Priest's conviction a reminder that Rwanda's wounds are still open

New York

The Dec. 13 conviction of Fr. Athanase Seromba by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda offers the latest reminder that the wounds from the astonishingly rapid 1994 genocide are far from healed in that African nation of 8 million, roughly half of whom are Catholic.

Seromba was the first Catholic priest to be convicted by the international tribunal, although the trial of a second, Fr. Emmanuel Rukundo, a former army chaplain in northern Rwanda, began in mid-November. In 2000, the tribunal acquitted Bishop Augustin Misago, of the southern diocese of Gikongoro, of charges that he deliberately sent 19 Tutsi schoolgirls to their deaths at the hand of Hutu extremists.

The international court, however, is not the only way that Catholic personnel have been charged with complicity in the killing.

Some have been tried and convicted in traditional village courts, called “gacaca.” The latest case involved a Catholic nun, Sr .Theopister Mukakibibi, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison on November 10. She was accused of denying food, medication and care to patients at the University Central Hospital, and also of driving Tutsi patients out of the hospital in the knowledge that killers were waiting.

Other Rwandan priests and nuns have stood trial in military courts, or overseas.

On November 16, for example, a military tribunal convicted Fr. Wenceslas Munyeshyaka in a trial held in absentia. Munyeshyaka, now in France, was accused of committing rape and aiding militiamen in the genocide. The prosecutor vowed to request extradition. In 2001 Sr. Julienne Maria Kizito and her Mother Superior, Sr. Gertrude Mukangango, were sentenced by a Belgian court to 12 and 15 years in prison, respectively. They were accused of calling in militiamen to drive out Tutsis who had sought refuge in their convent at Sovu.

To be fair, this was hardly just a Catholic phenomenon, and leaders of other denominations have also been prosecuted. Last week, Seventh Day Adventist pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, convicted by the international tribunal and sentenced to 10 years a decade ago, became its first convict to be released after serving his time.

Moreover, it should be noted that Seromba has proclaimed his innocence, and his attorney, a Benin national who is among the founders of "Lawyers Without Borders," has argued that the court wanted to convict him largely for the bureaucratic motive of justifying its massive expenditures.

Still, the Seromba case and others like it represent a challenge to the conscience of the Rwandan Catholic community, to try to come to terms with how savagery on such a vast scale – one million dead in 100 days, a rate of killing three times faster than the Holocaust – could have happened in a country which, at least nominally, has a strong Catholic culture.

One Rwanda Catholic asking such questions is Jesuit Fr. Elisee Rutagambwa, currently writing a dissertation at Boston College on the response of the Church and the international community to genocide.

Rutagambwa,the eighth and last child of a Tutsi family, has suffered in first person the convulsions that have swept through Rwanda. In mass-killings that began in 1963, he lost his father, two uncles, his grandparents, and his sister, who was four when she and her grandmother and grandfather were attacked with machetes and thrown in a river. His brother was killed in the violence in Burundi in 1993, and 40 members of his extended family in Rwanda in 1994.

Rutagambwa was on the phone with a cousin in Rwanda on April 7, 1994, who was describing the outbreak of violence when the line went dead. Later, he learned she had been murdered.

I heard Rutagambwa speak in July at a congress of Catholic theological ethicists in Padua, Italy, and the comments he made seem worth revisiting in light of the Seromba conviction.

“It’s amazing that genocide is not a major issue in ethics today, since the 20th century was the century of genocide,” Rutagambwa said. “Theologians don’t really talk about it, even social ethicists avoid it. It’s not a focal issue for us.”

Noting that the Rwandan killing claimed the lives of one in seven people living in the country at the time, he asked his audience to imagine what a similar level of decimation would have meant in the United States or China.

“This was father on son, mother on daughter,” Rutagambwa said. “Doctors killed their patients, teachers killed their students, priests killed their parishioners. This was total destruction. People were taught to hate each other.”

Perhaps, Rutagambwa said, one might be tempted to dismiss what happened in Rwanda as a descent into African tribal savagery, unfortunate but basically impossible to control. Yet the 20th century also witnessed genocides in the heart of European civilization, he said.

The tragic reality, Rutagambwa said, is that Rwanda was the “most preventable” genocide on record. There were United Nations resolutions and even a small U.N. force on the ground, he said, and the West clearly possessed the capacity to intervene. He noted that as the killing broke out, all the Westerners were evacuated, “including their dogs and cats,” while the Rwandans were left largely to fend for themselves.

Though Rutagambwa did not specifically examine the role of the Catholic Church, he did say that the ethnic polarization of Rwanda into Hutus and Tutsis was largely a product of the colonial era, and was reinforced by the Church.

“Prior to colonialism, there was already a nation of Rwanda, with a common authority and administration,” Rutagambwa said. “There was no sharp division between Hutus and Tutsis, and in fact in some regions Hutus and Tutsis were found in the same clan.”

The Belgian colonial authorities, following the classic strategy of “divide and conquer,” elevated first the Tutsis and then the Hutus, using the promise of privilege to one group to keep the other in line. The Church, he said, to some extent followed suit, and largely for the same reasons.

Rutagambwa faulted much press coverage for not raising such issues, saying instead that the genocide was covered “like Red Sox games, with one box score after another.”

On the subject of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Rutagambwa was not terribly sanguine.

“Ironically, the prisoners get three meals a day, they have access to computers, they get anti-retroviral medications from the prison hospital if they’re HIV-positive,” Rutagambwa said. “The victims get nothing.”

Corruption and mismanagement have also soured Rwandans, he said, along with the relatively feeble efforts of the Rwandan government to duplicate the “truth and reconciliation” model of post-apartheid South Africa.

“For the government, ‘reconciliation’ basically means releasing people from jail,” he said. “It’s peculiar to Rwanda.”

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