The day I shook hands with the devil
My bizarre encounter with the Rwanda genocide mastermind
In the flurry of world events this weekend, few took note of the death of the man regarded by many as the architect of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda — Théoneste Bagosora.
Bagosora was convicted by an international tribunal as the mastermind of the campaign to exterminate members of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority during the 1994 bloodbath that killed hundreds of thousands. He died at age 80 on Saturday in Mali, where he was serving a 35-year sentence.
Over the years, I have written extensively about the Rwanda genocide, chronicling the plight of retired general Roméo Dallaire, who commanded the illfated United Nations mission in Rwanda and famously testified in early 2004 against Bagosora in an epic encounter at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, held in Arusha, Tanzania.
I was reporting for the Star from the spectator’s gallery throughout Dallaire’s sevenday appearance in the witness box and will never forget the electric moment when the judge’s gavel ended Dallaire’s testimony. Dallaire froze and, as if in a trance, wouldn’t stop staring at Bagosora, across the crowded courtroom.
“It was as if I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” Dallaire told me later, describing the flashback he was experiencing while glaring at Bagosora, who he once compared to the devil. “There was this feeling, is this the end? Is this closure? Is this the last time I see him?”
Bagosora’s death left me reflecting on my own encounter with the man who would later be convicted of genocide.
A year or more after Dallaire’s famous courtroom encounter with the genocide mastermind, I met with Bagosora in the same courtroom in early July of 2005. It was at the end of another day of testimony in Bagosora’s ongoing trial. Bagosora fled Rwanda in the final days of the genocide for the West African nation of Cameroon, where he was arrested in March 1996 and transferred to Arusha to stand trial.
He had granted no formal media interviews since the events in Rwanda in 1994 and had not yet testified when I asked permission from the court and Bagosora’s lawyer to meet with him in the courtroom at the end of that day’s proceedings. I said I wanted to take some fresh photographs. To my amazement, everyone agreed, and I found myself nearly alone in the courtroom with Bagosora and the security guards who were waiting to put him in cuffs and return him to the detention centre.
Over several decades as a journalist, I’ve been fortunate to have encounters with greatness — with Nelson Mandela, with Nobel laureate Alice Munro, with a host of prime ministers and world leaders.
On that afternoon in the sweltering courtroom in Arusha, I felt a chill, as if given the opportunity to interview Adolf Eichmann, or Pol Pot.
It was a bizarre encounter. The rotund, smiling Bagosora was dressed in a crisp, charcoal grey pinstripe suit, white shirt and red tie. He sat, as he had done nearly every working day since his trial began in April 2002, behind a wooden desk in the back corner of the courtroom, where he would alternately write in a large hardcover notebook, clean his glasses with a hanky, or nod off to sleep briefly.
In awkward French, I asked if he would pose for a picture. “Should I sit or stand?” he asked. I said he was OK to remain in his seat. After the photos, I asked if I could pose some questions. (I had my recorder already running, hanging from a lanyard around my neck). Bagosora at first insisted he was not “authorized” to speak, then asked me if I was in touch with Dallaire.
“Give him my regards,” he said in French, grinning. “Say hello. I hope he has recovered from his illness, his trauma.”
Then, in a preview of the testimony he would give some months later, Bagosora launched into an attack on Dallaire and the tribunal.
“Here, at this tribunal we have victor’s justice,” he said. “This is not justice. But I hope to give my truth, the whole story.”
Asked if there had been a genocide in Rwanda, Bagosora replied: “No, there were massacres.”
He only shrugged when asked what had caused those massacres. And when asked what he had done to try to stop the slaughter, his retort was that it had been the responsibility of Dallaire and the UN forces to intervene.
Several times, court security guards tried to cut short the interview because they were anxious to get Bagosora back to the detention centre.
At the end of the encounter, Bagosora smirked, bid me farewell and extended a hand.
I shook it, then watched him leave Courtroom 3 of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a latter-day Nuremberg where judges, lawyers and UN civil servants from around the world tried to bring some justice after one of the great outrages of the 20th century.
I remember the handshake and the creepiness of it, but also the reflexive nature of it, too — someone you have interviewed sticks out their hand and you shake it, almost without thinking, then ponder later.
Bagosora was eventually convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by a three-judge panel in a trial that was the centrepiece of the Rwanda tribunal and sentenced to life. (That sentence being served in a prison in Mali was later reduced on appeal to 35 years.)
The judges accepted the prosecution argument that, when Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana died after his plane was shot down on the evening of April 6, 1994, the bespectacled Bagosora emerged immediately as the country’s de facto ruler, using his position as cabinet director for the defence ministry to order out the presidential guard, crack troops and Interahamwe militias to assassinate the acting prime minister, kill Belgian troops and put in motion the genocide that eventually spread across the country.
In his memoir, Dallaire recounts how, before leaving his vehicle in the parking lot of the Hotel Diplomates 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 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, he later titled his memoir “Shake Hands with the Devil.” He told me in one interview that, after Rwanda, he knew God existed because he shook hands with the devil.
One of those devils has now gone to his reward.
“This is not justice. But I hope to give my truth, the whole story.” THÉONESTE
BAGOSORA RWANDAN MILITARY OFFICER