The nuns’ soft voices are about the only sound that breaks the silence at the Benedictine abbey of Maredret, a haven of religious solitude deep in the Ardennes forest of southern Belgium.
Among those who sing daily beneath the abbey’s neo-gothic arches are Sisters Gertrude Mukangango and Julienne Kizito, two Hutu nuns from Rwanda.
The Roman Catholic church describes the nuns as innocent refugees who fled the genocidal fury that swept their homeland in the spring of 1994 to find peace behind the high walls of Maredret.
But human rights investigators claim the two played an infinitely more sinister role - willingly and enthusiastically helping a mob that slaughtered thousands of Rwandan Tutsis seeking sanctuary in the nuns’ convent at Sovu in southern Rwanda.
“We have more information on the terrible things that they have done,” said Rakyia Omaar, co-author of a report on the killings for African Rights, a London-based human rights group.
In accounts to African Rights investigators, witness after witness speaks of Sister Gertrude ordering frightened Tutsis out of the Benedictines’ compound on April 25, 1994. Outside, a horde of Hutu soldiers and militia members waited.
“She asked these soldiers to make us come out of the monastery. She told them that she did not want the blood of Tutsis in the monastery,” survivor Domatile Mukabanza said.
“Small children begged her to hide them, but she shoved them off outside.”
Survivors claim Sister Julienne went even further - supplying the mob with gasoline to burn Tutsis alive.
“The refugees … locked themselves inside the buildings. They poured the gasoline on the house and set it alight. Sister Kizito was still there and she gave several jerrycans of gasoline,” Veneranda Mukankusi said.
Afterward, Sister Julienne allegedly joined the killers in looting some of the corpses.
French troops evacuated the nuns when a Tutsi-led rebel force took over Rwanda and put an end to the massacres. Since then, the church has sheltered the nuns at convents around Belgium.
“Those accusations were not well-founded,” said the Rev. Celestine Cullen, abbot of the Benedictine Congregation of the Annunciation.
In a telephone interview from the order’s offices in Glenstal Abbey, Ireland, the abbot acknowledged that Sister Gertrude had handed the Tutsis over to the Hutu militia.
But she had done so only after threats to her nuns, and after assurances that the Tutsis would not be harmed, he said.
The two Hutu nuns are on a list of 14 suspects who Gasana Ndobe, a Rwandan human rights investigator, believes are currently seeking refuge in Belgium, the former colonial power in Rwanda.
Besides the nuns, he says, the suspects include some of the masterminds in the killing spree that claimed the lives of a half-million Tutsis and moderate Hutus between April and July 1994.
After a public outcry, Belgian authorities started criminal proceedings against some of the Rwandan exiles in 1995. A few were briefly jailed. Now, the investigation appears to have stalled.
Belgian judicial officials say a spate of high-profile corruption and murder cases forced them to put aside the genocide investigations for the time being.
But human rights investigators say authorities are reluctant to attract attention to Belgium’s once-close links to Rwanda’s Hutu leadership.
“These people still get favors from the Belgian political class,” Gasana said. “There is no longer sufficient will to pursue the genocide suspects.”
Although Rwanda has condemned at least 13 people in the genocide, only one suspect is believed to have been tried and found guilty outside Rwanda - a man convicted by a New York federal court last year in a civil case and ordered to pay $105 million to relatives of his victims.
Many other former Rwandan Hutu leaders are in neighboring Zaire, seeking visas to Europe.
Sisters Julienne and Gertrude, meanwhile, quietly go about their days at Maradret, where church leaders protect them even from the press.
“The sisters have suffered enough. They are unjustly accused,” said Sister Benedicte, the abbess at Maredret. “I won’t let you speak to them.”
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