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The Rwanda genocide tribunal wraps up investigation 29 years after it was created

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The United Nations tribunal that was tasked with finding and prosecuting war criminals from the former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide has finally wrapped up major operations nearly 30 years after it was created. Two remaining suspects, both suspected of committing genocide in Rwanda, were determined to have died, and the last living suspect to be found by the tribunal's tracking team was arrested last year in South Africa. Kelly McEvers and a team of filmmakers have been following these trackers over the past couple of years, and Kelly joins me now. Hi there.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So Kelly, can you just start off by telling us briefly what this U.N. tribunal is and what makes it so special?

MCEVERS: So this tribunal is sort of the last remaining vestige of two tribunals that were set up in the 1990s to deal with the war in the former Yugoslavia and after the Rwandan genocide. They're known as the ad hoc tribunals. And unlike other international courts, they have the backing of the security council, which carries a lot of weight. I think, at the time, in the 1990s, people thought that these ad hoc tribunals were going to become the norm. Of course, now we know that they're the anomaly. These two tribunals accounted for roughly 250 individuals from both of these conflicts, and now, nearly 30 years later, they're wrapping up their major operations.

SUMMERS: And Kelly, you were following some trackers as they were searching for a fugitive. Can you tell us who he is and how they were able to find him?

MCEVERS: They found him through meticulous work. This man's name was Fulgence Kayishema. He was a local leader in a Rwandan village called Nyange. And in the early days of the Rwandan genocide, he and other local leaders are alleged to have ordered Tutsis in the village to shelter inside of a church, leading them to believe that they would be safe, and then later attacking the church and eventually ordering a bulldozer to destroy the church with more than 2,000 people inside.

We actually went to Nyange and talked to people who survived this massacre. We talked to a man named Fredouard Manirguha. He was an altar boy at the church. He was a Hutu, so he was spared. He told us how, after the church was destroyed, Kayishema and other local leaders sat and celebrated.

FREDOUARD MANIRGUHA: (Through interpreter) And they sit down. They drink liquors and slaughtered some of the goats. And they will eat, you know, just trying to celebrate what they've achieved.

MCEVERS: That's him speaking through an interpreter. And so after the genocide, Kayishema fled Rwanda. He went to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He eventually ended up in Mozambique, spent time in Eswatini, eventually goes to South Africa under a false name, claiming to be a Burundian refugee. And the tracking team found him living with a white family in South Africa and working on a winery. They drove up to the house one day and had figured out that he was actually Fulgence Kayishema and told him that he was under arrest. And he's currently in custody in South Africa.

SUMMERS: Wow, what an incredible story. So I understand that these tribunals - they're now ending their major operations. Tell us what happens next.

MCEVERS: So there are still some 1,200 suspects at large from the Rwandan genocide, and so this team is going to now assist the Rwandan government in tracking down some of these fugitives and bringing them to trial.

SUMMERS: So there aren't any more ad hoc tribunals, as you were mentioning, but I want to understand - what does this mean for current efforts at international justice and prosecution of war crimes? I'm thinking about places like Syria, Ukraine, perhaps now even the war in Gaza.

MCEVERS: I talked about this with Serge Brammertz. He's the chief prosecutor of this tribunal, and here's what he said.

SERGE BRAMMERTZ: I would say, 20 years ago, many of us - we were thinking we will change the world, right? We will really try to implement the never-again idea, which was so present in the public domain. Today, I'm much more realistic, and I'm going from case to case, right? And each individual case is really a major success.

MCEVERS: Like, more countries are trying these suspects under what is known as universal jurisdiction - say, when a German court tries a Syrian who's suspected of war crimes. And so this is what Brammertz says he's focusing on now. You know, he says, it's hard for people who are seeking justice in current conflicts to wait as long as 30 years in some of these cases, but he says justice is still justice, no matter how long it takes.

SUMMERS: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

SUMMERS: That's Kelly McEvers, host of NPR's Embedded podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.