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Rwandans Remember Hundreds Of Thousands Of Genocide Victims


Just this past Friday, a federal jury in Boston convicted a Rwandan man of taking part in that country's genocide 25 years ago. This conviction comes as Rwanda, this week, marks the genocide that took the lives of more than 800,000 people, mostly from minority Tutsi tribe. NPR's Jackie Northam covered the genocide right from its opening days and joins me now. Hi, Jackie.


GREENE: Start with this federal courtroom in Boston. Who was this Rwandan man?

NORTHAM: His name is Jean Leonard Teganya and he's 48 years old. Federal prosecutors said he took part in the rapes and killings of Tutsis near a hospital in southern Rwandan town of Butare during the genocide. And Teganya was a medical student at the hospital at the time.

GREENE: So how does he go from carrying out attacks in Rwanda 25 years ago to a federal courtroom in the United States in 2019?

NORTHAM: Yeah. Towards the end of the genocide, Teganya, along with hundreds of other thousands of Rwandans, fled into what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. In a number of years, he made his way to Canada. He was denied asylum there and was facing deportation, so he crossed into the U.S. and applied for asylum here.

Now, David, the Rwandan government has been very active in going after people who participated in the genocide and encourages countries to prosecute them, which is what the U.S. did in Teganya's case. But what's interesting is, the U.S. did not try Teganya for genocide. That's really difficult to prove. What they got him on was lying on his asylum application, when he said he did not take part in the genocide.

GREENE: What is it like personally for you? I mean, you were there in the three months while this genocide was taking place, covering the aftermath. I mean, to see someone connected to it 25 years later, still - now, today.

NORTHAM: Sure. I mean, I went in four days after the genocide started. And the first stop was Butare, which is where this fellow was from. And, you know, Rwanda, during the genocide, was horrific. Just the sheer scale of the brutality and the butchery is still hard to fathom. And it was extremely dangerous. So yeah, to sit in the courtroom in Boston, 25 years after the fact, and see someone who perpetrated some of these atrocities was unnerving.

And Teganya took the stand and he was wearing a suit and tie. And he answered questions for several hours, saying, he was just trying to protect the Tutsis. But the jury deliberated less than three hours and convicted him.

GREENE: So Rwanda's going to be remembering this period now, 25 years later. Am I right? Isn't the story of Rwanda since then something incredibly positive? I mean, it's a peaceful country, it's been stable, grappling with this history. And there are even reports of victims or the families of victims living next door to people carried out some of the attacks. I mean, that's extraordinary.

NORTHAM: Yeah, that's right. I've talked to many people with human rights groups and people who study Rwanda, particularly after the genocide. And they say, one of the reasons that there has been this relative stability for so long is because the Rwandan government has tried to deliver accountability. They've gone after people responsible for the atrocities, even those who played an insignificant role.

And yeah, there are a number of accounts of people who have done their time, asked for forgiveness, and gone back to live into their communities. I find this remarkable, you know? I talked to one man after the genocide. He was in prison. And he had clubbed to death some of his very close neighbors. In fact, he was a godfather to one of their children. But that didn't stop him from killing them. And this was common during the genocide. So yeah, it's remarkable that there has been this level of reconciliation in Rwanda, this level of forgiveness.

GREENE: Jackie, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That's NPR's Jackie Northam, who covered something that should never be forgotten - the genocide in Rwanda 25 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.