Norwegian Erik Møse is the presiding judge of the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Møse is internationally renowned and highly respected. He has worked on determining the question of guilt for several years after the massacres that took place in 1994. In recent years, vast numbers of witnesses have been summoned – evidence is scarce, so the court has to depend on witness statements.
Beate Arnestad’s feature documentary film Telling Truths in Arusha, which was shown at the Norwegian Documentary and Short Film Festival in June, follows the work of Møses and the ICTR. She is the first independent filmmaker to be granted access to the courtroom in Arusha (Tanzania). She tracks the court case against formerly highly respected Catholic priest, Father Hormisdas Nsengimana, who is accused of aiding and abetting the genocide in his role as spiritual leader and muse.
Telling Truths in Arusha is beautifully filmed by Linn Therese Amundsen, and alternates between areal filming of the landscape and close-ups. Typically African are the colourfully clad figures seen against a sunlit landscape – what more could a camera ask for?
We are shown a series of witness statements, interviews and depositions. Both prosecution and defence each summoned over 20 witnesses, who clearly have completely different interpretations of what Nsengimana actually did 16 years ago. Judge Møse tells Arnestad that the court’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible. The witness statements clearly show that someone is lying, that false testimony is being given out of fear or self-interest.
At one point, the judge and court personnel go to the church at Nyanza and Christ-Roi College where Nsengimana worked when the genocide took place. They look down into the church’s latrine, where 36 bodies were discovered in the mud in 1994 – many had been battered to death against an adjoining wall. Nyanza was also where the Hutus set up road blocks to prevent residents from fleeing their attackers: road blocks surrounded by corpses. The film tells the story of the old priest, Father Mathieu Ngirumpatse, who was killed as he tried to escape. He was left lying at the side of the road for days; his body was eaten by dogs. In response to the question of why he had neither buried nor held services for his Tutsi colleagues, Nsengimana reluctantly tells the court that he mentioned Father Ngirumpatse once during prayers a couple of days later.
The International Criminal Tribunal has only charged around eighty people in connection with the slaughter of almost one million human beings. The court’s focus has been on the ringleaders and the legal process will probably be concluded this year. But several other cases have been brought to local war tribunals around the country, where sentence has been passed on around 100,000 people.
Arnestad edits news footage from 1994 into the film showing piles of corpses and belligerent armed gangs. We also see the only known news clip of the genocide depicting Hutus battering Tutsis to death.
As we know from 1994, the brutal gangs separated out the Tutsis, and ran amok in a bloodthirsty frenzy wielding clubs and machetes. People identified each other, everybody knew who was who. Lists were made. The Tutsis were identified by their slender noses and fingers – Hutus have flat noses. In mixed families, the murderers would let Hutus escape, while they slaughtered their spouses and children.
The Belgian priest, Father Simons has been running an orphanage in Nyanza for forty years. In the film, he argues – like the UN – that Nsengimana bears a large part of the responsibility for the genocide due to the position he held at the time. Simons bemoans in the film interview the human proclivity towards creating classes and groups – he calls it the “disease” of humanity. During a church service, another priest, Andrew Sezerand, estimates that around 100,000 people were killed in Nsengimana’s district Nyanza.
Arnestad captures a telling moment in the film: Nsengimana mentions to his lawyer that there were fewer Tutsis living there than the number that were killed. His lawyer advises him not to say this in the witness box. Nsengimana is articulate, but not very credible.
Sentence is passed at the end of Arnestad’s film, four years from when she started the work. In actual fact, it took a year from the conclusion of the court case to clarify the question of guilt. The ruling was delivered 17th November 2009: “1. Genocide: Not Guilty. 2. Murder as a crime against humanity: Not Guilty. 3. Extermination as a crime against humanity: Not Guilty.”
We hear Father Nsengimana comment on the ruling: “Well done boys!” But as Arnestad said after the film’s screening here in Norway, it came as a surprise to everyone. The judges had put their trust in the defence’s 24 witnesses. They dismissed Chief Prosecutor Hassan B. Jallow’s 19 witnesses as lacking credibility.
Møse has now presided over 18 court cases in Rwanda – of which only three ended in acquittal. One of these was the case against Nsengimana. As Møse says to Arnestad’s camera, there was insufficient evidence and too few credible witnesses to prove that Nsengimana was responsible for the crimes.
The film ends with a shot of a crowd of angry protestors demonstrating against the acquittal of Nsengimana and a co-accused. Nsengimana is now living in Italy.
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