The harsh mid-morning sun shines on four unguarded and unconcerned inmates working their way through the intricate parts of a motor vehicle engine outside the imposing brick walls of Nyarugenge Central Prison, commonly known as “1930”.
Several other inmates linger outside the facility run by Rwanda Correctional Services (RCS) as an entourage of foreign journalists on assignment, who had been given rare access to the prison, arrive.
One of the oldest prisons in Rwanda, which is located in the heart of Kigali City, 1930 can rarely be accessed by local journalists — unless on an occasion requiring local coverage — and only RCS can grant access. Even then, access is limited to certain parts of the prison.
However, foreign journalists from recognised global media houses can be granted permission to visit the facility and interview the inmates in a well-orchestrated act that will see the reporters take only the version desired by prison officials.
Securing the permission is a long and patient undertaking. After obtaining the initial green light from the Media High Council and the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG), one is again required to apply to RCS indicating why and when they intend to visit the facility and what they intend to do there.
RCS will then review the request and the applicant will be required to follow it up in writing. After a day and a half, permission was eventually granted. But even then, prison officials could easily revoke it.
1930 is a beehive of activity — from female inmates weaving traditional baskets and dyeing fabrics to a tailoring workshop with convicts sewing three-piece suits and a carpentry making modern wooden furniture. It is a multipurpose hub where almost every inmate has something to keep them busy.
In fact, some of the products made by inmates fetch RCS millions of francs in revenue, five per cent of which is given to the inmates while the rest is invested in more income-generating projects as well as working tools and materials.
“We sell them and the money is used to run the facility, and also our families directly benefit,” Augustin Murekezi, a 51-year-old a tailor who is serving a 35-year sentence, said. “It has also helped us to use our time effectively and productively.”
Considered role models
Murekezi and many other convicts are considered “role models” as they lead the rest in preaching unity, reconciliation and forgiveness between the inmates and genocide survivors. They are the ones chosen by officials for choreographed interviews with visiting journalists or researchers.
In the evenings, they lead groups of inmates in discussions or debates on pertinent issues such as Ndi Umunyarwanda and unity and reconciliation programmes. They are trusted by prison authorities to pass on “positive stories” to foreigners who come to verify if, indeed, Rwanda has put its past behind it.
Despite being considered exemplary and messiahs of unity and reconciliation, however, many of the convicts maintain two versions of what led to their being convicted to life or lengthy sentences but later embrace government programmes of unity and reconciliation.
While most of them admit to their role in the genocide, have sought forgiveness and are championing unity and reconciliation, others protest the sentences they were handed and fault Gacaca Courts’ rulings.
Charles Nkurikiyinka, 62, is a former accountant. Sentenced to death in 1997 for orchestrating killings in the current Rulindo District, his sentence would later be commuted to a life sentence with special provisions after Rwanda abolished the death penalty.
“I was wrongly convicted. I was not accorded a fair trial by Gacaca Courts but what could I do?” Nkurikiyinka confided.
Along with more than 3,000 others, Nkurikiyinka is appealing the sentences he was handed by the traditional grassroots courts, a trend officials and genocide survivors fear might trigger a wave of genocide denial.
Indeed, some of the convicts do not feel remorseful and will straight away deny playing a role in the killings despite having been found guilty by Gacaca judges and their earlier appeals turned down by the conventional courts.
An example is former Catholic priest Benoit Sebyatsi, 68, who is 17 years into a 30-year prison sentence. The bespectacled man, who worked with the social security fund during the genocide, says he was wrongly convicted because he had no power to influence or stop the killings.
“I was a non-entity. Most of the killings I was accused of were not carried out by me directly but by the military in my presence. Who was I to stop them?” posed Sebyatsi, who at the time had been defrocked.
Sebyatsi, who was accused of abandoning the Tutsi mother of his child to the killers, says he had no powers to halt the marauding militias. The unrepentant elderly man, despite being considered among the reformed prisoners, maintains his innocence.
In a bout of anger, he instead claims that one of his sons, who led to his defrocking, was killed by one of the fighting sides but not the government. He says a stray mortar from a Katyusha fell near where the young boy was and killed him instantly.
Asked if he is accusing the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army (RPF/A) of killing his son, he responded with laughter: “Who was using Katyushas at the time? Was it the government?”
Thierry Gasamagera, 60, considered among the good inmates and is halfway through a 30-year sentence, also maintains his innocence, stating that his only crime was being a local leader in a city suburb at the time.
“The only thing I did was to distribute guns on the orders of high-ranking government officials. I don’t deny distributing the guns but it was a directive which, if I had not carried it out, would put me and my family in trouble.”
Officials are now concerned about this trend of convicts turning around to deny crimes they confessed to more than 15 years ago and even appealing their sentences.
“It is unfortunate that some of these genocide convicts are coming up now to say that, look, we were wrongly convicted, and this and that was not true. This will not only stain the work of Gacaca Courts but also give people an opportunity to deny genocide,” said Jean Bosco Gasasira, the official in charge of public relations at CNLG.
Deo Gashagaza, a commissioner at the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC), however said that despite the trend, thousands of genocide convicts feel the gravity of their crimes and are willing to seek forgiveness and preach unity and reconciliation.
“Of course you cannot fail to find a few who wish to stain the progress we have made,” says Mr Gashagaza, adding that, in a recent activity, hundreds of convicts requested the commission to link them to the families of their victims.
Genocide survivors have sounded the alarm over the rate at which Gacaca verdicts are being appealed.