After intense pressure, Malawi has succumbed and finally arrested Rwandan Genocide suspect Vincent Murekezi. But who is this man?
He has been so powerful in Malawi that his heavy bank account kept him free from the ghosts of his victims in Rwanda. Back in the dark days, Murekezi was the kingmaker for the Butare genocide machinery.
On a cloudy Wednesday evening in Tumba sector – 3km away from the former National University of Rwanda premises in Huye district, it has been raining since morning. In a moment, the place turns calm with a breezy air at the hill top of Gitwa cell.
Locals are busy in a variety of shops at Nyarurembo village. Few meters away, there is a big old – but decent brown gate at a large house.
“Let us meet at the small market near Ruliba,” one of the men standing near the gate directs his friends. This gate is famously known as “Kuri Ruliba” because it was constructed using maxpans bricks.
According to natives of Tumba sector, the house was the only decent one in the area before the 1994 genocide against Tutsi. Secondly, it was owned by a former local tobacco retailer-turned-business mogul in the area. The meteoric rise of this area boy surprised many.
The third and the ‘WORST’ amongst all other brands – the house belongs to a man stained with blood on his bands. During the genocide, the owner of this house held meetings and gave refreshments to Interahamwe militia in this same house.
These are the three brands of Vincent Murekezi – the owner of ‘Kuri Ruliba’ building located in Nyarurembo village, Gitwa cell in Tumba sector. He is a man who will never be forgotten in Tumba. Today, Murekezi is renamed Vincent M. Banda, born in Mbeya region of South-western Tanzania.
In the late 1970s, Vincent Murekezi – who claims to be born on January 6, 1952, was a local boy hawking crude local tobacco in Tumba area. Luck struck home and in time, he was one of the recognisable names in Butare town. He even moved into cross border business.
Around 1985, friends nick-named Murekezi ‘Umurindi’ – because of his famous family kinsmen ‘Abarindi’. Murekezi moved across borders up to former Zaire, now DR Congo.
“Murekezi was so financially stable that acquiring a loan of Rwf20m was such a simple task,” narrates childhood friend Vianney Gashugi. KT Press tracked him down for days.
Gashugi remembers Murekezi as a two-faced individual: feared by the local villagers because of previous instances of cruelty. “Murekezi responded with frightening threats against whoever disagreed with him,” said Gashugi.
As Murekezi’s business empire expanded, he became more vengeful against people identified as Tutsi. Due to fear of reprisals, many people prefer not to be identified. Murekezi still exerts a sense of fear many years and miles away.
We met a genocide survivor whose family house was close to a shop owned by Murekezi. He narrates: “One night Murekezi’s shop was attacked by thieves who injured the guard. It is my father who alerted Murekezi and Police. At a certain point later, Murekezi attempted to run over my father with his car”.
Promising safety for Tutsis
One morning in May 1992, Gashugi recalls an encounter with Murekezi as he carried a new machete on a motorcycle. “He jokingly told me that he had bought the machete in preparation to punish us. I stood still wondering what he meant. When the plans for genocide became apparent, up until today, there is no doubt that ‘preparation’ was reference to massacre of Tutsis,” says Gashugi.
Towards 1994, what Murekezi had told Gashugi turned into reality. In January 1994, recalls a family, Murekezi regularly visited homes of Tutsis with the message that his home would be a safe haven for them if the killings reached Butare region. Massacres had been taking place in isolated incidents across Rwanda. Tutsis were demonized in schools. They could not apply for jobs. Tens of thousands desperately sought to change their ethnicity to ‘Hutu’ – and remove ‘Tutsi’ as printed in the notorious national ID.
As years have gone by, local families found out in conversations and genocide cases, that the trick Murekezi employed of reassuring people in selected home, was a coordinated plan. Survivors from different families in Butare region have revealed they were visited by other people providing the same safety assurance.
In essence, Murekezi belonged to a network that had secretly agreed that Tutsi needed to be lured into known locations.
In early April 1994, Murekezi together with Major Cyriaque Habyarabatuma who was commander of gendarmerie for Butare prefecture ferried Tutsis to Murekezi’s house. Because nobody survived, it has not been readily established as to how many people heeded the call.
Survivors from other houses – where similar gatherings took place, narrated in the Gacaca trial of Murekezi that they were asked to pay money by the two men. The victims were told that massacres were taking place and they needed to find shelter in time. We met a survivor from a family which was thrown out from Murekezi’s house because they were unable to pay for their stay. Having no more money to spend actually saved him.
