By Alexis Herr
Beatrice Munyenyezi arrived in the United States in 1998. Claiming to be a Rwandan Genocide refugee she sought and obtained American citizenship nearly a decade ago and took up residence in New Hampshire. Last week she returned to the same courthouse where she was awarded US citizenship to face charges for lying about her role in the Rwandan genocide. Munyenyezi’s tale is reminiscent of the stories of Nazi perpetrators who came to the States after World War II. The similarity between Munyenezi and Nazi perpetrators raises the question, how does the lag between the crime and the trial affect the significance of guilty verdict?
Many Holocaust perpetrators lived in the US for decades before their crimes were uncovered. Michael Karkoc came to the US sixty years ago and moved to Minneapolis. Recently it was discovered that Karkoc had served as a high-ranking commander in the Ukrainian Self-Defense Legion, a unit charged with wide-ranging wartime atrocities including the murder of Jews during the 1944 Warsaw ghetto uprising. Now at the age of 94, Karkoc finally has to answer for his crimes. Former Auschwitz guard Hans Lipschis, 93, was arrested in Germany in May 2013. Deported from the US in 1983 for concealing his Nazi past, it took the German government another thirty-years to amass sufficient evidence to bring him to court.
The time between committing a crime and facing trial for it affects the type of justice a guilty verdict can achieve. Although justice in the wake of genocide is unattainable as no punishment can right the wrongs of atrocity, the implications in the lag of justice are significant. Trials that find perpetrators like Munyenezi, Karkoc, Lipschis guilty become largely symbolic given the extended period in which they lived without punishment.
One unexpected result of delayed justice is individuals come to view former perpetrators as friends and neighbors, thus altering common perceptions of criminal behavior and suspected “evil”. Images of Munyenezi as a mother and Karkoc looking more like a grandfather than a uniform clad soldier contradict commonly held perceptions of what war criminals look like. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of all, that evil actions can be committed by anyone.