FLORENCE, Italy In this city bursting with beauty, one undistinguished church stands out. Neither very old nor very celebrated, the only reason for its prominence is its deputy priest, a suspect in one of the century's biggest non-war bloodbaths.
The priest, popular with parishioners, is a short, roly-poly man from Rwanda with a moustache and a twinkle in his eye who goes by the name of Don Anastasio Sumba Bura.
What the good people of Chiesa dell'Immacolata parish here and Card. Silvano Piovanelli, the Archbishop of Florence, do not know, however, is that Sumba Bura is a pseudonym. The priest's real name is Athanase Seromba and he is one of a number of clergy believed to have been involved in the Rwandan genocide who is being harbored by the Catholic Church.
Many priests and nuns displayed courage during the genocide, but it is established that there were killers in the clergy, too. Seromba, 36, has been identified as a suspect. How he managed to escape justice and recognition for so long and joined the priesthood under an assumed name in one of Europe's grandest cities, cries out for investigation.
However, the Roman Catholic Church, which performed so miserably during the genocide in a largely Christian country, still ignores appeals from within and outside the church to purge its ranks of such suspected killers.
Genocide in the Jungle
Rwanda is a predominantly Christian nation where three out of four people call themselves Catholic after 100 years of intense exposure to white missionaries. In 1994, the country was turned into a vast graveyard. In 100 days, 800,000 men and women, babies and old people were butchered as marauding bands of Hutu militia hunted and killed every member of the Tutsi minority they could find.
At Nyange, Seromba's parish, thousands of Tutsi fled to the church and Seromba, who had been the priest for about six months, for refuge. Instead, they were slaughtered.
Witnesses said Seromba, a Hutu, sided with the campaign to exterminate the Tutsi to an extreme extent. He urged on the militia attacking the church and, in a climax of unimaginable horror, ordered it to be bulldozed, crushing those inside.
Anastase Kinamubanzi, one of the bulldozer drivers, balked at demolishing "God's house." But Seromba told him: "There are many Christians in foreign lands. This church will be rebuilt in three days". Witnesses are quoted as saying he paid the drivers and locals to bury the bodies. Between 2,000 and 2,500 were killed.
Today, a weed-strewn mound of rubble, mixed with bundles of rags that once were people, and four stark wooden crosses are all that remain of the church at Nyange. A lush grassy plain nearby covers a mass grave. The attacks on the Tutsi in the Nyange area began on April 8. Two days earlier, President Juvenal Habyarimana had been killed in a mysterious plane crash near Kigali, the capital. His death was blamed on the minority Tutsi, regarded as the enemy. It unleashed a wave of killings and, as happened everywhere, Tutsi in Seromba's area fled their homes.
Seromba, accompanied by Grégoire Ndaimana, the burgomaster or mayor, and a group of councillors and police officers, toured the villages, urging people to gather in the church for their own protection.
The priest was a reassuring presence in an increasingly frightening world. But he was engaged in a cruel deception. Seromba and the burgomaster were chairing daily sessions of a "special security committee" whose one purpose, according to a police participant, was "the extermination of the Tutsi" gathering at the church.
By and by, hundreds of people had congregated for safety in the church and courtyard. But many Hutu militia, were converging on them as well. Many Tutsi had armed themselves with stones and their own traditional weapons.
Some were hiding in the presbytery, a two-storey building nearby where Seromba had his quarters. Seromba did not like them being there and had them expelled. According to Papias Hategekimana, his cook, he said to an Hutu militiaman who had come to ask permission to let them kill the Tutsi: "Wait, I will tell you when the time comes."
When she entered the church on Sunday, April 10, Virginie Mukabarinda, who was 20, was struck by the pathetic sound of "children crying from hunger and lack of air." She had a daughter and a baby girl and there was nothing to eat. Seromba was heard to say the Tutsi in the church should be left to starve.
On the Tuesday, Bertin Ndakubana, a livestock breeder and now a local councillor, entered with his family and found Seromba there. He heard someone ask the priest to pray for them. "Is the God of the Tutsi still alive?" Seromba replied.
