Confronting Ghosts

France convicts a Rwandan of genocide -- and grapples with its own role in the horrific events of 1994.

PARIS — On a sunny morning in mid-March, a man was wheeled past Sainte-Chapelle, one of France's most famous churches. Pascal Simbikangwa, a 54-year-old with a sharp profile and slack cheeks, is an admirer of Francophone literature, especially the works of Jean de la Fontaine. He speaks French with an impeccable accent. During his stay in a hospital in Belgium in the late 1980s, after a car accident that cost him the use of his legs, he started to work on an autobiography in French entitled The Man and His Cross. The book enjoyed relative success in his home country, Rwanda.

But on this Friday morning, Simbikangwa was not in Paris for the culture. He was not, in fact, a free man. Two policemen wheeled him into the French national tribunal adjacent to Sainte-Chapelle. Simbikangwa is a former Rwandan intelligence chief, and he was here, in Paris, to be tried for complicity in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

The genocide occurred in a country ravaged by civil war between two ethnic groups: the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. Over half a million people were savagely killed within the space of 100 days. The victims were mostly Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu. The genocide was orchestrated by the political Hutu elite, but the killers ranged from army officials to civilian militia to neighbors -- and even relatives -- of the victims.

After six weeks of harrowing testimonies and 12 hours of deliberations, the court found Simbikangwa guilty of the crime of genocide and sentenced him to 25 years in prison on March 14. With the verdict, France joined the ranks of Germany, Belgium, and Sweden, among others, in trying a Rwandan native in connection with the events of 1994. And it comes after two decades of ambivalence in France about the role the country played in the genocide, perhaps signaling that the French are ready to reexamine their own past.

"I was a captain in the Rwandan Army, and then in the intelligence services," Simbikangwa told the court at the opening of the trial in February, when asked to identify himself. "I never left my office," he claimed.

He continued to deny all charges throughout the trial, alleging that while in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, between April and July 1994, he did not see a single dead body.

Though his defense attempted to paint him as a side-figure unable to stem violence, the French court found that Simbikangwa was no ordinary captain. In fact, he was third in the chain of command in the Rwandan intelligence service, personally responsible for providing arms to the Interahamwe Hutu militia in Kigali. Simbikangwa belonged to the close-knit extremist vanguard of the Hutu militia that led the genocide, the so-called akazu. He was also one of the 50 founders of Radio Milles Collines, a station that played a significant role in stoking ethnic hatred.

Claims that Simbikangwa was a marginal figure in the genocide were not entirely unfounded. "It's important to remember that not all perpetrators are made of the same metal," said Jean-Francois Dupaquier, whose book on the French military in Rwanda mentions Simbikangwa directly. Dupaquier argued that the captain had begun to lose political footing even before the genocide began, perhaps due to his handicap or his staunch loyalty to President Juvénal Habyarimana, even after the latter's death in an airplane crash in April 1994. But this does not make him any less guilty. "He outdid himself in terms of zealousness to show that he belonged to the akazu mafia," Dupaquier said.

Among the Rwandans present in the courtroom throughout the trial was Dafroza Gauthier. Dafroza, a Tutsi, saw her family massacred in 1994. On the first day of the trial, she was dressed in a smart suit and with slicked-back hair. Next to her sat her husband Alain, furiously taking notes on his laptop. Dafroza said she came to the trial "with a certain degree of satisfaction."

"We have been waiting a very, very long time for this," she added.

The Gauthiers have spent the last 12 years tracking down Rwandan genocide suspects in exile. France has done little to investigate alleged perpetrators on its territory, including the former Rwandan president's wife, whom French authorities declined to extradite in 2011 to face charges in Rwanda. Faced with the state's reluctance, the Gauthiers decided to take matters into their own hands and founded an NGO dedicated to collecting evidence and tracking down alleged perpetrators. They hunted Simbikangwa for several years, and the announcing of the verdict in his case was their hour of glory.

"It's a good decision," Alain Gauthier said. "Twenty-five years, in my opinion, is too light a sentence. But I think a sentence in and of itself is what is most important."

