By Allan Thompson
ARUSHA, Tanzania. It’s been nearly a decade since Romo Dallaire last set eyes on Theoneste Bagosora, the alleged mastermind of the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
During that last brutish encounter in the grimy lobby of Kigali’s Diplomates hotel, the Rwandan colonel stopped on his way up a flight of stairs, leaned in close and snarled that if he ever saw Dallaire again, he would kill him.
For his part, Dallaire, the retired Canadian general who led the ill-fated United Nations force during the genocide, admits in his recent memoir that before one obligatory meeting with Bagosora at the height of the massacres, he paused outside to take the bullets out of his pistol. Dallaire was afraid he wouldn’t resist the temptation to shoot Bagosora on the spot.
After the meeting he wrote he felt as if he’d been forced to shake hands with the devil.
In what promises to be an epic encounter, Dallaire is scheduled to come face to face with Bagosora on Monday, in a courtroom in this remote corner of Africa, where the first genocide trials since the Nazi Holocaust are grinding on into their twelfth month.
This time, Dallaire will be the star witness for the prosecution in the joint trial of Bagosora and three other military officers indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda on charges of genocide, conspiracy, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The so-called “military trial” is arguably the most crucial of the dozens of proceedings before the United Nations court established to prosecute the ringleaders of the 1994 genocide.
“In terms of justice and in historical terms, this is the centrepiece,” said Belgian historian Filip Reyntjens, author of one of the first accounts of the day-by-day operations of the extermination campaign that wiped out an estimated 800,000 people.
Reyntjens said the trial is crucial to proving once and for all there was a conspiracy to genocide. “In historical terms it is hugely important.”
Reyntjens is echoed by American human rights activist Alison des Forges, author of the 800-page tome Leave None to Tell the Story, the most comprehensive account of the genocide.
“This is really the prosecutor’s one chance to lay out the thinking before the genocide, the ideological commitment and the logistics to put it into place,” des Forges said.
And Dallaire will be key.
“There will be the essential drama of the confrontation,” said des Forges.
“But the significance of Dallaire is that he was a prime witness of this. He is widely regarded as a man of honour with great credibility so his statements will be of enormous importance.
“In a symbolic sense, you can’t overestimate the impact of this man, who has become so universally acknowledged … as the person who has come to symbolize this attempt to establish justice.”
The essence of the tribunal’s 63-page indictment is that if the Rwanda genocide had an equivalent to the Holocaust’s Heinrich Himmler, it would be Theoneste Bagosora.
The prosecution contends that after Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana died in a fiery plane crash on the evening of April 6, 1994, the bespectacled Bagosora emerged almost immediately as the country’s de facto ruler, using his position as chef de cabinet of the defence ministry to order out the presidential guard, crack troops and Interahamwe militias to assassinate the acting prime minister, and put in motion the genocide that eventually spread across the country.
“Bagosora is the one who took over control after the president’s plane crashed,” said American lawyer Barbara Mulvaney, who is the tribunal’s lead prosecutor. Prosecutors contend that Bagosora headed up a sophisticated communications network.
“We believe it was all led by Bagosora,” Mulvaney said.
Dallaire will give an eyewitness account of such key events as the military crisis meeting on the night of April 6, where Bagosora took control, rejecting the authority of Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana.
Dallaire also saw Bagosora in action the next afternoon, in charge of a key meeting of the military high command and contends the death squads were under Bagosora’s direction.
“Dallaire will be the key witness in establishing Bagosora’s attempts to take power, his refusal to acknowledge the authority of the prime minister in those first hours,” des Forges said.
An estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus perished in the 100 days that followed. Many huddled in churches for sanctuary. Death squads lobbed in grenades or in their frenzy, killers severed the Achilles tendons on the heels of their victims, so they could return and finish the job later. And as the massacres spread across the country, teachers killed students and neighbour slaughtered neighbour as local officials helped organize the killing.
Months before the genocide, Dallaire had told his superiors at U.N. headquarters in New York that an informant claimed Hutu extremists were plotting mass killings.
But Dallaire was told that it was beyond his mandate to raid arms caches or intervene. Once the massacres began, his force was left virtually powerless to stop the killing and his cries for reinforcement and international intervention fell on deaf ears.
Dallaire will be the 37th witness in the trial, which began in February, 2002.
Bagosora held a number of senior military posts under the regime of president Habyarimana and belonged to the so-called akazu, the “little house” of Hutu power advocates, who were close to the president’s family.
In 1991 Bagosora headed a special commission that issued a historic document declaring Tutsis within the country – not just the Tutsi rebels in the Rwanda Patriotic Front – to be “the enemy” of the government.
When Habyarimana’s plane crashed, the military’s chief of staff and other key figures on board also perished; the defence minister was out of the country.
Bagosora then took control and issued the official decree announcing thepresident’s death.
The tribunal has heard from one witness who testified that while the prime minister’s house was under siege on the night of the plane crash, Bagosora allegedly gave an order over the radio that “the operation to kill the prime minister had to be completed as soon as possible.”
Another witness said he heard Bagosora congratulating soldiers and armed militia for their work in the massacres at barricades in Kigali. And the witness claimed that during the 10 minutes or so that Bagosora remained at the roadblocks, some victims were hacked to death in his presence.
And yet another testified he was present at a home in Butare, in 1993 – a year earlier – when Bagosora and others drew up lists of Tutsis to be killed.
