From France to Rwanda's hills, the husband-and-wife genocide hunters

Bisesero (Rwanda) (AFP) –


A stunned silence, and then cries of joy ring out in the green Bisesero hills.

Survivors of one of the most terrible episodes of the genocide in Rwanda have just spotted Alain Gauthier -- their lifeline to justice.

"I've come to say 'turikumwe' ("we are together") and that you mustn't lose heart or hope," the 72-year-old Frenchman tells them.

His brow burnt from the relentless sun, Gauthier has travelled nearly 9,000 kilometres (5,600 miles) to bring news to the people of this remote village.

A genocide suspect from their region is due to be tried in France, he tells them, as he is warmly embraced by Tutsi herders who have come to know him well.

With his Rwandan-born wife Dafroza, 66, Gauthier has devoted decades of his life to tracking down genocide suspects who have found refuge in France.

They have become nicknamed "The Klarsfelds of Rwanda" after Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, fighting to prevent evil from being consigned to a footnote of history.

In just 100 days in 1994, some 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate members of the Hutu majority were slaughtered, in massacres orchestrated and inflamed by the authorities.

So far, the Gauthiers' efforts have led to about 30 legal cases being initiated in France against Rwandan suspects, all of them men.

Six have gone on trial, three of whom have been convicted. One was jailed for 25 years and the other two given life sentences.

This early December day in Bisesero marked just one stop in a two-week trip in which Gauthier criss-crossed Rwanda, accompanied by an AFP journalist.

The hills stretch into the distance, their shades of green capped by a gentle mist extending over Lake Kivu.

Gathered around him, the ageing, weather-beaten herders, clutching sticks and wearing trilby hats, talk of wives and children lost.

For weeks the Tutsis of Bisesero held off their local attackers until the extremist Hutu government had militiamen brought in from other regions to launch mass attacks.

An estimated 50,000 people were killed.

"Each time we hear that people on the run have been arrested, it gives us strength," one of the herders, Narcisse Kabanda, 63, says.

Claude Muhayimana, a former hotel driver in Rwanda who took refuge in France and gained French nationality in 2010, was due to have gone on trial in Paris on February 2.

He is accused of having transported Hutu militiamen to sites in the west, including the Bisesero region, where massacres were carried out.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic making it difficult for witnesses to travel, the opening of the court case has been postponed.

- Race against time -

Aaron Kabogora lost 10 family members in the Bisesero massacres.

"My wife, my children... they were killed in different places, for some, we still haven't found the bodies," says the thin-faced 71-year-old, a bullet still lodged in his leg and scars visible on his shoulder.

Gauthier has come especially to see Kabogora. He wants to follow up on some strong testimony in the Muhayimana case that he gathered on a previous visit.

"I was born here, I lived through the genocide here, there are lots of Interahamwe (militia) who passed through here," Kabogora says.

Gauthier decides on the spot to cite Kabogora in the case so at least one Bisesero survivor will testify.

A few days later proves even more fruitful when he meets for the first time a former close neighbour of Muhayimana, who he hopes will offer some "very precise facts" to the court case.

"It's essential that those who have seen, and those who know, talk," he says.

Some of the planners, sponsors and killers of the genocide have faced trial in Rwanda or other countries as well as before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

But many continue to evade justice.

"It's a race against the clock," Rwanda's Prosecutor General Aimable Havugiyaremye told AFP in an interview in the capital, Kigali.

"As time passes, what's more difficult is identifying these suspects, even physically," he said, adding many change identity and nationality, making international cooperation crucial.

He hopes that that will be helped by efforts under way to move online all the witness accounts they have collected so far and by creating a database to share information.

For more than two decades, the Gauthiers have travelled to Rwanda about three times a year during their holidays and now retirement to search for evidence from ex-killers, prisoners and survivors.

They do it as volunteers and on behalf of all victims, they say.

Muhayimana was arrested in 2014 in the northwestern French city of Rouen.

A year earlier, an investigation had been opened due to a case brought by the Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda (CPCR), an association co-founded by the Gauthiers.

- 'Our life changed' -

Nearly 27 years after the genocide, Gauthier still gets emotional talking about the day he had to tell Dafroza that her mother, Suzana, had been shot outside the church in a Kigali parish where she had taken refuge.

"April 6, 1994, that's when our lives changed --- a cataclysm in our lives, like all victims' families," he said.

Between 70 and 80 members of her family were killed, Dafroza told AFP, her eyes empty.

"On my mother's side there were no survivors: my mother, my uncles, nephews were killed," she said in an interview in their home town of Reims, northeastern France.

While the genocide was under way, Gauthier said the pair, despite their deep shock, fought to raise awareness of what was going on.

"We wrote to politicians, newspapers, we did demonstrations... and we went to work," the retired teacher and school headmaster said.

Dafroza was employed as a chemical engineer and they had three young children; later, they took in victims' children too.

Two things would prove decisive in making up their minds to campaign for the prosecution of genocide suspects.

First were the horrifying stories they heard on their initial trips back to Rwanda after the 1994 killings.

Then, in 2001, at the end of a court hearing they were attending in Brussels against four suspects, the founder of a Belgian victims' association turned to them and said bluntly: "And you in France, what are you doing?"

That same year, the CPCR was set up.

Since then "we haven't had a single day without talking about the genocide..." Gauthier said.

- 'Too long' -

While Rwanda was never a French colony, successive French governments cultivated close ties after the country's independence in 1962, including training its top military leaders.

France also signed military deals with the Hutu strongman president Juvenal Habyarimana, whose death in 1994 sparked the massacres.

Against the backdrop of these ties, a number of genocide suspects have sought refuge in France.

