Songs, sketches, and poems are performed against a rich background. People dance wildly, applaud loudly in the heat, their faces running with sweat.Festivities like this are not uncommon in Kigali central prison, which is popularly known as “1930” (date of its construction).
Espérance Nyirandegeya alias Mwamina, sentenced to life in jail for participation in the 1994 genocide, rarely misses them. Dressed in a red and yellow wrap, with a headscarf of the same colours, the 50-year-old moves her body to the applause of other prisoners and prison staff. “Long live Rwanda, long live unity between all Rwandese,” she chants. Once her act has finished, she disappears, but reappears a few minutes later and takes her place amongst the crowd, having exchanged her stage clothes for the pink uniform of Rwandan prisoners.
“I failed my obligations as a mother. Today, women hold positions in decision-making bodies, I am envious and I regret my crimes,” she tells Hirondelle.
Tried first in 2003, this former accountant for Rwanda’s only airline at the time, Air Rwanda, was sentenced in 2007 to two years of community service, an alternative punishment that Rwanda introduced to reduce overcrowding in its prisons.
But a few months later she was re-arrested following new accusations against her: planning genocide, inciting genocide, illegally bearing arms and wearing a military uniform. After a new trial before a gacaca (village court) in Nyamirambo, Kigali, she was sentenced in 2009 to life in jail. This sentence was confirmed on appeal. She did not get a reduction of sentence because the gacaca court deemed that she had not given a full confession. “I was disappointed because I revealed everything in my confessions, I did not hide anything,” she says. She admits she directed operations against Tutsi hideouts in Nyamirambo during the genocide.
However, she has not given up. She maintains that in rejecting her confessions, the gacaca court confused her with another Mwamina who was a primary school teacher. So she has asked for the case to be reviewed. Since the gacaca courts have finished their work, her request is being filed with the normal court in Nyamirambo.
But for her former neighbours, she has got what she deserved. ”Please don’t talk to me about her! I can still see her in military uniform carrying a gun. She put a lot of families into mourning,” says one of Mwamina’s former neighbours in the Mumena quarter of Kigali. Others among her ex-neighbours say they have no words to describe her cruelty.
How did this woman who was married to a Tutsi come to participate in the genocide? Now, in her partial confessions before her judges, she seems to put the responsibility on her husband. “He abandoned me, he left me to the mercy of the militiamen, I lived with them, I became their wife.” Her husband took refuge with their three children in the first days of the genocide in the southern prefecture of Butare, where he worked. Today he works as an independent consultant in Kigali.
Whilst waiting for the classic justice system (as opposed to the gacaca courts) to decide on her request for a case review, Mwamina remains active in the prison, speaking out for unity and teaching other prisoners and Rwandese in general the Rwandan values that she admits having trampled in 1994. The prison staff say they appreciate her dedication and her teachings.