"Someone else said to him, 'Aren't you concerned about these children polluting the altar? Couldn't you allocate some rooms instead of the church,'" Ndakubana recalled. "Seromba answered: `You can go and s--- on the altar if you want to, because I won't be celebrating mass on it ever again' "
The next day, April 13, the gendarmes confiscated the Tutsi's knives, machetes and axes, leaving them almost defenceless except for stones. Charles Kagenza, a member of the local Charismatic Renewal Movement, began organizing prayers. It was at this point that Seromba took away the chalices, communion cups and clerical vestments. Kagenza asked him to leave the monstrance and the Eucharist so that they could hold a service. Seromba said the building no longer functioned as a church.
The decision to kill the Tutsi was taken that evening. According to Adrien Niyyitegeka, a police officer who attended the meeting, Seromba approved. Ndaimana, the burgomaster, went to Kibuye, the nearest big town, to seek ammunition and gasoline to burn them if it was necessary.
The church was attacked on schedule the following day. The refugees, although weak from hunger and thirst, managed to defend themselves at first and repulsed the attackers with stones.
Another high-level meeting was called at which Seromba agreed to use his influence to persuade the refugees to leave the church. At the same time, reinforcements were summoned with drums.
The next day more the Hutu militants, wearing feathers and banana leaves, and chanting, blowing whistles and beating drums encircled the church. Seromba tried to persuade people to leave. The killing began an hour afterward. Seromba was seen firing into the crowd with his gun.
"They killed using machetes, hand grenades, guns, spears and arrows. It was horrific," Ndakubana said. "Children were screaming, women were crying, men were groaning. Some people tried to get out of the church, but were caught and killed immediately, while others were running into the church to get out of the courtyard. Some people even went to the priests' quarters, although anyone who hid there was chased out again by the priests." Another witness described Seromba at one stage standing on the presbytery balcony with the other priests, watching the slaughter "as though they were watching a good film."
Jean-Bosco Safari, 33, a civil servant whose wife was killed, was hiding in the presbytery kitchen with others. When they were discovered, Seromba told them he would ensure their safety.
Then, Safari said, the gendarmes came, lined up those still hiding in the courtyard and shot them. "They went on killing until the evening. The noise was indescribable, the screams, the terrifying sound of grenades exploding.
It was like a scene from hell with the devil dressed as a priest that evening. A young girl begged Seromba to save her. He replied. 'Get lost, cockroach).'" Virginie and Alexis Mukabarinda were also hiding in the kitchen with their baby Apollonia. They had left their elder daughter and Virginie's father in the church, where they later died.
Afraid that Apollonia would cry and give them away, Virginie hid in a cupboard used to store fruit. Alexis and others in the kitchen were dripping blood from their wounds when Seromba came in.
Seromba told them to set an example and be the first to leave. They were given no choice, Virginie said, and trooped out. It was the last she saw of her husband. Seromba believed that everybody had left and went to the sink to wash his hands.
"My heart was in my mouth," Virginie said. "I prayed to God not to let Apollonia sneeze and gave her my breast to suck. God granted my prayer." As she hid she heard Seromba talking to himself at the sink, unaware that he was being overheard. He was saying in a loud voice: "My God, forgive me. I can't do anything else. They have to die. War is a terrible thing."
Seromba brought in two Hutu girls to mop up the blood. One was Epiphanie. Hungry and hoping to find some fruit in the cupboard, she opened the door and found Virginie cowering inside with her baby.
"We'll never get rid of the Tutsi fighters," she exclaimed. "They are too crafty. How could that woman have got in the cupboard?" She ordered Virginie out and criticized Seromba for having Tutsi staff. But he told her not to bother about Virginie. "Why don't you hand her over to the people who will deal with her?"
Virginie was let go but her tragedy was not over. After hiding in yam and manioc fields for two days she took the risk of contacting François Muemezi, a Hutu neighbour, and appealing for his help.