Rwanda has made 48 extradition requests to France, more than to any other European country.

But France's highest court has consistently opposed the extradition to Rwanda of suspects accused by Kigali of genocide, on the grounds that the crime was not in the Rwandan statute books at the time of the massacre.

The Gauthiers believe that it has taken the French justice system "too long" to start honing in on suspects, even if things have improved since 2012.

They welcomed the creation of both the position of a special prosecutor in France and a central office for combating crimes against humanity, known by its initials as the OCLCH.

Nevertheless, procedures are slow and time is lost which only helps the perpetrators, they bemoan.

"It's becoming increasingly difficult to put together cases because many witnesses have died," Gauthier said.

"Others have failing memories or no longer want to talk" encouraged by the Rwandan authorities to favour reconciliation.

The accused are elderly and "risk never being put on trial," he said.

And in some areas with few survivors where perpetrators return home after serving lengthy prison sentences, witnesses feel afraid and alone, he added.

In France, conducting a legal case against a Rwandan genocide suspect takes on average 10 years at a cost of a million euros ($1.2 million), said Eric Emeraux, the former OCLCH head.

"The NGOs which do this tracing work are indispensable, because the French state's resources are not up to the challenge," he said in Paris.

The Gauthiers have funded their work themselves and thanks to donations made to the association.

- 'Must hold to account' -

For his latest trip across Rwanda, Gauthier focussed on gathering evidence for five cases, scattered over 11 areas.

Travelling around Rwanda on roads crowded with motorcycle taxis, women with goods piled high on their heads, dusty trucks and bikes carrying live chickens, Gauthier passes the hours humming along to the latest album by his son-in-law Gael Faye.

Faye is a musician and writer who authored "Small Country" ("Petit Pays"), a hugely successful novel set in the 1990s during the war in Burundi and genocide in Rwanda.

Gauthier is a dual French-Rwandan national, an attachment that dates to when he taught in Rwanda in the early 1970s, in a town where Dafroza was also studying.

Despite nights blighted by insomnia and chronic back pain, he is up at dawn for an invigorating milky ginger tea, before hitting the road again.

In the evening back at his modest hotel, he reads through his notes again, deep in concentration and often consternation, lost in survivors' accounts.

"For the victims, it's essential that those who killed their loved ones are held to account, it's a way for them to rebuild their lives," Gauthier says.

- Working through the list -

Searches often begin with a tipoff.

One came as an anonymous letter from students about a suspect in western France; another from a friend alerting them to a hospital co-worker.

When the Gauthiers have gathered evidence, they submit a lawsuit to judges in Paris.

On the ground in Rwanda, a network of survivors helps out, as well as Gauthier's former students, who look for witnesses, translate and draw up lists.

On his December visit, Gauthier had a list of witnesses in the case of a priest under investigation by French authorities since the end of 2019.

He gathered accounts about the suspect's alleged actions in his church in April 1994, talking discreetly to people away from the public gaze.

In floods of tears, one of them, a woman who said she'd been just 10 years old at the time, told AFP how she had stayed in the church for two weeks, hidden and terrified, among her family's corpses.

She only came out when bulldozers arrived to put the bodies in a communal grave, she said.

Appalled at what he hears, Gauthier asks two women to put their accounts into writing.

The following week he travels to the southern town of Nyanza to see around 15 people in a case against a former Rwandan policeman.

Philippe Hategekimana has been in provisional detention in France since 2019, suspected of involvement in the genocide.

This time, the task at hand is laborious but crucial -- the filling in of documents necessary for submission to the French justice authorities.

To ensure they are accepted, he must check names, ages, witnesses' relationships to victims -- and the correct addresses, no easy matter faced with the reality of rural Rwanda.

Phone calls swiftly follow from hesitant husbands to their wives, checking on children's ages.

And after a few hours, it's all wrapped up over beers and goat meat kebabs.

- For critics, they're too close -

"So, how's the work going?" a well-known musician calls out to Gauthier in Kigali where he is often recognised in the street.

He regularly goes to the Rwandan public prosecutor's offices and is in contact with Theoneste Karenzi, who heads the unit in charge of protecting victims and witnesses.

At the age of 16, Karenzi survived alone after his family's massacre in the western city of Kibuye.

Describing the Gauthiers as "courageous people", Karenzi said their "contribution is major" in initiating cases against suspects.

But the husband-and-wife team has critics, too.

Detractors claim they are a "network of informers" and criticise their ties with the Rwandan government, which is often accused of clamping down on dissent.

In 2017, President Paul Kagame awarded the couple the National Order for Exceptional Friendship in recognition of their work.

Philippe Meilhac, defence lawyer for about 10 Rwandans in the crosshairs of French justice including Muhayimana, condemns their closeness to the Kigali regime.

He claims that the Gauthiers' association is "to a certain extent, a technical and political instrument for the Rwandan authorities".

Canadian journalist Judi Rever, who wrote the controversial book "In Praise of Blood" about alleged crimes by forces of Rwanda's ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party, is similarly critical.

Rever, who is accused by Kigali of promoting a revisionist version of the genocide, claims the Gauthiers are working for the RPF.

"In several cases of inquiry, it's opponents of the RPF or witnesses of RPF crimes who are targeted," she said in comments to AFP.

But Gauthier says their part is just to get the ball rolling. "We originate the proceedings, but it's not us who convict, it's juries made up of citizens," he said.

"A legal truth emerges from it which corresponds to our expectations but which is not ours," he added.

For now though, the couple are busy preparing for Muhayimana's court case, for which no new date has yet been announced.

But afterwards, the Frenchman has promised to return to tell the Bisesero survivors all about the hearing half a world away.