Nuns convicted of mass slaughter in Rwandan convent

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The thousands of Rwandan Tutsis who crammed into the convent at Sovu in fear of their lives during the genocide of 1994 thought they were in a place of sanctuary.

Instead, in the words of the prosecutor in a trial that convicted two Rwandan nuns yesterday, the building deserved the inscription at the entrance to Dante's Hell: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

In a Belgian court, justice finally caught up with two Benedictine nuns who betrayed refugees sheltering in their convent to murderous gangs in one of the most savage massacres of the genocide.

Sister Gertrude and Sister Maria Kisito were found guilty of homicide stemming from several days of slaughter at their convent in southern Rwanda, where up to 7,000 people were burnt and butchered to death.

Sister Gertrude was given a 15-year jail sentence while Sister Maria was sentenced to 12 years. Alphonse Higaniro, a factory owner and former government minister, was sentenced to 20 years, while the fourth defendant, Vincent Ntezimana, a university professor, was found guilty on five counts of homicide and cleared on five others. He was jailed for 12 years.

Ntezimana sobbed and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief as the sentences were imposed. The others showed no emotion.

The seven-week trial has brought days of bloody detail. Sister Scholastique Mukangira, whose cousin was killed with her baby son during the convent massacre, revealed a grotesque aspect of the slaughter at Sovu. She described how the family of another nun, Regine, paid 7,000 Rwandan francs to be shot, rather than hacked to death.

The landmark case was heard under a 1993 law that permits war crimes trials to be heard in Belgium even if the events took place elsewhere. All four defendants were arrested while living in Belgium, the former colonial power.

Sister Gertrude, the 42-year-old Mother Superior of Sovu, emerged as a willing participant in the genocide who handed over the thousands seeking shelter in the convent to the murderers of the Interahamwe to be shot, clubbed, stoned or hacked to death. Sister Maria Kisito, 36, who was more junior in the hierarchy, had a brother in the local Hutu militia. The events that led up to the worst carnage began on 18 April when women and children flocked to the Sovu convent as rumours spread of the massacre of Tutsis and Hutu moderates. Just a few days later, after morning prayers on 22 April, the convent was surrounded by the militia and local Hutu gangs who began their assault.

About 600 men, women and children were crammed into a garage at the health centre. The militia first tried to force the refugees out but then, padlocking the door to ensure no one could escape, went in search of something to set it alight. According to one account, Sister Maria Kisito not only supplied the petrol that sealed the fate of the victims but also dried leaves to fan the flames.

The rampage continued until 6 May. During these massacres, the two nuns either stood by or helped the process of murder, even expelling the relatives of nuns from the convent.

One survivor told the court her child was killed as she was clinging to her back; both were assumed dead and buried.

Another gave a glimpse into the madness of a country in the grip of ethnic violence. Rony Zachariah, a doctor for Médecins Sans Frontières, spoke of how a nurse who was seven months pregnant was taken away and killed even though she was a Hutu. "You are right," he was told when he pointed out her ethnic origin, "but the baby she is carrying is a Tutsi. She has to die."

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