KOULIKORO, Apr 6 – Stretching their legs in a sunkissed gravel prison courtyard in Mali, two of the architects of Rwanda’s genocide serve out their sentences far from home, 20 years after leading the slaughter.
Theoneste Bagosora, bespectacled and sporting a gleaming pair of tennis shoes, cuts a far more serene figure than he did as the army chief described as “the Heinrich Himmler of Rwanda” who ordered an “apocalypse” which left 800,000 dead.
His cellmate Jean Kambanda’s face is hidden by an enormous beard but he is still recognisable as the prime minister who incited one of the most extensive and brutal mobilisations of a population against its fellow countrymen ever seen.
More than a dozen Rwandan “genocidaires” are housed in their own unit of the prison in Koulikoro, a garrison town on the banks of the River Niger 57 kilometres (35 miles) downstream from Bamako.
Serving long or whole-life terms, most are old men and will never leave.
“They are very disciplined prisoners, they do not bother anyone and scrupulously respect the rules,” says a warden supervising them.
A retired colonel in the Hutu extremist regime that seized power in 1994, Bagosora, now 72, took over the army and unleashed the notorious Interahamwe militia against the Tutsi population and moderate Hutus.
The rate of killing was far faster than the Holocaust of the Jews in World War II — 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in just 100 days — as Kambanda and his ministers toured the country urging on the murderers.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found that Bagosora had spent years “preparing the apocalypse” and sentenced him in 2011 to 35 years in prison for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Kambanda was arrested in Kenya in 1997 and admitted genocide at his trial the following year after he was accused of handing out arms to militias knowing they would be used to massacre Tutsis.
– ‘Lavish’ conditions –
Mali signed a deal with the tribunal in 1999, agreeing to become the first foreign country to provide prison cells for the convicts as a symbol of Malian support for African unity.
Other countries on the ICTR’s list of willing hosts of convicted Rwandans include Italy, Benin, Swaziland, France and Sweden.
The first convicted Rwandans, including Kambanda, began arriving in Mali in 2001 and a second group of nine prisoners, including two former ministers, have been in the country since 2008 while Bagosora was sent there in 2012.
Kambanda and most of the others are serving life sentences but some have fixed terms of less than 20 years and Malian officials have voiced concerns in the past over what would become of them if they were released.
The Rwandans were originally held with local inmates in Bamako’s central prison but the ICTR funded a facility specifically built for them in Koulikoro, where they are segregated from Malians in an air-conditioned cell block.
The Rwandans, whose day-to-day expenses are covered by Mali, are entitled to receive visits while their meals are better than those served to other inmates and they receive $2 (1.5 euros) a day to buy newspapers.
Their unit boasts separate showers, a dining room and a well-appointed library, leading to complaints in the Rwandan media that the inmates are leading “lavish” lives.
– Genocide convicts free –
A member of the prison’s management told AFP on a recent site visit that some of the inmates express regret for “what happened in Rwanda” while others demand “justice for all victims without exception”, whether Tutsi and Hutu.
Few people in Koulikoro, a town of just over 40,000, are aware of their notorious guests.
“I know they are here but I do not know if one day in this country they could live peacefully, because I have the impression that the hatred still exists between Hutu and Tutsi,” said Gilbert Kone, a high school teacher in the town.
A handful of the prisoners have been freed after their sentences were reduced and have stayed on in Mali, not wanting to return to Rwanda.
One, released after more than 12 years, spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, saying he did not want to be “shot in the head”.
“The path of reconciliation is long here… I am free today but I cannot go to Kigali because prison, if not death, awaits me there,” he said.
He accused Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame of wanting to “continue the domination of the Hutu majority by the Tutsi minority”.
The Malian justice ministry told AFP it wouldn’t get into “this debate” about Rwandan war criminals at large in Mali.
Amadou Sango, a spokesman for the prisons department, would say only that “if Mali is one of the countries selected to host ICTR convicts is because human rights are respected here.”