Whenever those seeking safety ran out of money, Murekezi tormented them and then suddenly interahamwe militia arrived. For those inside, it was time for whoever had no cash to be handed over.
For over 2 million cases tried under the Gacaca courts, KT Press obtained Murekezi’s dossier RPGR 450/GEN/MJD/RE – his trial lasted several months in 2008 until his conviction in absentia on January 21, 2009 – to 19 years for genocide.
Witnesses – some of whom took part in militia attacks prepared by Murekezi, narrated that after he had gathered Tutsis inside his house, he held meetings organized together with a one Simeon Remera. The two transported interahamwe in Murekezi’s blue Daihatsu truck for meetings.
One survivor who was a close neighbor of Murekezi’s father told the court that she witnessed Murekezi telling his father “I have joined the religion” – meaning he had officially joined a killing league of Interahamwe militias in Tumba Commune.
Important to note that even as a nationwide genocide had begun on the night of April 6, Butare remained peaceful up to April 19th, 1994 owing to the charismatic leadership of the late former prefect Jean-Baptiste Habyarimana (no relation to former president Juvénal Habyarimana). He was sacked by interim president Theodore Sindikubwabo because he was “not working”. On April 20th, the new prefect Sylvain Nsabimana called a meeting of all mayors in Butare prefecture to organize the start of “work” (term used to mean killing Tutsis).
During the two days, president Sindikubwabo – a native of the region himself, held various meetings. All are records of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) – set up to try the biggest names. The first victim of the mass killings in Butare was the most charismatic – the prefect himself Habyarimana.
Paying Rwf300, 000 to be spared
On April 20, 1994, Interahamwe militias arrived at Murekezi’s house in search of Tutsis hiding inside. Standing in front of the house, witnesses told the court that Murekezi – married to a Tutsi woman, declared: “I no longer hold any connection with Tutsi people.”
From here, survivors say, Murekezi was in a powerful network of other genocide architects from the former Butare hospital including the notorious Dr. Sosthene Munyemana and Dr. Eugene Rwamucyo, who led several killings against fellow Tutsi staff members at the hospital. The two fugitives are free in France.
At the time, Gashugi the childhood friend of Murekezi told KT Press, “There were killings everywhere in Tumba sector. Sound of gunfire could be heard rumbling from all directions. People were screaming continuously. I and my family ran towards Akanyaru (Burundi border) but bumped into a roadblock manned by machete-wielding interahamwe. I offered them Rwf300,000 and they let us continue. That is how I survived!”
By July 1994 when the rebel movement took control of the entire country, Butare prefecture had been scene of some of the most horrific crimes. With help of more than 65,000 Burundian refugees, coupled with a presidential pat on the back, the interahamwe militia in Butare displayed rare efficiency.
In Mugombwa – about 10km from Tumba, more than 44,000 victims are laid to rest at a memorial site. At another location in what was previously Kabuye – barely 15m away from Tumba, there more than 45,000 victims. In Ngomba, less than 5km from Tumba – there is another site with more than 26,000 victims. At the Huye campus of the University of Rwanda – a stone throw distance from Tumba, a memorial site houses 600 former students and staff.
Butare region did not disappoint. It is home to the first woman in living memory to have been convicted of rape as a weapon of genocide. Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the former Women and Family Affairs Minister – now serving 47 years prison sentence, along with her son Arsene Shalom Ntahobali retreated to a motel in Butare town during the genocide. Using militias, there was a roadblock at the motel. Tutsi women and girls were hunted, locked up – and then supplied to soldiers and militias for sex. During the sexual abuse, the women were told by their abusers that they were impregnating them so they give birth to Hutus not Tutsis, according to evidence before the ICTR for which the minister and her son were sentenced.
While the mass rape was going on inside the motel, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, incited militias to use rape as weapon; and do, they did!
The bloody Acacia tree
As a prominent businessman in Butare, the man in Malawi – Vincent Murekezi was well-known as a member of the ‘who is who’ in the area. He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, and another set of men whom the ICTR has convicted to lengthy sentences in the infamous “Butare Trial”.
They included: Alphonse Nteziryayo – a former Commanding Officer of the Military Police, former Prefect of Butare – Sylvain Nsabimana, Joseph Kanyabatshi – former Bourgmestre of Ngoma commune, and Bourgmestre of Muganza commune – Elie Ndayambaje.
Parliamentarian Bernadette Mukarurangwa asked genocide militia to bring her heads cut off from bodies of Tutsis they had killed. She disappeared from the radar and may never be apprehended.
