Pauline Nyiramasuhuko was born in 1946 in the commune of Ndora, Butare prefecture, Rwanda. Born into a farming family, she became a local success story.
At college, she became friends with Agathe Kanziga who, later, was to marry the Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana. After completing her studies, she left Butare for Kigali where she took up a post in the Ministry for Social Affairs. At the age of 22, Nyiramasuhuko became National Inspector at the Ministry. In 1968, she married Maurice Ntahobali, who became President of the Rwandan National Assembly, then Minister of Higher Education and finally Rector of the National University of Butare. Nyiramasuhuko then started her law studies.
In 1992, at a time when she was already one of the leaders of the National Republican Movement for Democracy (MRND, the Presidential party), she was nominated to the position of Minister for the Family and Woman’s Affairs. She held this position up until July 1994, the date at which she fled Rwanda. In this capacity, she held authority and control over all of the institutions and the personnel within her Ministry. Furthermore, she attended meetings of the Council of Ministers where she became acquainted with the socio-political situation of the country and where she was made aware of government policies. She also participated in the development and implementation of the policies adopted by the interim government.
From the end of 1990 until July 1994, Nyiramasuhuko was said to have adhered to, and participated in the detailed development of a plan aimed at exterminating the Tutsis. Amongst other elements, this plan included recourse to hatred and ethnic violence, the training of and distribution of arms to militias as well as the drafting of lists of people to be eliminated. In the accomplishment of this plan, she reportedly planned, ordered and participated in the massacres.
From April to July 1994, Nyiramasuhuko was said to have publicly incited the population to exterminate the Tutsi population. Between 9 April and 14 July 1994, during various meetings of the Council of Ministers, several ministers, one of which being Nyiramasuhuko, reportedly made requests for arms for distribution within their home prefectures in order to perpetrate massacres. During the course of these meetings, the interim government adopted directives and issued instructions to préfets (prefecture heads) and mayors which were aimed at inciting, encouraging and helping them to commit massacres. To ensure that these directives were carried out, the interim government designated, for each prefecture, a minister responsible for what was called “pacification”. Nyiramasuhuko was named as the minister responsible for “pacification” for the Butare prefecture.
Soon after the arrival of Nyiramasuhuko in Butare, cars with loudspeakers drove around the streets of Butare announcing that the Red Cross had set up camp in a stadium not far from there to provide food and shelter to the population. On 25 April 1994, thousands of Tutsis decided to go to the stadium. It turned out to be a trap. Instead of finding food and shelter, the refugees were surrounded by the Interahamwe (extremist Hutu militia). Nyimarasuhuko then allegedly supervised an attack against them and encouraged the participation of the Interahamwe. She was also said to have ordered that the women be raped before being killed. At the end of this massacre, Nyiramasuhuko reportedly went to an encampment where a group of Interahamwe were holding prisoner some 70 Tutsi women and young girls. According to the Prosecutor of the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), she gave an order to the Interahamwe to rape the women before sprinkling them with petrol and burning them to death.
The préfet of Butare, the only one of Tutsi origin in the country, openly contested the massacres in his prefecture. For this reason, thousands of Tutsis had sought refuge in Butare from the beginning of the massacres. Being aware of the specific situation predominating in Butare, Nyiramasuhuko dismissed the préfet and then reportedly incited the population to get involved in the massacres. Some time after this, the préfet was arrested and murdered. On 20 April 1994, Nyiramasuhuko reportedly asked the new préfet, Sylvain Nsabimana, to provide her with military assistance in order to proceed with further massacres in Ngoma commune.
Between April and July 1994, a roadblock was set up close to the home of Nyiramasuhuko. The latter, together with her son Arsène Shalom Ntahobali mounted the guard over this roadblock. During this entire period, with military help, this roadblock was used as a means to identify, abduct and murder Tutsis.
Between 19 April and end of June 1994, Nyiramasuhuko and her son, accompanied by the Interahamwe and the military, were reported to have gone to the offices of the prefecture on several occasions to pick up Tutsis. Those who tried to resist were assaulted and in some instances killed on the spot. As for the others, they were taken away to different places in the prefecture, and in particular to the forest close to the Rwandan Evangelical School, where they were executed. Just before they were transported away, the victims were often forced to take off their clothes before being forced into the vehicles. Nyiramasuhuko is also said to have selected Tutsi woman, at this point, to be raped.
In July 1994, in the face of the advancing FPR (Front Patriotique Rwandais, an opposition group consisting mainly of Tutsi refugees and led by Paul Kagame), Nyiramasuhuko fled Rwanda in the direction of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After going into hiding in a refugee camp in the DRC, she finally made her way to Kenya, where she lived as a fugitive for almost three years. On 18 July 1997, she was arrested in Nairobi.