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Kabuga trial for genocide carries painful lessons

Alleged Rwandan genocide financier Félicien Kabuga at the ICC on November 11, 2020. [Courtesy: UN IRMCT]

Growing up in the village, the highlight of every First Term holiday in the 90s was the Safari Rally. It was usually between March and April during the long rains.

In Machakos, the rains pounded the grasslands and flowers blossomed, for once. With other boys, we went about kicking wild mushrooms which sprang everywhere. Truly, in Shakespeare’s “As you like it” terms, “springtime was the only pretty ring time.” 

The year 1994 was not any different. I was a Standard Six pupil then. That year, the rally was sponsored by Trust Bank. It started on March 31, the eve of school closure, and was ending on April 3.

We keenly followed the rally on our small transistor radio. Over the weekends, my father would land from Nairobi and the first thing we would invade in his briefcase was the weekend newspapers, before descending on the biscuits and the bread.

Ian Duncan, our Kenyan legend bagged it that year, driving Toyota Celica Car. No.3 while the other local hero, Patrick Njiru in his Subaru Impreza came forth. Other all-Kenyan acts who finished the race- Sammy Aslam, Rob Hellier, Anwar Azar and Phineas Kimathi came in positions 8, 9, 10 and 13 respectively. 

In that rally, Jonathan Toroitich, President Daniel Moi’s son, co-driven by Ibrahim Choge, missed direction. They were driving Toyota Celica KAD 700Q. Another legend of the day, Juha Kankkunen, was involved in an accident while Yogesh Patel abandoned the race.  

Unknown to us and as we were seized of this rally spirit in Kenya, in Rwanda, dark ominous clouds were gathering in the skies. They had been gathering for months.  

We were still relishing in Duncan’s triumph over Richard Burns when on April 7, the national broadcaster announced the coming down of a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira.

Other than the difficulty with which the announcers struggled with the two presidents’ names, there was nothing out of the ordinary. The bulletins of that period were, in any case, characterised by the notorious conflicts of the time.  

The Chechen civil war was raging, the Israel-Palestine conflict was bubbling the Oslo peace accord the previous year notwithstanding, and excitement rent the air in South Africa over the impeding first multiracial election. 

What we thought was just another plane crash would soon escalate into a full-blown civil war and one more shame badge for the whole world. That following weekend of April 9, the newspaper my father brought to the village utterly dispossessed us of the rally cheer. 

In its place were sickening pictures of villagers trooping in long files across picturesque valleys, their belongings in tow, fleeing their country. All moderate Hutu leaders were rounded up and killed as roadblocks sprang everywhere in Rwanda in the hunt for Tutsis.  

Every other weekend from then, the pictures got scarier and grimmer.  The Molo clashes of 1992 had awoken in me the unnerving consciousness of the effect of civil strife. The arrival in our village of a distant relative who had been displaced from Enoosupukia in Narok and driven off Maela camp in Nakuru consolidated the collective fears of my generation. 

But Rwandan strife seemed quite something else, even in my limited appreciation of the scope of the war. By the time school opened in May, I was already coming to terms with the possibility that we could one day be forced to leave our village, and possibly our country over civil strife.  

By the time the world came to terms with what was happening in Rwanda, in August of that year, close to 800,000 people had been killed in a meaningless and merciless orgy of violence. It was as if the devil had been let loose on the Rwandan airspace.  

On Wednesday this week, the first witness took the stand at the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunal (IRMCT) courtroom at The Hague to give evidence against the tribunal’s prime catch, Felicien Kabuga, the founding owner of Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM).  

Accused of masterminding the genocide against the Tutsi, Kabuga fled Rwanda, and slithered across several countries, including Kenya, as the world pursued him. In Kenya, he was the poster child of the genocide, his silver fox mugshot plastered in newspapers. 

Said to have influential people protecting him, Kabuga successfully evaded arrest until he ran out of his luck at the height of Covid 19 lockdown in May 2020. Frail, and a frame of his old self, he was arrested in France and transferred to the cold and unforgiving Netherlands.  

At his initial courtroom appearance in November of that year, he was hardly recognisable. Sitting behind the glass casement, he ghostly followed the proceedings translated in Kinyarwanda for ease of understanding. 