The mood at the court was festive on its last day: The final hearing ended with a round of applause, and people milled about to congratulate the Gauthiers on the fruits of their labor.

More than 25 cases related to the Rwandan genocide are still waiting to be heard in France -- the Gauthiers have high hopes that this trial is the first of more to come.

And yet Simbikangwa's case was not without controversy. The defense team was concerned that their client was being made into a scapegoat for the genocide. "Are we judging Pascal Simbikangwa here, or are we judging the genocide?" Fabrice Epstein, the defense's leading lawyer, asked the courtroom when opening the trial. For weeks, the jury heard experts, historians, psychologists, and scholars talk about the genocide -- but, as one former diplomat warned over a video testimony from Belgium, "We should not make the mistake of becoming polarized." The genocide, with all its documentable atrocities, should not be confused with the man, Simbikangwa, against whom evidence was largely circumstantial.

The captain is remembered by many in Rwanda as "the torturer," and a small army of witnesses from Rwanda testified against him. Yet Simbikangwa's defense claimed that convicting him based on witnesses' potentially faulty memories of traumatic events from 20 years ago was a grave mistake (a common defense argument in these types of cases).

There was also what some saw as a lack of expertise among the jury. Lined up along the eastern side of the courtroom, the group was made up of French citizens who grew up thousands of miles away from Kigali. "Is the tribunal competent to judge this case?" Epstein's question at the beginning of the trial referred to the jury, and to the rest of the court as well. Epstein himself, in his mid-thirties, sporting stubble and fashionable glasses, is better versed in European business law than Rwandan politics.

Simbikangwa's team of lawyers was not alone in wondering whether a French national court was equipped to deal with unthinkable crimes committed on another continent. The Rwandan government also expressed doubts. It demanded Simbikangwa's extradition when he was first located on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte. But France refused to fly the captain to Kigali, claiming he would not receive a fair trial there. "In Rwanda, he would have been condemned even before being judged," Rwandan exiled opposition party leader Faustin Twakiramungu told the French channel France24 when the trial opened.

Conventional courts in Rwanda began trying genocide cases in 1996. But over half of the country's trained lawyers and judges had been killed or had fled the country, and the process of making judgments was slow. At the time, 120,000 suspects were waiting for their cases to be heard, and according to the government's estimates, it would have taken more than 200 years to hear them all.

To deal with the enormity of the judicial challenge, a two-part system was set up, with high-level criminals sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, and lower-level ones dealt with by a plethora of local courts. The international tribunal is no longer accepting cases, however, and judges in the local courts, critics say, are badly trained. Some have even been accused of having participated in the genocide themselves.

France opted to try Simbikangwa's case in order to ensure a fair judicial process, and also to bolster its own image of fighting impunity. Nevertheless, many survivors in Rwanda would like to see remaining justice for the genocide dealt out on home soil. Speaking about Simbikangwa's trial, Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, an advocate for genocide survivors, told a national newspaper in February that he was concerned "the context and a clear description of how the crime was committed may be lost if the trial is conducted in a foreign language." (While French is one of Rwanda's official languages, it was not the first language for the majority of eyewitnesses scheduled to be called to the stand during Simbikangwa's trial.)

Still, others welcomed the trial as a sign that France was ready to open a dark chapter in its own history. "France was complicit in the Rwandan genocide," Annie Faure claimed at a press conference before the trial opened. Working for Doctors Without Borders in 1994 in Rwanda, Faure witnessed French troops backing and training Hutu soldiers who then turned around and massacred civilians. Today, she is part of a civil rights group investigating France's role in the genocide, known as the Commission d'Enquête Citoyenne pour la vérité sur l'implication française dans le génocide des Tutsi ("Commission of Citizen Inquiry for the Truth about French Involvement in the Genocide of the Tutsi," or CEC). The CEC hoped the captain's presence in a Paris courtroom would help shed light on the skeletons in France's closet too.

