Flag of Suriname (224107)
Flag of Suriname Credit: Wikipedia

Just as the current 1982 mass murder trial of former Surinamese president and military strongman Dési Bouterse is nearing an end, the state’s prosecution office is getting ready to reopen investigations into the late 1986 massacre of a village where more than 50 elderly Maroon men, women and children were slaughtered by the local military.

Moiwana Village is just across the river border with French Guiana. Regular soldiers, who were chasing down a group of western-supported guerillas trying to reverse a February 1980 military coup in the Caribbean Community nation, were apparently frustrated that the villagers were unable to prove them with useful intelligence about the guerillas’ whereabouts; the soldiers lined up the villagers, executed them, and burned down the entire village.

Ironically, the guerilla group was led, back in the troubled ‘80s, by the man who is now the elected vice president of Suriname—Ronnie Brunswijk, then a young, brash low-ranking soldier who had been picked out by Western nations like the U.S., The Netherlands and France to lead a rebel force to fight the 1980 coup-makers. What ensued was a full-scale internal or bush war that had claimed nearly 1,000 lives, chased thousands of people abroad, and dislocated thousands more. The guerillas would attack soldiers and state facilities and flee across the river into French Guiana, frustrating the military. On that day back in 1986, the soldiers took out their frustrations on Moiwana Village, slaughtering more than 50. A few dozens hid in the nearby jungle until it was all over.

Rights groups and relatives of the dead have complained bitterly over the decades that no real or official attempt had ever been made by successive administrations to investigate the massacre, complaining that those guilty of the crime are operating with impunity in the Dutch-speaking country of about 600,000.

In the past week, however, the prosecution’s office has put out public notices asking witnesses or anyone with knowledge of the events of November 29, 1986 to come forward, and  provide their evidence to any police station in the country. For witnesses living overseas, they can either come back to Suriname or use digital or electronic means to provide their testimony. Former President Ronald Venetiaan had formally apologized to survivors on behalf of the state back in 2006, but no investigatory action of consequence has been taken.

The Inter-American Rights Commission had also condemned the massacre, urging authorities to formally investigate the tragedy. And back in 1990, intrepid police inspector Herman Gooding had dared to begin a probe, but he was mysteriously executed in downtown Paramaribo, the capital, in a matter of weeks. No one has ever been arrested and/or charged for his execution.

So even as former President Bouterse appeared in court on Monday of this week to appeal a 2019, 20-year jail sentence for the murders of 15 government opponents of his coup in late 1982, an already traumatized and weary nation could be getting ready to deal with another massacre from the past—from the period when the military believed that it could have successfully run the country. Democracy returned to the country at the turn of the 1990s and Bouterse was fired as military chief shortly thereafter, turning his energies into full-time politics. He made it to two terms as elected president before losing to the current governing coalition three years ago.

A court which is hearing his case for the 1982 mass murders is expected to render its verdict later this year after hearing the final set of arguments from the defense and prosecution this week. On Monday, Irwin Kanhai, Bouterse’s attorney, made no case submissions to the panel of judges telling the court that “I demand an acquittal and I maintain that my clients are innocent.”  Bouterse has consistently denied ordering the executions but has accepted collective responsibility as the head of government at the time.

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