Home Special Reports Iwawa: Rwanda’s rehab turns criminals into role models

Iwawa: Rwanda’s rehab turns criminals into role models

by Didier Bikorimana
10:07 am

In 2012, Marcel Sikubwabo, 24, who lives in Butare town, Southern Rwanda, had been addicted to drugs and alcohol.

He had become violent and a threat to his family and neighbours. For years, Sikubwabo would arrive home late night while drunk or intoxicated by drugs.

His family and neighbours couldn’t bear the menace. They decided to report the matter to Police.

Early morning, 4am, in November 2012, as Sikubwabo was asleep, three police officers arrived at his home and arrested him.

He was briefly detained at a rehab center for minors who have been exposed to different ills such drug addiction, a ten-minute drive away from his home.

Three days later, Sikubwabo and other 130 young men were loaded onto two trucks and driven off for three hours to Lake Kivu in Western Rwanda.

They were loaded into a boat en route to Iwawa – a 141 hectares island 27km into Rwanda’s biggest lake.

They were welcomed by a concrete wall, in front of an arch-like gate, with a message in capital letters, ‘Iwawa Rehabilitation and Vocational Skills Development Centre.’

Iwawa is circular, surrounded in great part with another much bigger island called Idjwi, which stretches into DR Congo.

Enclosed are classrooms, a medical center with a psychiatric department, dormitories, a soccer pitch, volleyball, and basketball courts, and other facilities.

A generator is switched on at 6:30pm to light the place and switched off at 10pm after everybody is in bed, under a mosquito net.

The rocky island is covered by mango, orange and guava, and eucalyptus trees. And the beautiful flowers make the place too attractive, as the cool breeze, even amid scorching sunshine, blows through the surrounding sugar cane and banana plantations.

Except for sporadic early morning cicada noise and songbirds, the sleep on Iwawa island feels like being on a boat, parked close to the shores of a lake, with soft, constant waves hitting the shores.

This is the home to 1,988 young men, some of whom are drug addicts, street children and beggars, and petty criminals, all above 18 years.

Those receiving a six-month intensive psychiatric care – the freshmen – are called ‘the resilient’, after which they change the name into ‘the youth’ and then follow a six-month trade.

Apart from being rehabilitated, both ‘the resilient’ and ‘the youth’ acquire technical skills in masonry, carpentry, tailoring, motorcycle driving, commercial farming, computer and entrepreneurship skills.

Certificates offered are recognized by the ministry of education.

A long view of the 141 ha Rehab Island. Its 27Km into Rwanda's largest Lake Kivu.

A long view of the 141 ha Rehab Island. Its 27Km into Rwanda’s largest Lake Kivu.

Life in “isolation”

Meanwhile, on arrival on the island, Sikubwabo is shocked and fearful. Everything is new; the faces, the environment, the food – everything. He is wondering what is next and doesn’t know when he would get back home.

“Once you are at the center, there is no contact with family members, no listening to the radio, and no making phone calls. It is total isolation”, says Sikubwabo.

Today, officials say some of these things have since changed, saying there is now a monthly visit by parents or guardians of the young men at the center.

“But I later noticed that our trainers at Iwawa were not ill-intentioned,” he says. “One of our slogans was, ‘A very bright future’”.

A new life

Sikubwabo would stay on the island for twelve months. After completing his program, late November 2013, he was reintegrated back into his family. He is an incredibly changed man, humble and focused.

Dressed in blue jeans, brown stylish shoes, a black, short-sleeved shirt, and a cap perched on his head, Sikubwabo is fixing cables of a minibus’ windshield wiper.

He is a mechanic at a popular garage in his hometown. He has joined half a dozen other mechanics, busy repairing and washing cars. On average, he earns Rwf5,000 (about $7) a day.

“Iwawa has changed me”, he says. “I used to spend all my money on alcohol, and the following day I often would not show up for work”, says Sikubwabo.

He works for eight hours every day except on Sunday, from 9am to 4pm.

Sikubwabo, who trained as a mechanic at high school, used to work at this same garage before. After training in construction at Iwawa, he decided to remain a mechanic.

Marcel Sikubwabo is now a car mechanic in Butare. He completed a rehabilitation program November 2013.

Marcel Sikubwabo is now a car mechanic in Butare. He completed a rehabilitation program November 2013.

Samuel Niyonzima, 20, works with Sikubwabo. He agrees Sikubwabo’s behavior has improved. “He used to be a trouble-maker, but there is no problem with him now,” says Niyonzima.

Marcel Kalisa, 30, is Sikubwabo’s neighbor, and was part of Sikubwabo’s group of about 1,000 members. A former drug addict and alcoholic, Kalisa is now articulate and confidently enjoys eye contact.

While at the center, Kalisa spent the first six months learning how to read and write, later acquiring basic construction skills, now helping him earn Rwf3,000 ($4) a day, as a part-time casual laborer at major construction sites in town.

He plans to save part of his wage and invest in buying his own construction tools.

“I leant how to work hard”, says Kalisa, a man who was regarded as idle by his neighbours, now spending days without being seen. “They are always asking, ‘Kalisa, where have you been these days?’” he says.

Parents beg Police

Unaware of what happens at the center, the public at first criticized the government for establishing the center. The center had been branded a torture center and others equated it to the US’s Guantanamo or Alcatraz.

Yet, according to the Rwanda National Police, some parents, in recent years, have been requesting to send their children to the center for rehabilitation.

“We have been receiving phone calls from parents and guardians,” says Rwanda’s former Police Spokesperson Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Damas Gatare.

“I don’t think a parent would like a child to be taken to a prison”, he says.

“Iwawa is not a prison,” Gatare says. “Those who say it’s a prison, are those who don’t know the benefits of the center”, says ACP Gatare.

The center, running on a Rwf1b ($1.5m) annual budget, has graduated over 4500 students in six intakes since the center was created in 2010, currently accommodates only men, but the government says a center for women will be established mid 2015.

Meanwhile at Iwawa, over 100 freshmen, dressed in sportswear, jog chanting while others are busy cleaning, farming, and working in different workshops.

“They are from drills”, says 35-year-old Nicolas Niyongabo, the coordinator of the center, a ‘civilian’. “The military takes care of the drills”, says Niyongabo.

“We are a multidisciplinary team, and our stakeholders include the ministry of defense”, he says.

Sylvestre, also a ‘civilian’ member of the 60-staff, says the center was actually a military barracks before the center began. “It is a strategic point. It is on the border”, Niyongabo says, justifying some military presence on the island.

“It is a rehab center, but follows military discipline”, says another staff.

Either way, Jean Claude Micomyiza, 28, soon graduating, is happy he will leave the island a changed man, just like Sikubwabo. “I will not take drugs anymore”, says Micomyiza.


By: Didier Bikorimana

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