France had close ties with Rwanda before the genocide, which many say led the French to continue to back the Hutu-dominated interim government long after it was clear that genocide was happening. According to Human Rights Watch, in addition to training and arming Hutu militia, France allowed perpetrators to flee into what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (at the time called Zaire). France has recognized what happened as "political errors," to use Nicolas Sarkozy's words when he visited Rwanda in 2010. But it denies allegations of complicity in the genocide.

This stance can be compared to that of Belgium -- the last colonial power in Rwanda -- where a parliamentary inquiry found that the country shared in the moral responsibility for the genocide because the Belgian government had been aware of the killings but unwilling to act to prevent it. Belgium withdrew its troops from Rwanda at the onset of the genocide, after 10 of its soldiers were killed, and was seen as pushing for a total withdrawal of U.N. forces. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt formally apologized for his country's indifference in 2000 during a visit to Kigali.

Though a similar mission was opened in France in 1998, the findings did not go as far as many would have liked. "If anything, they legitimized the government's denials," said author Dupaquier. According to a subsequent report by the CEC, the findings failed to hold high-level army and government officials under then-French President Francois Mitterrand accountable.

Although those who want one have yet to hear a formal apology from France -- and may never hear one -- Simbikangwa's trial is still seen by many as a sign of change in France's relations with Kigali and with its own past. The court itself was careful to steer clear of the controversial issue, as it was not seen to be immediately relevant to Simbikangwa's story, yet the case was an occasion for national media to recall and report on France's role in Rwanda in 1994.

Even Epstein, while disapproving of the trial, recognized its impact. "France is sending a strong message to Kigali," he said in a press conference, "saying that though it has been a bad student for the past 20 years, it's now first of the class."



'All We Can Do Is Try to Defend Our Families'

Behind enemy lines, the motley Tatar self-defense units of Crimea anxiously patrol a homeland they fear will be ripped from them once again.

BAKHCHYSARAI, Ukraine — The room looks like the basement of a frat house. Food scraps and half-empty plastic bottles are strewn across decrepit school desks. A disco ball hangs limply from a hook in the middle of the ceiling. Dirty, tattered curtains cover dirtier window panes, as men come and go, pacing across the room.

There are no parties here. This basement is for strategizing: Sitting behind a desk in the corner, one man is hunched over a large ledger, carefully filling in names, schedules, and responsibilities. Two others -- tense and worried -- are poring over a map of the neighborhood.

The regional headquarters of the "self-defense units" of the Crimean Tatars, in the Ceyhan Quarter of the town of Bakhchysarai, Crimea, stays busy throughout the night. It is here, in the local youth center, that people come to receive their instructions before heading out on patrols. They drop by for a quick snack and a coffee between shifts, clutching their plastic cups by an old electric heater.

Small volunteer units of usually three or four local residents stand watch during the night, on three-hour shifts, at strategic locations -- intersections, main roads, back roads -- throughout the neighborhood. They keep track of suspicious movements or individuals, in an attempt to head off any situations that could escalate into open conflict. Ever since the clandestine Russian takeover of Crimea more than two weeks ago, organized groups of Tatars -- a Muslim ethnic group native to Crimea, that makes up 12 to 15 percent of the population -- have been on guard, waiting for their pro-Russian "self-defense unit" counterparts to make a move. There are about seven to eight of these posts in the Ceyhan quarter, but many more throughout Bakhchysarai and other parts of Crimea.   

"We try to keep people in our community safe, but we don't use any weapons," said Ayder Abdulaev, the coordinator of the Ceyhan headquarters. "Our whole effort is to try to avoid provocations of any kind. Nobody wants war."

There haven't been any serious confrontations yet, except for scuffles between Tatars and Russians at a mass protest in front of the Crimean parliament on Feb. 26, but there other reports of intimidation, taunting, and occasional vandalism. Most worryingly, some Crimean Tatar houses in Crimea have been branded with X-marks -- a particularly ominous sign for a traumatized people. In 1944, on the pretext that some Crimean Tatars had collaborated with Hitler's armies, Stalin ordered the forceful deportation to Central Asia of their entire population, roughly 200,000 people, half of whom eventually perished. Before the deportation, similar X-marks had been used to tag Tatar households.