He seemed to take pity on her and agreed to escort her and Apollonia across the Nyabarongo River to safety. "When we got near the river, François seized Apollonia and drowned her. I sat down and could not move."
That evening, Seromba and the burgomaster chaired a meeting to decide on a "final strategy of extermination" of the Tutsi. At 10 a.m. the next day, April 16, after more abortive attacks, the order was given to destroy the church.
Two bulldozers that had already been used to bury the corpses littering the area were ordered back. They simultaneously smashed into the left and right sides of the church. The walls caved in on the people and the militia rushed in, hacking and stabbing at random. But the steeple was still standing.
Charles Kagenza had climbed up it to save himself and, supported by a beam, watched the horror unfold below him. "The church was completely destroyed between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. It made a terrible noise, combined with the victims' cries and moans."
Seromba sipped beer on his balcony and took pot shots at the refugees in the steeple, chatting with the burgomaster as to who was the better shot. Even before that incident, Serumba had allegedly refused help to Tutsis in the first days of the genocide, even turning down requests to buy food on their behalf with their own money.
The Role of the Church
Rwanda is still struggling to come to terms with the genocide. There is no doubt that the Catholic Church abetted the tragedy. It was the single most powerful institution in the country after the government and its clergy were not exempt from the country's pervasive racism.
The church's failure to foster reconciliation remains a hot issue in Rwanda. A bishop is on trial now for genocide, a first in the history of the Catholic church. The Vatican says the trial is an attack on the church. It has helped to organize his legal defence.
In the same way, it also looked after two priests who were Seromba's subordinates at Nyange during the massacre. The Rwandan courts sentenced them to death last year. Contrast this with the Church's protection of Seromba, who remains abroad and free.
Seromba has been in Italy for the past two years with the connivance of his home bishop back in Rwanda who sanctioned his overseas posting. However, the church's protection of Seromba is about to be blown apart. A devastating dossier on his willing participation in the genocide, based on testimonies gathered in Rwanda by survivors, witnesses and accomplices, will be published as a charge-sheet against him by African Rights, the London-based human rights organization. African Rights has been investigating the genocide and its aftermath over the past five years and regards Seromba as one of its worst cases.
"In the light of the testimonies," said Rakiya Omaar, African Rights director, "it is surely impossible for the church in Italy and in Rwanda, the judicial authorities in Italy or the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to allow Fr. Seromba simply to leave his past behind. The grounds for his arrest and prosecution are beyond question."
Omaar also said the London-based group wanted to establish how and where Seromba obtained his visa, who facilitated him, whether his visa had been extended or its nature changed and whether it had been issued in that name or the one he goes by in Italy, Anastasio Sumba Bura. She said African Rights was also asking the Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to investigate as well.
The group raised the case of Seromba in a 10-page letter to Pope John Paul last year but Omaar said it had been "summarily dismissed" and she had heard nothing back.
A spokesperson for the cardinal said: "Seromba was presented to us by his bishop and superiors in Rwanda. They asked us to take him for a while so we did. He is here practising as a priest and studying theology and we do not know anything else. But he seems to be a very good man and it is not nice to hear these things."
At the Vatican there was silence. But a leading missionary figure who knew Seromba when he passed through Kenya on his way to Italy was both surprised and dismayed to learn last week that Seromba remains in the priesthood and in Florence.
He said: "In terms of attitude and ideology, I can say he was a Hutu extremist, a deeply un-Christian person and not a genuine priest; most likely he should be conducted before a genocide tribunal." It was the first time anyone in the Church of any authority had dared to give a negative judgment on the Seromba case.
Confronted at his church, Seromba said at first he did not want to talk.
"I do not have the time," he said. Pressed again, he insisted there was nothing he could have done to save his parishioners. He was not going to confess and he was at peace with his God.
A Rwandan court in April 1998 sentenced Serumba's colleagues, Frs. Jean Francois Kayiranga and Edouard Nkurikiye, to death after finding them guilty of crimes against humanity. The driver of the digger, was given a life term. About 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were killed by Hutu extremists in the
100-day killing spree in 1994.
