Jason Harris
Creator & Host, Jew Oughta Know

‘He was our Eichmann’

Adolf Eichmann at trial in 1961 (Israel Government Press Office); Felicien Kabuga's wanted ad. (US Department of State)

The murderers were captured 60 years apart but the message spans across time: war criminals are not safe.

I had just wrapped up my Jew Oughta Know podcast miniseries on the capture and trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann when I saw the news that Félicien Kabuga, an architect of the Rwandan genocide, had been captured in France after 26 years on the run.

Kabuga, Africa’s most wanted criminal, had, like Eichmann, been protected by a network of family, supporters, and allegedly, members of at least one host government. Both were pursued in the years following their crimes, and both trails eventually went cold.

There was initially great interest in finding Eichmann after World War Two, as he went from a person-of-interest to a full-blown war criminal, thanks to the testimony by his former comrades at Nuremberg. Ironically, the Americans had captured him on two occasions but didn’t know it. Both times he adopted an assumed name and blended in amongst the sea of German prisoners of war. He spent several years living quietly in a remote forest hamlet in Germany, where he worked as a chicken farmer under the name Otto Heninger. He even sold eggs to Holocaust survivors living in nearby Displaced Persons camps.

But as his real name continued to be associated with the mass murder of the Jews, he knew it was only a matter of time until a chance encounter would blow his cover. In 1950 he headed for Argentina, a friendly government which welcomed both escaped Nazis and Jewish refugees. He settled there under the name Ricardo Klement, and his ex-pat network of admirers ensured he had steady, albeit modest, work in and around Buenos Aires.

Félicien Kabuga, too, had been on the run from even before the Rwandan genocide had fully played out in the mid-1990s. He stands accused of both instigating and profiteering from the genocide. He allegedly imported and distributed hundreds of thousands of machetes, the main weapon used to slaughter most of the 800,000 Tutsis massacred in just 100 days. He is also accused of having financed the Hutu killing squads, and the radio station he owned egged on the Hutus, urging them to kill their “cockroaches” Tutsi neighbors.

There were several attempts to capture him, including a raid in Kenya in 2003 that left an FBI informant dead. It seems Kabuga lived there for a long time, possibly under official protection. Despite a $5 million bounty from the United States Department of State, Kabuga disappeared for the next 17 years. That isn’t to say people weren’t interested in finding him. Like with Eichmann throughout the 1950s, tidbits and clues popped up here and there but the dots were never fully connected. When they finally were, in both cases, the outcome was the same: capture.

Both Eichmann and Kabuga were captured thanks to the work of various secret services. On May 11, 1960, Eichmann, age 54, was grabbed by operatives from the Israeli Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies. Sixty years later, on May 16, 2020, Kabuga, age 84, was captured outside Paris, thanks to the work of intelligence agencies from eight countries, including France, Belgium, Britain, and the United States.

What will be Kabuga’s fate? Eichmann was smuggled to Israel where he stood trial in 1961 and was executed a year later, found guilty for multiple crimes against the Jewish People, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and membership in hostile organizations. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda indicted Kabuga for genocide-related crimes, but closed its doors in 2015.

Many questions remain about how Kabuga managed to evade justice for so long. Who helped him, where and when? What did the Kenyan government know? “He was our Klaus Barbie, our Eichmann,” said Etienne Nsanzimana, head of a French organization that advocates on behalf of Rwandan genocide victims. (Klaus Barbie, known as the “Butcher of Lyon,” was an SS officer who escaped to Bolivia. He was extradited to France in 1983 and convicted of crimes against humanity.)

Genocidal criminals, even sixty years apart, have the same lesson to learn: you may be able to escape for awhile, but not forever. That Kabuga’s capture dovetails with the sixtieth anniversary of Eichmann’s is a serendipitous reminder to the world that we have a duty to pursue mass murderers wherever they go and for however long it takes. Hints and clues must be doggedly pursued with sufficient intelligence and law enforcement resources.

The Holocaust was not the world’s last genocide. Neither was Rwanda. No doubt there are others to come, and other mass murderers waiting for their chance to pounce. It is all the more imperative that we publicly bring to justice as many perpetrators as we can.

For an in-depth look at the capture and trial of Eichmann, check out this miniseries at Jew Oughta Know.

About the Author
Jason Harris is the creator and host of Jew Oughta Know, a popular podcast on Jewish and Israeli history. He has led hundreds of young adults on trips to Israel, and holds master's degrees in Jewish studies from Brandeis University. Prior to his work in the Jewish community he served as a senior staffer to a U.S. Member of Congress. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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