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June 6, 2001

Belgian Court Tries 4 in Rwandan Convent Massacre


Agence France-Presse
Sister Gertrude, left, a Benedictine nun, departing a Brussels court where she and three others are being tried on charges stemming from killings in 1994 at a religious compound she headed near Butare, Rwanda.

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BRUSSELS — Sister Gertrude, once a mother superior, has been in court for seven weeks, listening to grim details about murder in the convent. She has barely moved except to bow her head, which is covered with the brown veil of the Benedictine order.

Sister Gertrude is a Hutu from Rwanda, one of the four accused in a highly unusual trial in Belgium.

She is here to answer charges that she collaborated with the attackers during the Rwandan killing frenzy in 1994. Among her accusers are fellow nuns, blaming her for the deaths of more than 20 of their family members who had been safely hidden in the convent until she summoned the police.

Prosecutors have linked Sister Gertrude, 42, to other, even greater horrors at the sprawling religious compound set in the southern hills of Sovu, near the city of Butare. They cite the day that more than 500 Tutsi refugees were locked in the convent garage, sprayed with gasoline and burned alive. As many as 7,000 refugees were hacked and clubbed to death by militia gangs, the indictment says, after the mother superior had driven the refugees from the convent grounds.

"The monastery, instead of a place of asylum, of safety, became a deadly trap," Alain Winants, the prosecutor, told the court.

Sister Gertrude has spoken in near-whispers. "I never wanted anybody to die — I suffered with the people," she said when questioned in a recent session. If all the refugees had stayed packed inside the convent, "we were all going to perish," she said. Sister Maria Kisito, 36, another Hutu nun, also in the dock, nodded. She is charged with similar crimes, as an alleged accomplice. Defense lawyers told the court that the nuns had feared retaliation if they harbored Tutsi refugees.

The "Rwanda Four" as they have come to be known, are being tried under Belgian laws that were adopted to comply with international human rights conventions, enabling the courts to try grave human rights violations committed anywhere. The trial is held in Belgium, Rwanda's former colonial master, because the four accused had come to live here.

The trial of the two nuns has embarrassed the Roman Catholic Church, which had already come under heavy criticism over its equivocal role during the Rwandan tragedy. Influential Belgian Catholics, both politicians and clergy, tried for several years to block the trial. The judge in charge of the investigations has complained that Catholic priests put "undue pressures" on some of the nuns who were important prosecution witnesses, to get them to retract their charges against their sisters. They did not retract. About a dozen nuns have testified, for and against the accused.

The case has also reopened the debate about the role of Roman Catholic and Protestant church leaders, some of whom sided openly with the Hutu government before it orchestrated the killings of as many as 500,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu during the 1994 civil war.

Reports abound of heroic priests and nuns who stood up to the killers and saved people — and several hundred priests and nuns were slain themselves. But there is much evidence of refugees seeking protection in churches, only to be trapped there and killed after priests had called in armed mobs. Genocide trials in Rwanda, Africa's most heavily Catholic nation, have already included church workers, and at least two priests have been sentenced to death.

The much publicized case at the Palace of Justice in Brussels involves two other Rwandan defendants — a physics professor, Vincent Ntezimana, and a businessman, Alphonse Higaniro. The two men, like the nuns, have denied the charges of complicity in specific murders and of responsibility in a number of unspecified deaths.

The trial, moreover, has drawn much attention from experts since it began on April 17 because it represents a milestone in international law. It marks the first time that a jury of 12 ordinary citizens of one country is asked to judge people accused of war crimes committed in another country.

Legal scholars say they are looking to the jury's verdict, expected on June 7, as an important precedent as worldwide interest in prosecuting human rights crimes mounts. "This is a very painful moment for us," said a Belgian priest who has followed the proceedings, "but it is important that the truth come out."

The story of what happened at the Sovu convent may not be more devastating than so much other evil that took place in Rwanda's three-month- long carnage. But six years of meticulous research by a Belgian judge and his team of investigators — who went to the sites and questioned scores of people, have produced an uncommonly detailed and professional reconstruction of what happened in one religious precinct.

Trouble began in the village of Sovu on April 18, 1994, as women and children came fleeing from the hills. They had heard explosions and rumors of massacres nearby. Many flocked to the convent, shown on film in court as a sprawling complex with a clinic and vegetable fields. As the Tutsi refugees flooded in, nuns testified in court, Sister Gertrude become more and more disturbed, calling the refugees "dirt." She and Sister Maria Kisito, who had a brother in the local Hutu militia, went to get help from soldiers and militiamen who promised to clear the place, witnesses said.

The first attacks came on April 22, at 7:30 a.m. The indictment says that soldiers and militia fired on the clinic, where hundreds of people huddled. Then the militia and local Hutu gangs burst in, brandishing machetes, clubs and hoes. They chased the refugees and hacked them to death.

That afternoon, the indictment goes on, the gangs returned, this time attacking the garage, where more than 500 people were barricaded inside. The militia leader asked for gasoline. Witnesses said that the two nuns arrived with jerry cans.

The attackers chained the garage doors, knocked holes in the walls and threw grenades inside, the indictment said. Next they set fire to the packed building. Sister Maria Kisito brought dried leaves to fan the flames.

"It must have been a true carnage," said the investigating judge who later saw the burned garage. By the end of that day, 7,000 people had died, the local police said.

There was more. Three days later, Sister Gertrude met again with the leader of the Sovu militia, Emmanuel Rekeraho, complaining to him that more refugees were in the compound, according to the indictment. On April 25, more than 30 people, among them convent employees and their relatives, were handed over to the militia, who killed them.

Sister Gertrude was still angry because some relatives of Tutsi nuns remained in the convent, according to nuns' testimony. There was Aline, the 19-year-old niece of Sister Bénédicte, spending her Easter holidays because she was thinking of taking her vows. There was Sister Scholastique's niece with her 18-month-old baby. There were two brothers of Sister Marie-Bernard — about 22 family members in all. Nuns testified that for one week the mother superior urged the relatives to leave, saying the lives of the nuns were in danger.

Mr. Rekeraho, now in prison in Kigali, told the group African Rights that the nuns' lives were not threatened because he did nothing "without first discussing it with Kisito and Gertrude." He was reported as saying: "Those two nuns collaborated with us in everything we did. They got the Tutsi out of their hiding places and handed them over to us. They shared our hatred for the Tutsi."

According to the indictment, on May 5, the mayor received a letter, signed by Sister Gertrude. It demanded that all the outsiders "who are insisting on staying" and for whom there is no food, be removed by May 6, "so that the work of the monastery can continue in peace."

The mayor appeared the next day, accompanied by police and militia. Sister Maria Kisito guided them to the rooms. Aline begged the mother superior for a veil to save her life, but was refused.

In the courtroom, as a large photo of Aline was flashed on a screen, her mother, Leokadi Makamusame, started sobbing. "My daughter was killed because of a little piece of cloth," she cried.

The indictment says that the relatives were forced to leave the convent after the mayor told them they would be safe.

But soon a small group of women returned, among them the mother of Sister Régine, a Tutsi nun. They had seen killings starting down the road. The mother begged a policeman to shoot them so they would not be hacked to death by machetes. The policeman demanded money and she gave him 7,000 Rwandan francs. Then he shot and killed all six of them.

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