He had greyed. He sat in a wheelchair, was almost inaudible when he spoke and was shaking while at it. On that day, the Ecclesiastical keeper of the house was trembling:

“I have a question…. I would like to change Counsel,” he said when asked by the judge whether he had anything to say.  

But the chamber was already seized of that request and had just discussed it a few moments before. Even in the courtroom, Kabuga was in his own world. 

Then came perhaps the most important day for Rwandan genocide victims, September 29 last week, when participants in the trial made their opening statements. Kabuga did not show up in the courtroom although he was well. He opted to follow the proceedings from a facility in the detention centre. 

“He’s well but has decided he will not attend either in person or by using the PVCT facility available to him, but we have elected to proceed with the trial nevertheless,” the judge ruled. 

In the opening statements, the prosecution painted the picture of one man’s 28 years of determination to evade arrest, fleeing first to former Zaire, Switzerland among other places. He was described as the genocide’s mastermind who didn’t require to operate a rifle or wield a machete. He simply facilitated the execution of the genocide. 

“In late February or March 1994, Kabuga spoke at an anti-Tutsi rally in Kigali. He was introduced as the guest of honour. He called the Tustis the enemy, and likened them to snakes, warning if you see a snake and you don’t kill it that snake will bite you … he promised money and vehicles for that purpose,” the prosecution said. 

There was talk of thousands of weapons bought, and Kabuga personally showing up at roadblocks to distribute the weapons and to encourage the militia. At the opening, the prosecutor reiterated the fact of the genocide as established by past trials of other suspects.  

“The fact of the Rwandan genocide is a part of world history, a fact as certain any other, a classic instance of a fact of common knowledge,” the prosecutor said. 

On that day, RTLM clips were played, talking of cockroaches that must be killed and small-nosed fellows who must be destroyed. A broadcast of Kabuga defending RTLM was also played. He claimed the radio station was broadcasting facts, and that their opponents did not wish these facts to be reported:  

“If we continue being softy, what then will be the use of the press?” he posed. 

Kabuga’s trial takes place three days a week, two hours daily. He is frail, and sickly and will not make it to the trial every day. But the court is determined to get done with the trial and to close a sad chapter in Rwanda and the world’s history. 

But the trial is not without a huge significance in the world’s quest to stop the recurrence of genocides. After Rwanda, a permanent mechanism to prosecute international crimes of mass scale like Rwanda’s was set up through the Rome Statute of 1998. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is up and rolling but beset with numerous challenges among them divided support from governments, the politicisation of court operations and structural challenges. Rwanda seems a distant past, but recent events in world affairs are increasingly demonstrating the past is never too far from the present. 

The trial of Felicien Kabuga presents the international system with the opportunity to, once again, assess its capacity to forestall massive evil at the earliest opportunity. Kabuga may be on trial at The Hague in the next few months, but in that dock will be the collective conscience of world governments and leadership.  

Postscript 

It was after watching “Ghosts of Rwanda” documentary and visiting Nuremberg, Germany that the enormity of the evil that was wrought on the world fully dawned on me. 

“Tempted. Misled. Slaughtered,” screamed a poster bearing boyish looks of young Hitler youth at the Nazi Documentation Centre.

The poster has haunted me to this date, as does the memory of visiting Courtroom 100 where Nazi war criminals were tried, and where a crucifixion cross hangs beneath the bench to this date. 

Exactly 50 years later, and with the benefit of information and the history of Nazi Germany, Rwanda happened.  

The “Ghosts of Rwanda” a documentary produced by Greg Barker for BBC is a tribute to the collective hypocrisy of the human race. The picture of betrayal painted therein is akin to the historic betrayal of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  

It is the valiant story of a lone American aid worker who refused to evacuate to save lives, a stoic UN general who hang on in there against great odds, and a bold West African soldier who negotiated for the safety of hundreds, possibly thousands, but fell to the evil forces. 

This is the story of human good triumph over evil, the nonchalance of the UN system in New York, the isolationism which facilitated Rwanda, and above all a tribute to the thousands who died. 

“The thing about this is that we got to recognise that there is just so much potential for good and evil in each and every one of us,” Carl Wilkens, the lone American who saved more lives than his own government could not have put it any better. 

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