In a separate case, Bp. Augustin Misago of Gikongoro in southern Rwanda, went on trial in Sept. on charges of collaborating with officials in Tutsi extermination plans.
Nuns involved also
African Rights is going after other alleged genocidal clergy as well. In a 62-page report documenting the alleged involvement of Srs. Gertrude Mukangango and. Julienne Kizito in the deaths of up to 6,000 Tutsis, they called on the Belgian judicial system to prosecute the two nuns.
The group said its report showed that members of the Belgian Catholic clergy had "sought to interfere with the process of justice." African Rights said its findings were based on testimony from 34 witnesses to the slaughter in Sovu, Rwanda, from April to July 1994. These included survivors, other nuns, prisoners accused of genocide and residents of Sovu.
The nuns have been living at the Benedictine order in Maredret, Belgium, since Aug. 1994. The order declined comment on the report. The report said the unquestioning faith of the order alone could not explain why the women remained at liberty when there were so many people prepared to testify to their involvement in the genocide in Sovu.
"The example of the Church's response to the accusations against the Sovu nuns raises... the broader issue of the Catholic Church's political stance, before, during and after the 1994 genocide," it said.
The report said the behavior of some at the Belgian monastery "suggests that at the heart of the Catholic church in Belgium are clergy prepared not only to tolerate genocide suspects, but to work alongside them, and even to do all in their power to cover up for them."
Reuters, 2/28/00, 11/24/99, 11/21; London Sunday Times, 11/21
Late Breaking News:
Blame Shared for Rwandan Genocide
UNITED NATIONS - In a scathing indictment of the failure to halt the worst genocide since World War II, an international panel has blamed the UN Security Council, the United States, France and the Roman Catholic Church for failing to prevent the slaughter of more than 500,000 Rwandans.
The seven-member panel created by the Organization of African Unity called for the international community - especially those countries that failed to prevent or help stop the 1994 genocide - to pay reparations to Rwanda "in the name of both justice and accountability."
The Vatican's UN observer mission said it had no comment on the report.
The panel concluded that France was closer than any other government to the Rwandan regime and knew what was happening, but did nothing to stop the genocide before it began. Like the French government, the panel blamed the Catholic and Anglican hierarchies for failing to use "their unique moral position among the overwhelmingly Christian population to denounce ethnic hatred and human rights abuses."
The UN had a 2,500-strong peacekeeping mission in Rwanda when the genocide began, but governments pulled out all but a few hundred troops after 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed.
Meanwhile, the trial of Bp. Augustin Misago, 56, the highest-ranking member of over 20 priests and nuns charged in the massacre, was to reach a verdict by June 15. It is not known what the result was. Two priests have already been convicted and sentenced to death.
Prosecutors said Misago sent 3 priests and dozens of schoolchildren to their deaths by denying them shelter. They were hacked to death by a mob.
In mid-May, Pope John Paul II, after hearing the prosecution's request for a death sentence, sent Misago a telegram of solidarity, saying that he was praying for Misago's release.
AP 7/7/2000, Reuters 5/11, 5/10
KAMPALA - A cult leader facing murder charges in Uganda's doomsday massacre was a student priest who attended graduate school at a Jesuit university in Los Angeles, officials said. Defrocked priest Dominic Kataribabo, 32, is one of 6 Ugandans now wanted in connection with the worst cult-related killings in modern history.
So far, police have found 924 bodies, most of them burnt, many strangled and mutilated. More than half were inside the nailed-shut doors of a village church set afire while many followers were still alive. Leaders of the cult slaughtered a child every Friday and drank its blood, a Kampala newspaper reported.
Several people who claimed they had witnessed ritual killings said that the leaders consulted witches in nearby towns who advised them "to kill the opposition leaders and drink the blood of a young slain child to keep off the spirits and government."
