The Monster Next Door
In Kigali, Rwanda’s sprawling and dusty capital city, Andersen enlisted the help of the U.S. embassy, which provided a translator and a driver to help conduct interviews and navigate the muddy streets. Andersen zeroed in on Butare, a university town of about 80,000 in southern Rwanda. It was here, at the Hotel Ihuriro, where Munyenyezi lived with her husband and in-laws during the genocide. And it was here that Andersen set up shop in a cramped, sweltering room with a single window that opened out onto a music school. As he traversed the city, wearing his ever-present Red Sox hat, he occasionally got fist-pumps from Rwandan Sox fans.
In order to collect evidence admissible in a U.S. court, Andersen and his team needed to conduct each interview precisely and by the book. Day after day, he and his team interrogated killers and survivors, dredging up ghosts from the country’s bloody past. The interviews were physically and emotionally exhausting. “We were on our toes all day,” Andersen says. “Did we ask a question the right way? Is there a word that’s not translating correctly? The dance goes on and on, hour after hour, in pursuit of one thing: the truth.”
One evening, Andersen and Assistant U.S. Attorney John Capin were taking the long and bumpy road back to their hotel in Kigali. They had been up since 4:30 a.m., interviewing eyewitnesses who described atrocity after atrocity, including stories of children being hacked to death. Suddenly, Andersen turned to his friend. He realized there was one person who had repeatedly been mentioned that day and during the previous month of interviews. It wasn’t much to go on—only a nickname, spoken more than a decade later in frightened whispers.
They called her Commando, or the Commander, and for good reason. She ran what one witness called a “particularly brutal” Hutu-controlled roadblock in front of the Hotel Ihuriro, and she had a reputation for swift and ruthless violence that startled even the young Interahamwe paramilitary men, who admitted to killing hundreds on her orders.
Under later court testimony, several witnesses placed the Commander at the roadblock, where she decided who lived or died, based on their identity cards. They also placed her at the scene of numerous atrocities. But there was one horrific incident that was retold by ex–Hutu military members. It was the story of the nun. No matter who told the grisly tale, it always began with her screams.
On a busy day during the genocide, former Interahamwe soldier Jean-Damascene Munyaneza later testified, the Commander was at the roadblock checking government IDs. Distracted by the sound of a nun shrieking, Munyaneza let his machete slump to his side and watched the Commander yank the woman from a van and throw her into the arms of a fellow militiaman. The nun’s clothes were torn from her body while other soldiers nearby leered and catcalled.
Despite the nun’s pleas, the Commander was unmoved. She laughed and watched as the nun struggled in vain to ward off her attacker. During the rape, according to testimony, the Commander began taunting the nun. It was possible that this was just the beginning of her anguish. Eyewitnesses said many women captives were imprisoned in the basement of the Hotel Ihuriro, where they were raped repeatedly during the course of a day. “If you don’t want to be like other women,” Munyaneza testified that the Commander told the nun, “let me take you somewhere else.”
Moments later, Munyaneza said, the Commander led the nun to the edge of a slope overlooking a pit filled with dead bodies, waiting for a backhoe to scoop them up and dump them outside the city. The Commander gave the nun one final shove and shot her in the head as she fell. Soldiers at the checkpoint began cheering in Kinyarwanda. Yes, Commando!
At the time, Andersen learned, the Commander was pregnant with twins.
Months later, in July 1994, the killing stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Tutsi rebels from the Rwandan Patriotic Front arrived and pushed out the MRND and Interahamwe, forcing the government that had ordered the mass slaughter to flee the country in armed caravans.
Andersen learned from a witness that one such convoy had left Butare on July 3, 1994. Among its passengers were the Commander, pregnant with twins, along with her toddler daughter, husband, and mother-in-law.
As additional witnesses mentioned the Commander to Andersen, more details concerning her identity emerged. Not only were her in-laws prominent MRND members who owned the Hotel Ihuriro, but she sometimes went by other nicknames as well. “Wife of Shalom” was one. “Bea” was another.
As he recapped the details in their air-conditioned car on the road from Butare back to his hotel, Andersen knew his instincts about Munyenyezi had been on target. She hadn’t been a victim of unspeakable violence—instead, she had been one of the monsters behind the slaughter.
“She fucking did it,’’ he said.