Bagosora, 61, was arrested in the West African nation of Cameroon on March 3, 1996, and transferred to Arusha on January 23, 1997. He is represented by Raphael Constant from Martinique and Paul Skolnik from Canada.
But Dallaire’s testimony could prove something of a trial for him as well.
In his only other appearance before the court, as a witness in the 1998 case against a regional mayor, Dallaire broke down in tears several times during one day on the stand.
After his testimony, Dallaire told reporters how difficult it was to look back.
“I had the sense of the smell of the slaughter in my nose and I don’t know how it appeared, but there was all of a sudden this enormous rush to my brain and to my senses,” he said.
This time, he is slated to be on the stand for up to two weeks. And some fear defence lawyers will seek to erode Dallaire’s credibility as a witness by asking questions about his mental state.
In the years since he commanded the U.N. mission, Dallaire has slipped into cycles of depression that have swept him back to the horrors of Rwanda, the images of bloated corpses, pleading children, the faces of peacekeepers he couldn’t save. More than once, he has tried to take his own life.
Dallaire was forced out of the army in 2000 because of his ongoing struggle with the demons of Rwanda and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They could try to make Dallaire crumble by trying to get him to relate how much medication he takes or how many time he sees a psychiatrist, or how many times he has been hospitalized or attempted to take his own life,” one observer noted.
The lead judge, Norway’s Erik Mose, has a reputation for fairness, but he would still be obliged to allow the defence to develop a case that Dallaire is so mentally unstable that his recollection is unreliable.
“It could be for Dallaire a very painful experience,” one observer noted.
The prosecutor, Mulvaney, said she fully expects defence counsel to ask questions about Dallaire’s mental state, but is equally confidant Dallaire is up to the task.
“His performance will speak for itself, how he carries himself will cover the issue of whether he’s lucid,” Mulvaney said.
Some experts also fear an error in Dallaire’s book, which confuses Col. Leonidas Rusitira with Col. Marcel Gatsinzi, could be used by Bagosora’s lawyers as evidence that Dallaire’s recollection is unreliable, as he seemed to confuse the positions held by two top military officers.
“You can bet the defence lawyers will have read and re-read this book,” Reyntjens said.
Bagosora’s lawyers could also try to provoke Dallaire, who has made no secret of his hostility toward Bagosora, the de facto military ruler of Rwanda during the genocide and with whom Dallaire was forced to negotiate safe passage for refugees and ceasefire arrangements, even as death squads continued to hunt down Tutsi civilians and hack them to death.
In his book, Dallaire recounts how, before leaving his vehicle in the hotel parking lot for a meeting with Bagosora and leaders of the Interahamwe militias heading up the killing frenzy, he took the bullets out of his pistol, “just in case the temptation to shoot them was too extreme.”
When he was introduced to the three Interahamwe leaders by Bagosora, Dallaire says he nearly lost his composure when he noticed that one of the three had blood splattered on his white shirt.
Dallaire felt so sickened at having to shake hands with the men he regarded as the organizers of the campaign to exterminate Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, that he later titled his memoir Shake Hands with the Devil.
On the same evening the president’s plane was shot down, Dallaire was summoned to Rwandan army headquarters where he was told a “crisis committee” was about to meet.
“Col. Bagosora sat at the centre of the large horseshoe-shaped conference table. The fact that he was in charge didn’t bode well,” Dallaire wrote. “Bagosora’s presence undermined my frail hope that perhaps this coup, if it was a coup, had been launched by the moderate members of the military and the Gendarmarie.”
At that meeting, Dallaire says Bagosora acknowledged elements of the Presidential Guard were out of control, but insisted every effort was being made to restore calm.
“I didn’t trust him for a minute,” Dallaire wrote.
Dallaire said that when he suggested the interim prime minister be allowed to govern, Bagosora snapped back that she was incapable and the crisis committee would assume control and a meeting of the senior military leadership would take place the next day, April 7.
And Dallaire wrote of how, at a meeting later that night with the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy, Bagosora again insisted that a few units of the Presidential Guard had run amok.
“But his eyes contradicted his reassuring words,” Dallaire wrote.
Within hours, Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana had been raped then butchered as she fled her home, the 10 Belgian peacekeepers guarding her had been taken away and tortured and slaughtered one by one.
In one statement, Dallaire maintained that whenever he wanted to establish contact with the Interahamwe death squads, “our most sure and effective conduit to them was Col. Bagosora. I believe, based on my experiences … that the militia and control thereof seemed to be responsive to direction received from Col. Bagosora.”
Bagosora is jointly charged with the former head of military operations of the army, Brig. Gratien Kabiligi; former army commander of Gisenyi region, Lt.-Col. Anatole Nsengiyumva, and the former commander of the Para-commando battalion in Kanombe (Kigali), Maj. Aloys Ntabakuze.
The trial is taking place before Judge Mose, Judge Serguei Aleckseievich Egorov from Russia, and Judge Jai Ram Reddy of Fiji. The prosecution team is led by Mulvaney and Canadian Drew White.
Dallaire has confided to friends that he is bracing himself for the encounter with Bagosora and the strain of delving once more into the minute, wrenching details of what happened in Rwanda.
And he has warned his lawyers that he can’t predict how he will react when he looks across that courtroom and sees Bagosora again.
But one thing is certain. This time, they won’t shake hands.