The United Nations Tribunal for Rwanda and its Arusha heritage

Saturday November 16 2019


Twenty five years ago, on Nov 8 1994, the UN Security Council passed resolution 944 which would directly and drastically change the life and times of a northern Tanzanian city on the slopes of Mount Meru, Arusha.

The resolution gave birth to the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) whose head office was decided, three or so months later, to be in Arusha.

This Tribunal was mandated to investigate and bring to justice the people who played a leading role in the commission of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rwanda in 1994.

You’d recall that between April 6 and July 31 of that year almost a million people were killed in Rwanda that had 7 million citizens just because they belonged to the Tutsi ethnic group or were sympathetic to this group.

The killings were so brutal. The streets and alleys in the many towns and villages were literally littered with decaying bodies of men, women and children.

Being a veteran Arushan I was among the many people who were swallowed by this new development of a Tribunal which at its peak employed more than 1,500 from over a 100 countries. I was engaged in the Communication field of the ICTR for 20 years.


It was a harrowing experience. Survivors who testified before the Tribunal talked of unprecedented atrocities committed in that land.

Most killings were carried out using nail-studded clubs and machetes. People paid money so they could be killed by bullets instead of being cut into pieces by machetes or clobbered to death.

Evidence produced in court included testimony from senior officials of the then Dar es Salaam based Ubungo Farm Implements (UFI).

It was revealed that 75 per cent of the company’s machete production in that year was bought by Rwanda.

They thought Rwandans were going to cut down millions of trees. No! They were going to cut down human beings.

And the killings were very organised. At the top of the killing pyramid were senior cabinet ministers led by former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda.

More than ten senior cabinet ministers - including a woman, Nyiramasuhuko, who among others was found guilty of rape as a crime against humanity - were arrested in various parts of the world and brought before the Tribunal and successfully prosecuted.

Most were found guilty and sentenced to various prison terms the maximum being life.

They used their senior positions to put in place policies, issue directives and supervise the commission of these horrendous crimes.

Working closely with them were senior military commanders including the Chief of the Rwanda Armed Forces and the Chief of Police, several generals and brigade commanders, who trained the killers, put in place military logistical systems and ordered the commission of these crimes.

Then we had media practitioners who allegedly used their media outlets to basically incite people to commit the crimes. In some cases they even broadcast or published the names of ‘enemies’ -and their car registration numbers - to be killed in a particular town or region.

Closely behind were some religious leaders. You see there had been killings before in Rwanda, though not to the 1994 scale. Whenever these killings took place people used to flee the country or seek refuge in places they thought they were secure including deep forests, up in the mountains or in church compounds.

The same happened in 1994. Unfortunately some of those who ran into church compounds were betrayed. Some church leaders called in the killers to finish them off in those holy places.

As a result a number of church compounds have now been turned into museums in memory of all those who lost their lives therein.

Then we had governors of regions and districts - the Bourgmesters and Prefects - who also played an active role in the genocide.

We also had powerful businessmen who made a financial killing by supplying guns, bullets, machetes and the like to the killing machinery.

A total 84 out of 93 indicted individual were brought and prosecuted in Arusha. 14 were acquitted and rest were found guilty and sentenced.

The ICTR closed shop in 2016. But a new smaller institution the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT) was established to handle residual matters of the Tribunal including pursuit of the few fugitives and management of the rich archives.

Many scholars from all over the world presently flock to Lakilaki UN hill near Kisongo in Arusha to research on the Rwanda genocide.

Arusha is one of the most cosmopolitan and diplomatic cities in Africa. It also hosts the East African Community (EAC), the East and Southern Africa Management Institute (Esami), the African Court of Peoples and Human Rights, the East, Central and Southern Africa Health Institute, the Pan African Postal Union (Papu), the Mandela Institute, the Duluti Military Command and Staff College for East and Southern African countries, the Danish Management Institute and many others.

The author is a veteran journalist and communication expert based in Arusha.