Rwandan genocide: The long road to justice
Canada passed a war crimes act 15 years ago, but only one Rwandan sits in a Canadian jail convicted of horrors committed back home.
The train was pulling into Montreal’s Sauvé station, the faces of passengers slowly coming into focus, when Jean-Paul Nyilinkwaya locked eyes with a killer.
Through the window of the train, out to the subway platform where Nyilinkwaya stood, came a familiar gaze he had not met for more than a decade, since the men were high school classmates in Butare, Rwanda.
The man had aged, but there was no mistaking him. It was Désiré Munyaneza, or “Gikovu,” Kinyarwanda for Scar Face.
The mark spanning the side of his face, left from a childhood accident, had earned him the title amongst the Tutsi women he had brutally raped during the Rwanda genocide. Everyone feared the one with the scar.
“I was shocked, and I went numb … I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t react,” said Nyilinkwaya, recalling that winter day in late 1996 or early 1997. “It was impossible to talk about the genocide in Butare without mentioning Désiré.”
Tens of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in the southern Rwandan area during the 1994 genocide, which ended with more than 800,000 dead. Nyilinkwaya, studying in the U.S. at the time, lost 40 extended family members, including his father.
Munyaneza had been at the forefront of the killings, a notorious militia leader who killed Tutsi “vermin,” used sticks to beat to death children who had been tied up in sacks, raped Tutsi women and pillaged Tutsi-owned homes and businesses.
Among the Rwandans who had fled to Montreal in the massacre’s wake, rumours were circulating that Munyaneza had entered Canada and was in town. Nyilinkwaya had run scenarios through his mind, rehearsing what he would say, how he would react if he one day saw him.
“But when it happens,” he said, “you don’t even remember how to breathe.”
The train stopped. Nyilinkwaya stood frozen on the platform, watching as Munyaneza ran out the doors to freedom.
Fake names, refugee claims
It is not a question of if there are war criminals in Canada but how many are living within Canada’s borders. Estimates range from 30 to as many as 1,500 alleged participants in atrocities in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Latin America, South Asia and elsewhere.
They entered using fake names or made false refugee claims. They have settled into communities, raised families and even, in the case of accused genocide instigator Léon Mugesera, lectured at a Quebec City university.
Their freedom prevents victims’ wounds from healing, and their impunity encourages future atrocities, standing as evidence that even the most horrific crimes can go unpunished.
Although efforts have been made in Canada to end the injustice — foremost among them the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, legislation allowing international war crimes to be tried in Canadian courts — Canada is failing to prosecute war criminals.
Munyaneza is the sole exception. Today, the 48-year-old is in Millhaven Institution serving life imprisonment without parole for 25 years, the harshest sentence in Canadian law.
Tips from Nyilinkwaya and other genocide survivors sparked a years-long probe and lengthy trial that heard 66 witnesses, including some who testified from Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and France, and cost an estimated $4 million. When the verdict came down in the spring of 2009, Nyilinkwaya was among the Rwandans in the Montreal courtroom. It had been more than a decade since the subway run-in.
“We’re going to keep working for justice for the survivors,” he said.
While many hoped the ruling marked Canada’s debut as an aggressive pursuer of international justice, Munyaneza remains the lone conviction under the nearly 15-year-old legislation. It is under review by the Quebec Court of Appeal. Read more