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Clergy Made Good, Bad Choices in Rwandan Genocide

I was the lead trial attorney for the military masterminds of the Rwandan Genocide at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, from 2002-08.

It was a massive trial with 242 witnesses and piles of legal documents and decisions. One of the surprises for me was the abundance of clergy in the cases both as witnesses and sometimes as defendants.

The churches in Rwanda were where people sought sanctuary; it was also where they were slaughtered. The clergy were often the only symbol of authority in neighborhoods overrun with killers.

The clergy were put into impossible situations with the power of deciding whom they would shelter and who would die.

They often had to make decisions on whether to cooperate with the killers by turning over a few people with the hope of saving the majority.

Hundreds of clergy members were killed. Some of the clergy that actively participated in the killings were convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity at the Tribunal in Rwanda and in other countries around the world.

I still carry with me a piece of evidence that we presented in court; for me it is a profound document. It is the day-to-day account of a priest’s struggle to keep the refugees alive that had congregated in his church.

The diary is 21 pages long and begins on the day the genocide started. It ends two months later when the remaining 176 refugees are taken away to be slaughtered and the priest is shot.

The diary provided a window into the day-to-day existence of the people of Rwanda during the genocide.

Throughout those two months, he records the daily search for food and water as well as the negotiations with the armed militia, the military and the genocidal government for a tiny bit of security.

Each day, he describes how the network of churches, clergy, the International Red Cross and the U.N. all struggled to move supplies through Kigali’s barricades and roving bands of armed men.

It showed us in detail what it was like to live through what was the Rwandan genocide and how the city of Kigali was functioning on the walk through hell.

It was remarkable to me how he found the time and energy to keep up his diary. He included what he heard on the radio, both the propaganda from the hate radio RTLM and other signals he could find.

He listed the officials that he came into contact who had power and control over the area where his church was.

All of this was very helpful to those of us trying to recreate in court what had happened on the ground in Kigali during the 100 days of killing.

But what struck me the most was how he found something joyful to report as often as he could and to be thankful for what he had.

My favorite was the joy of a baby being born. He would describe the bodies around the church they discovered when they awoke. A typical remark in his diary was “six dead lay in front of the door. Quiet night.”

After providing and protecting his flock for two months under unimaginable hardship, the militia came and took them away and killed them.

After sitting in the courtroom year after year with the perpetrators of the genocide, I was deeply perplexed about how humans could do this to other human beings. What was their motivation?

It finally became clear to me, and many others, that it was all about power and control. One of the best ways to control the public is to identify a group to hate and rally the people around that hate.

The demonization of the Tutsi began four years before the genocide; they became identified as the enemy.

It is a frightening sight to watch a government turn their sights on a minority group and feed the public hateful rhetoric, which turns people against each other.

When the time comes for the identification, selection and removal of the “enemy,” what would you do? Would you stand in the protection of a targeted group?

The members of the clergy in Rwanda stood on both sides.

It was always hard for me to understand how people of the church could hand people over to be killed. Those who stayed to care for people and bear witness are my heroes.

Barbara Mulvaney is a former senior trial attorney, United Nations International Tribunal for Rwanda, Arusha, Tanzania, and former deputy director of constitutional and legislative affairs, U.S. State Department, Baghdad, Iraq. Currently, she is an international consultant and is writing a memoir on the trial. You can follow her on Twitter @BarbaraMulvaney.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on genocide for Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month (April). An introduction to and overview of the series is available here.

Previous articles in the series are:

When the World Acknowledges Genocide, Still Turns Away

The Srebrenica Massacre – When Churches Were Silent