In his late 50s, dressed in an old brown sheepskin coat and a traditional Tatar black fur cap, Abdulaev has a diffident, almost shy demeanor, and a soft voice. He looks more like a schoolteacher than a seasoned fighter. He and his family returned here in 1989, a year after the Soviet Union officially allowed exiled Tatars back into Crimea; they've been trying to rebuild their lives since.

"This is our native country and it took us a long time to get back home," he says. "We have nowhere else to go and we are determined to stay here, whatever happens."

Bakhchysarai's Ceyhan quarter (also called 7th district) is a small, impoverished area -- home to about 1,000 people, Abdulaev estimates, most of them Tatars, but some Russians and Ukrainians, too. The neighborhood's worn-down dirt roads meander through rows of half-finished cinder-block houses, some of them built illegally -- an issue that has long been a flash point between the Tatars living here and the Russians.  After their return from Central Asia, many Tatar families, lacking land or funds, were forced to squat; their former properties had been taken over by Slavic settlers decades ago. The conflict has been simmering quietly in the background, but now, with the recent political developments, it has taken on a sharper edge. Old grudges between neighbors have suddenly become more urgent, with more pronounced ethnic overtones. As one Tatar man from Ceyhan said, "The masks have fallen."

Not everyone is as determined to stay as Abdulaev: Ukraine's state border patrol estimates that hundreds of people -- most of them Tatars -- have already fled Crimea for mainland Ukraine or Turkey, according to the Kyiv Post. The new pro-Russian government in Crimea has been trying to allay fears by promising the Tatar minority larger representation in the local parliament, language rights, and financial assistance -- benefits that the Ukrainian state refused to grant them for nearly quarter of a century. But many in the Crimean Tatar community remain suspicious, with betrayals and false promises too fresh in their memories.

"We are all very worried," a member of a Tatar self-defense unit, who preferred not to give his name, said. "Nobody is protecting us, so we have to protect ourselves."

It is hard to imagine, however, that the Tatars in the Ceyhan Quarter could really protect themselves against much. Many of the volunteers milling in and out of headquarters are kids just out of high school, eager to prove their manhood. The older men, too, are hardly combatants, dressed in cheap jackets, jeans, and worn-out shoes. Standing for hours on end in the cold dark, shivering and unarmed, they seem hardly a match for anyone who might wish them harm. Their only weapons are mobile phones and walkie-talkies, and the occasional wooden club or iron rod.

"All we want is peace. We are peaceful people," said Arsen Ramazanov, a 37-year-old Tatar volunteer, doing the early night shift. "We don't have weapons and we don't need weapons. If you want to shoot at us, shoot. What can we do? Fight against the Russian army?"

There isn't much they can do except warn each other of any incoming danger. But even communication has been difficult. Although the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar governing body, is in charge of the overall structure and function of the Tatar security strategy, many of the local residents have been spontaneously forming self-defense units, without notifying their erstwhile leaders -- a sign, perhaps, that if tensions in Crimea take an ugly turn, the Mejlis may not be able to control how the Tatars respond.

"We need the presence of monitoring groups to guarantee the dialogue between the different groups here," said Ali Khamzin, the head of the Department of Foreign Relations at the main office of the Mejlis in Simferopol. "We have self-defense units and we are ready to act, even if there are machine guns against us, but we have a different strategy now. We need to resemble those little fish that swim with the sharks."

The sharks are not far off. Down the main road, connecting Crimea's capital Simferopol to Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea Naval base, Russian military trucks, armored vehicles, and hardware, are zooming up and down throughout the night, emitting a roar that can be heard from Ceyhan Quarter. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Abdulaev and his motley band continue to assign out shifts, prepare coffee, hand out cookies, and pray for the best.

"We are pawns in this game," said Nariman Osmanov, a 42-year-old from Ceyhan Quarter on the second hour of his shift, as he watched a Russian infantry vehicle speed past. "All we can do is try to defend our families. Nothing else."

This project is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Photos: Boryana Katsarova