Back at the village in Tumba sector where Vincent Murekezi lived, nature is trying to fight back against the death and destruction left behind as Murekezi has been enjoying freedom among the ‘who is who’ of Malawi.
Inside the Murekezi house compound is an aging Acacia tree. Whereas some decent families plant trees for the purpose of beautifying their residences, Murekezi planted the Acacia tree with more in mind. Witnesses in the Gacaca trials and locals we interviewed narrate about meetings held under that same tree as Murekezi prepared militias to go out for “work”.
“Murekezi supplied beer to interahamwe under that tree before they left and when they returned – thanking them for good job,” said a witness.
The gate was always closed. There was always a person keeping guard from the inside – so you had to be identified to be allowed in. A particular group of soldiers dressed in presidential guards uniforms were routine visitors. Survivor Jean Berchmas Nshimiye – a former neighbour with Murekezi, narrated to the Gacaca court in 2008, a particular instance he witnessed where Murekezi and the soldiers shared lists of names for people to be hunted for dead. The Murekezi house was the meeting point and he was the contact person for the network the compiled data on Tutsis of Tumba.
Murekezi last minute escape
Towards the end of June 1994, Murekezi, feeling guilty of his carnage in Tumba sector, organized the killing of one Celestin Ukobizaba – his long time Tutsi friend and fellow businessman in the area. The Gacaca court also heard that a gang hired by Murekezi attacked Ukobizaba at his home – grabbed his truck which they delivered to Murekezi as proof of ‘mission accomplished’.
With the truck, Murekezi loaded it with merchandise from Butare town – headed for Gikongoro-Cyangugu direction. Immigration records shows Murekexi crossed the Rwanda-Zaire border of Rusizi-Bukavu on June 25 1994 aboard a truck packed with merchandise.
During this time, the border was under control of Rwandan officials supervised by French forces which were manning the “zone Turquoise” covering parts of Butare, Gikongoro and Cyangugu. For border agents, Murekezi may have come across as a businessman conducting regular trip. Further still, hundreds of thousands of refugees, retreating government soldiers and civilian militias were encouraged to leave Rwanda via that corridor to run from the rebel advance.
In Zaire – which became DRC, Vincent Murekezi formed the supply chain of arms for the so called democratic forces for the liberation of Rwanda or FDLR – who were the escapee soldiers and interahamwe. He became agent sending out minerals and returning with weapons. Malawi was a major route, according to UN reports.
Murekezi changed his identity – like many genocide fugitives. On January 21, 2009, a Gacaca court sitting in Gitwa Cell, Tumba sector in Huye district sentenced Vincent Murekezi to life imprisonment. He had 15 days to appeal but never turned up.
With all the money at his disposal, using it to cover his tracks remains the norm. Witness in the Gacaca as well as judges of the area court reported during proceedings that people supposedly working for Murekezi had attempted to bribe them.
At first, according to one of the members of Inyangamugayo (mediators) who led the Gacaca court panel, Murekezi did send $5,000 cash through an agent. He also made an offer of Rwf50 million when the verdict was about to be delivered by the Gacaca, according to details contained in the international arrest warrant issued by Rwanda later the same year.
Back in Malawi where Murekezi has lived as businessman, he continued to buy himself – following tireless efforts to completely change his identity. For instance, the Malawian passport he holds appears as Vincent M. Banda, born from Mbeya in Tanzania.
According to Rwanda’s office of prosecutor general, an arrest warrant was sent to Malawi in 2009, requesting them to arrest and send Murekezi to Rwanda.
“Emmanuel Vincent Murekezi is wanted fugitive and is subject to an International warrant of Arrest which was sent to Malawi in 2009, requesting them to extradite him to Rwanda to face justice on crimes of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity,” Faustin Nkusi, spokesperson of the office of prosecutor General told Malawi-based Zodiak Broadcasting Station recently.
But in a separate interview, Murekezi side of the story found favour with the Malawi Minister of Home Affairs and Security, Grace Chiumia, describing him as a successful businessperson in Malawi and not a 1994 genocide suspect. “I know Murekezi as one of the successful businesspersons in the country,” she said.
Murekezi holds a fake Rwandan passport, for which the immigration office in Rwanda has no record.
Back in Tumba village, the ghosts of Murekezi’s victims still roam around his house. The Acacia tree inside the compound still looks fresh in the minds of the Tutsi who survived the killing machinery in and outside the brown gate.
They cannot wait for a day when he faces them.