Protais Mpiranya, one of the world’s most wanted murderers and genocides, has died and his remains were found in an overgrown graveyard in Zimbabwe’s capital.
The body of Protais Mpiranya, ex-commander of Rwanda’s presidential guard accused of genocide, lay buried under a stone slab under a false name, that UN investigators tracked down and identified with the help of a critical clue found on a confiscated computer: the handmade design for the tombstone of Mpiranya.
His body was exhumed last month at the request of UN investigators, and Mpiranya’s identity was confirmed by DNA analysis on Tuesday.
The man tasked with overseeing the slaughter of thousands of Rwandans and complicit in the murder of many more, he died in Harare in October 2006 of a heart attack caused by tuberculosis, at the age of 50.
But his death, like much of his life, had been kept secret by his family and followers.. Mpiranya had been living in Zimbabwe under a fictitious identity for four yearsdespite the government’s insistence that he was not in the country.
The investigation that followed his trail to the grave at Granville Cemetery, on the southern edge of Harare, found that he had arrived on a military plane from Zimbabwe and had been in frequent contact during his stay with Zimbabwean officials from the then-president’s regime. Robert Mugabe, who were well aware of his identity as a valued ally in the second Congo war of 1998-2003.
As a fugitive, Mpiranya had survived the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established in 1994 to bring to justice the perpetrators of the massacre that killed up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. They had charged him with eight charges, including genocide and crimes against humanity, but could not find him to bring him to trial.
After the court closed in 2015, a “residual mechanism” was set up to close old cases, and part of that mechanism was a small tracking team under chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz.
At 7 am on February 7, team members arrived at the cemetery, where the graves were invisible under head-high grass. It took them two and a half hours to find what they were looking for: a black tombstone in memory of a Sambao Ndume whose date of birth coincided with that of Mpiranya, on May 30, 1956.
The French inscription on the tombstone was heroic: “Here rests forever who loved his country, his people and his family, more than his own life.” Beneath that, a crude representation of a warrior with a bow and arrow was carved with the message: “Daddy R.I.”
The path that had led the searchers to the tomb was long, complicated, and dotted with dead ends. Supposedly, there were eyewitness reports from across Africa of people claiming to have seen him, and until late last year, investigators believed he was likely still alive, hiding in Zimbabwe with his fellow Congo war fighters.
As of May 2020, Mpiranya was the latest major fugitive among 93 indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the The world’s most wanted war crimes suspect.
As head of the Rwandan presidential guard in 1994, according to his indictment, he had given his men a list of assassinations of leading Tutsi and orders to kill their families as well. He armed and trained the notorious Interahamwe Hutu militia, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.
And with the signal for the beginning of the bloodshed, the shooting down of the plane in which the country’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was traveling on April 5, 1994, sent his men to build barricades where they massacred Tutsis.
Presidential guard soldiers assassinated Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu, and mutilated her body. The 10 lightly armed Belgian soldiers who had been sent to protect her were shot and killed with machetes.
After the fall of the Hutu regime in July 1994, Mpiranya fled across Africa, spending four years in Cameroon until it became inhospitable to genocidal fugitives. He then moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), fighting with Hutu forces and Zimbabwean troops on behalf of the country’s president, Laurent Kabila, against the Rwandan army, in what became known as the Second Congo War. .
Zimbabwean officials viewed the former commander as superior to most of the Congolese troops they were fighting alongside.
So when Mpiranya was first charged in September 2002, his friends and admirers in Zimbabwe helped him cross the borders. According to witnesses, he flew from Mbuji-Mayi in central Democratic Republic of the Congo to Harare on a Zimbabwean military plane.
Mpiranya brought with him a small entourage of Hutu commanders and, using a false identity, set up a small transport business with two large trucks, most likely bought with Congolese diamond profits.
He was better at giving orders than doing business. The venture failed, and during the four years in Zimbabwe, Mpiranya’s standard of living plummeted. Starting in a substantial villa in the first year, the family had to move to an apartment in the same area and then to another in a more deprived neighborhood.
They stopped hiring bus drivers and a family member had to do the work himself. So both buses had accidents and there was no money to repair them. Much of the rest of his assets were wiped out by Zimbabwe’s high inflation in those years.
When Mpiranya fell ill with tuberculosis, he had no money left to pay for his medical care and his wife in the UK had to work harder to send funds. In completing the hospital admission forms, he used a new identity, Sambao Ndume, the name under which he would be buried.
UN investigators believe his family and friends covered up the death so as not to affect the morale of Hutu forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to avoid exposing themselves to scrutiny. The tracing team found that several had secured a safe haven in the UK and the EU with bogus asylum claims.
The court’s monitoring team spent time chasing tenuous leads in Africa, provided by informants looking to cover up Mpiranya’s death, or looking to make money, or both.
In recent years, the follow-up team has reviewed all of the research, gone through databases, interviewed and re-interviewed witnesses, eliminated clues and speculation, and possible bias of the investigators themselves, down to the last fact in the life of Mpiranya who knew for sure: he was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002. They pieced together every known detail of his life, his way of thinking and his connections.
The advance occurred last September with the seizure of a computer and other material in a raid in a European country that is a reserve of the summary.
Combing through a vast amount of data, they came across emails with veiled references to “the one with a pass” and the “old man”. They then matched the travels of some of Mpiranya’s relatives, based on visa stamps sent by partner governments, and found them converging in Zimbabwe in October 2006.
Sifting through hundreds of digital images, they found photos of a funeral, including those of the body on display for mourners. She resembled Mpiranya and wore a suit that was later found in the tomb by investigators.
Finally, they found a photo of a hand-drawn tombstone, sent by a close relative, and realized that it was commissioned by stone carvers in Harare. If they could find a stone like that, they could find the body.
After years of stalling the search, Zimbabwean authorities have agreed to allow the body of the man calling himself Sambao Ndume to be unearthed. On April 27, the trackers, a UN pathologist and three Zimbabwean detectives gathered at the grave as the sun rose.
Serge Brammertz, the attorney general, described Mpiranya’s death as a “Important step forward to bring justice to the victims of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.”
In a statement, Brammertz said: “The confirmation of his death gives a sense of urgency. Mpiranya was charged with eight counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was accused of participating in the assassinations of politicians who did not support the genocide, including former Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana”.
Prosecutors are still searching for five more defendants, and Brammertz believes the discovery of Mpiranya’s body will increase pressure on governments in other countries where the last elderly fugitives are believed to be hiding.
Mpiranya was the last of the leading figures in the Rwandan genocide to be accounted for, although she managed to avoid a trial.
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