Manchester / Rwanda
At trial, memories of violence
Witness tells of genocide ordeal
As Tutsis were stopped and Hutus allowed to pass, the woman remembers Beatrice Munyenyezi being in control of their fate. When Vestine Nyiraminani’s turn came, Munyenyezi told her to wait beside the roadblock, the woman testified yesterday in court.
And though Munyenyezi, charged with lying to immigration officials about her role in Rwanda’s genocide, was not a part of what came after, the woman continued her story.
The Tutsis, she said, were taken into the woods.
“When we got there, a soldier stabbed my sister in the head with a knife. I felt very frightened. I started backing off with another girl,” Nyiraminani said, testifying through an interpreter. “We were lucky they didn’t see us.”
Prosecutors in Munyenyezi’s trial at U.S. District Court in Concord have described the Manchester woman as a piece in the “machinery” of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, 100 days of turmoil that left an estimated 800,000 Tutsis dead. Munyenyezi isn’t accused of engineering the violence or even carrying it out herself.
The prosecutors say her contribution came at a roadblock outside the hotel owned by her husband’s family, where she checked identification cards and separated those who would be killed or raped.
Nyiraminani, sitting at the witness stand yesterday in a green and gold African dress, her toes exposed in heels not suited for a snowstorm, testified that she often passed that hotel on her way to and from work. But on April 20, 1994 – two weeks after the genocide started – she and her sister were stopped at a roadblock there as they headed home.
The barricade, the first like it she had seen in her town of Butare, had not been there that morning. She said that as they tried to pass through, she showed her identification card to Munyenyezi, a woman she recognized as being married to the son of a government cabinet minister.
Nyiraminani had never spoken to Munyenyezi, but she said everyone in town knew her as a member of the powerful family.
After being stopped, Nyiraminani and her sister sat on the roadside for about 30 minutes. Then they and about 20 others were taken to the woods, she said. As the killings started, only three escaped.
“Did you stay with your parents for the rest of the genocide?” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Capin asked.
He wondered why.
“They killed them,” she said.
The Interahamwe, the youth militia of the MRND political party, killed everyone in her family, she said, her parents and all seven of her siblings.
As she began to cry, Capin asked whether she needed a moment before he continued with his quesitons.
“It’s okay,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “It’s going to pass.”
A previous trial in Munyenyezi’s case ended last March with a hung jury. Since then prosecutors have identified several new witnesses, including Nyiraminani, to testify against her.
Munyenyezi’s lawyers say she’s innocent and that witnesses who testify otherwise are lying to align themselves with the Rwandan government’s official theory about the genocide. The defense attorneys have taken substantial time to ask the witnesses how they were first contacted by U.S. investigators, seemingly to uncover whether they were coached about what to say.
Yesterday, defense attorney Mark Howard asked the woman whether she told U.S. agents about the hotel roadblock when they first interviewed her in Rwanda last June.
“You told the agent that you would see Beatrice around town before the genocide, right?” Howard asked.
She agreed that she had, so Howard asked how she had known the investigators were interested in hearing about Munyenyezi.
“It was my testimony about how I lived in 1994,” she said.
“How did you know that they wanted to hear about Beatrice?” Howard repeated.
“Well, I didn’t know if they wanted to hear about Beatrice or not. But I wanted to tell them about the terrible difficulties I encountered at a roadblock,” she said.
And she told Howard that she had mentioned many Interahamwe – such as people named Sostene, Strato and Ruganza – when she spoke to the U.S. investigators in Rwanda. But when Capin later questioned the woman again, he made clear that she was mistaken, saying she hadn’t used those three names before speaking to him here last week.
With several witnesses, the defense attorneys have attempted to point out discrepancies between their testimony and previous statements they’ve made about the genocide, an approach also used in the last trial. Capin appeared eager to correct Nyiraminani’s mistake so the defense couldn’t use it against them later.
And as the woman’s testimony came to a close, Capin also decided to have her share part of her story he hadn’t asked about when she first took the stand. He wondered how she survived the three months of turmoil that killed thousands of people, including everyone in her family.
“There is an Interahamwe who took me into his house,” she said.
“Somebody you knew before the genocide?” Capin asked.
The woman said that was right, but that the man had not been a friend. Capin asked if he had offered her protection.
“I wouldn’t call it protection,” she said.
“What would you call it?”
She said that he kept her there and raped her.
(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @tricia_nadolny.)