughter, the compassion in women would have triumphed over evil”, she remarks.
She says women could have prevented the murders if they had tried.
“Women watched as their husbands and sons went off to kill and did not stop them. If women had been more heroic and sadly the courageous ones were very few, perhaps the killings would not have been of the same magnitude” Console added.
But what do the women who are charged with genocide have to say?
Mwamini Nyirantegeye is currently detained at Kigali central prison. She was a resident of Kivugiza sector in Nyamirambo district and was a member of MRND, the ruling party at the time. Before that, she worked for Rwanda Air and was married to a Tutsi man. They had three children.
When the killings began her husband Jean Bosco Kabagambe took the three children to Butare where he was working. His wife stayed in Kigali.
Mwamini is charged with five counts of genocide, including wearing military fatigues as a civilian, planning and implementing the genocide, leading gangs of killers looting and failure to help those in need.
She pleads guilty to wearing military fatigue, and of circulating with Interahmwe and soldiers. But she but adds that it was the prevailing circumstances at the time which made her behave that way. She denies killing anyone.
Mwamini claims that she was standing in front of her Kivugiza home with one of her Tutsi neighbours called Alex, when they saw a group of killers coming towards them. When they saw the killers Mwamini says that Alex ran for his life.
When the killers reached where she was, they demanded to know where Alex was she says that she lied by saying she did not know. She claims she tried to mislead them.
During the search for Alex, she says three other men were found and killed.
“I felt so troubled because as I tried to save one person, I led to the death of four people. I was overwhelmed. That is one case I regret very much because as you can see, I was the one who led the killers to all these people although I did not intend to do so”, says Mwamini
Cecil Nimubona lives in Kivugiza from where she witnessed the genocide. She disagrees with Mwamini’s story and blames her for her husband’s death.
“When Mwamini came to our home, my husband and I were near the entrance. We looked up we saw a group of people coming towards us. I was standing but my husband was seated on a small kitchen stool and Mwamini called out to me asking, “Cecil where is Rugambwa”. But I kept silent. She repeated the same question and finally my husband responded saying, “here I am”, remembers.
Cecil says that when Mwamini saw her husband, she asked him where Alex was and when he failed to show them, the gang took him away. Later she got news of her husband’s death.
“At about 3 pm the same day a child who was coming to inform me about her father’s death met Mwamini on her to my place and Mwamini sent that child to tell me that my husband had been killed”, she added.
On the issue of wearing military uniform as a civilian, Mwamini says that she did so in order to save her niece, who had been attacked and dumped in a pit.
“I went to a road block which had been setup in our neighbourhood. I had some money on me so I bought beer for them and continued talking to them until I identified one of them who appeared sensible and asked him to help me”, she says.
According to Mwamini’s version of events, that Interahamwe member told her to find a car and military clothes, so she could pass through roadblocks. She says together they rescued her injured niece from the pit and took her to safety.
“Those who were hiding and saw me thought I was the same as the interahamwe because I was dressed like them and although they have no idea what exactly I was going through they saw me as a killer who was working together with the interahamwe to hunt down and kill people. This is also a charge I plead guilty to and regret but I also I explain the circumstances that dictated my behaviour back then”, Mwamini explains.
Cecil disagrees with that too. She claims Mwamini had the power to save lives, but did not.
“What really hurts me is the fact that not one soul, not a single person survived because of her. That really hurts me. Although I lost my husband, there are several other people who would have survived had she helped them”, Cecil argues.
Mwamini’s husband, Jean Bosco Kabagambe and their three children survived the genocide after fleeing to Butare. Today he works as a private consultant for rural co-operatives. He says Mwamini is a very sociable person.
“As far as I know Mwamini, she is not capable of killing anyone. Her real problem was her lack of a personality. She was always moving with the crowd. It is because of this that she even joined MRND because she had seen people who hailed from Gisenyi and Ruhengeri joining the party”, Jean Bosco says.
Jean Bosco adds that although he was not with his wife during the genocide there is no evidence to prove she killed anyone.
But Immacule from Kivugiza says residents of that area have bad memories of Mwamini.
“People around here say is that they saw her on many occasions moving with killers gangs’, she was seen on several times in the company of soldiers and the Interahamwe”, Immacule indicates.
After more than ten years apart from Mwamini, Jean Bosco eventually remarried and lives with his three children. Together, they continue to visit Mwamini in prison.
“To us as a family Mwamini is a mother and a friend. She is someone we have known for a long time. We can’t reward her by deserting her now no matter how evil she may be. If it is true she committed genocide that is her case to deal with as an individual. We will continue to support her materially, emotionally and help her to bear with what she is going through, building her hope that one day she will be released and I am optimistic that she will one day be free”, Jean Bosco says
There are 2729 women in Rwanda’s prisons. Of these, 1949 are charged with genocide related crimes.