Originally thought to have perished in the fire, the cult leaders are now believed to be in hiding, possibly in Kenya. Little had been known about Kataribabo, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest who helped lead the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, and preached the world would end on Dec. 31, 1999.P>But church and university officials said Kataribabo earned a 1987 master's degree in religious studies from Loyola Marymount University, one of America's top Roman Catholic colleges. "He seemed to be pretty ordinary," said a university spokesman, reviewing Kataribabo's records.
Police found 81 bodies, 5 of which were children, under a newly poured cement floor in Kataribabo's 10-room house. Another 74 mutilated, strangled bodies, including 28 children, were found in his backyard.
Los Angeles Archdiocese records show Kataribabo was awarded a full Loyola Marymount scholarship in 1985 under a university program benefiting third world priests after being nominated by his local bishop in the Kampala archdiocese. Kataribabo lived at St. Anthony's parish rectory in the coastal city of El Segundo, said archdiocese spokesman Fr. Gregory Coiro.
The archdiocese granted "sacramental ministry" permission to Kataribabo, meaning he could conduct Mass and weddings at St. Anthony's, said Coiro. The ordained priest from Uganda left America on July 10, 1987. "He said he was returning to his own country," Coiro said. "There were no improprieties listed in Kataribabo's file." It was only after he became involved with the cult that he was defrocked.
The warrants name two other of sect's most notorious figures: "The Prophet," Bishop Joseph Kibwetere, titular head of the cult, and charismatic ex-banana beer peddler and former prostitute, Sister Cedonia Mwerinde, 48, known as "The Programmer," the real power behind the cult with her self-proclaimed apocalyptic visions of the Virgin Mary.
Fr Paul Ikazire, a priest who spent three years as one of the cult's leaders before defecting back to the Roman Catholic Church, recalls how Sister Credonia dominated the sect.
"The meetings were chaired by Sister Credonia, who was the de facto head of the cult," he said. "Kibwetere was just a figurehead, intended to impose masculine authority over the followers and enhance the cult's public relations. I perceived her as a trickster, obsessed with the desire to grab other people's property. She told her followers to sell their property but she never sold hers."
Credonia was also responsible for imposing a ruthless daily regimen on the devotees. They would be woken before sunrise to perform religious rites and receive instruction on her apocalyptic teachings, then be forced to toil from dawn until dusk in the fields, with only a cup of porridge in the mornings and a plate of beans in the evenings.
A strict code of silence was also enforced: followers were allowed to speak only to recite prayers or sing hymns. This brutal way of life turned her followers - many of them illiterate peasants when they joined - into a cowed, half-starved, sleep-deprived flock which was ripe for brain-washing.
Both men are described as serene and quiet-spoken; but both were also torn by religious turmoil that made them prey to Credonia's influence. Kibwetere was treated for mental illness in 1998. Although there is no doubt that they also oversaw the killing spree - Kataribabo even bought the sulphuric acid used in the church blaze - they appeared to have believed in their warped visions of Catholicism. Few who knew Credonia believed that she shared their religious conviction.
There has been speculation that the deaths came after predictions of the end of the world failed to come true. Cult members, who were told to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the movement, had been told that they would enter a new world "free of sorrow and misery".
On Fri., March 17, 600 followers were boarded inside the church and were then incinerated in a fire set from within the building. The previous night, cult members were treated to an unprecedented celebration: 70 crates of Coca-Cola were ordered and a bull slaughtered. The sect had been busily selling off everything from empty jerry cans and old clothes to houses and 200 head of cattle.
It is thought that cult members believed that the boards were to protect them and keep out the unredeemed during the apocalypse. Yet, that does not explain why they did not react to the smell of the gasoline and sulphuric acid that police say was sprinkled around the room. One possibility is that they were given drugged or poisoned communion wine. Once the inferno began, there was no escape. "It was all over very quickly," one detective said.
The blaze, initially treated as mass suicide, turned out to be only the fiery climax of a horrific killing rampage. International arrest warrants have been issued for the leaders. If found and convicted, they could be hanged.
BBC 4/27/2000, Sunday Telegraph 4/6, AP 4/6, 3/28