Another week, another group of Rwandans relate tales of torture, and other forms of ill treatment in Ugandan jails.
It has become a well-practised routine. Rwandans in their ones or twos are either found unceremoniously deposited at the Rwanda-Uganda border in the dead of night, or they find their way across the border, looking much the worse for wear.
The now well prepared Rwanda immigration officials have only to take one look at the bedraggled, but apparently relieved figures to know their stories, many of which are similar.
The latest to be added to a long list of Rwandans swearing never to set foot in Uganda again, or at least until time blurs the memory, are twenty one year old Eriya Muha, and twenty-two year old Emmanuel Hitimana.
Three days ago, Muha crossed into Rwanda from Uganda, where he had been since January of this year. He is a labourer, an odd jobs man in his home of Rwimiyaga, near Nyagatare, in Eastern Rwanda. The area is close to the Uganda border, and it is common for young people especially, to crisscross the dividing line in such of what they judge to be more profitable work.
Muha had gone to Uganda in January of this year, to find work, after his bicycle he used for much of his work, was stolen. He had heard that there was money to be had in Uganda, and it didn’t take long to find work, in a banana plantation, on his arrival. But, he found the work too arduous, and the pay too poor. He stuck it out for seven months, and found other work, without difficulty. It is then that his troubles begun.
Within two weeks, he says, a police pickup truck, with about four policemen, accompanied by his previous employer, arrived where he was working, manacled him, and ordered him to get in the truck. The answer to why he was being detained, was a beating.
He was locked up in a tiny cell which, “wasn’t even fit for pigs” he says, “it was smelly, with two tiny windows, which barely let in any light.” He was locked in that room, sometimes night and day, without being let out.
“You would be in there, without even being letting out to go to the toilet. Sometimes, you would be obliged to urinate in there. You were given very little food, and you could go a day or two without even that. When it came, it wasn’t fully cooked, but, you were so hungry that you ate it. And you had to eat it very quickly, or they would come, and take it before you could finish it.”
“Then they would come and say, ‘is it still alive’, then they would be put in cuffs, and shout at you to run outside. Sometimes you would start to go the toilet, then a few seconds later, they would start beating, and kicking to get back, before you finished.”
His ordeal went on for around five days, when he was transferred to the larger Ntungamo Police station. There he found other prisoners, who included other Rwandans, who he says had been there for months at a time, and who also had no idea why they had been imprisoned. Conditions were much better than his first prison, but the brutality was the same. He could however at least go outside twice a day.
“When I arrived, they told me to look at a wall where sums of money were written, and asked me to show them which figure corresponded to the amount I had in my pocket. I told them I had none. This made them beat me quite severely, after which they locked me up with the other prisoners.”
The official reason for his arrest was that he was in Uganda illegally, but, his misfortune seems to have annoyed his first employer, who happened to be a local official, by leaving his employ.
The beating continued for perceived infractions, the most egregious of which it seems was to be Rwandan. His feet have yet to recover, and he experiences pain when he walks. He also learned the meaning of the rates written on the wall.
The more money you had, the more you were fed. If like him you didn’t have any money, food would be hard to come by. And even then, the Rwandans had to wait until the Ugandan prisoners had eaten, before they could have whatever was left.
The irony is that the first thing that happens to prisoners, after the almost obligatory beatings, is that their possession, including any they may have, is taken away from them.
Muha remained incarcerated for three months or so, months of beatings, and heavy work. This continued, until a senior police officer, came to see the prisoners. They were ordered to stand to attention in line, when he came. The officer went down the line asking each prisoner what their crime had been, occasionally granting release. He was a little surprised by Muha’s sentence, and ordered him released.
Free, or freer at the very least, but not knowing anybody, no money, his identity card and phone taken away from him by the police, Muha resolved to throw himself at his first employer’s mercy. The Police had demanded an equivalent of about ten dollars for the return of his identity card. He begged his first employer to advance him the money, and allow him to work it off. His employer agreed. With his identity secured, he worked only a few days longer, made his escape, and staggered into the arms of Rwanda Immigration Service.
Muha is lucky by comparison. There are over a thousand Rwandans in various prisons in Uganda. Some are in military detention centres, others, like Muha in police cells. Some have succumbed to ill treatment and died.
And he is luckier than twenty two year old Hitimana, whose right hand remains heavily bandaged, his protruding fingers swollen, as a result he says, of some kind of vice applied by two policemen at a time.
He had been in Uganda since 2017, invited by his older brother, who has lived in Uganda, in Ntungamo for over twenty years. His brother, who owns a small local shop was glad to have the help, and asked Hitimana to stay, and occasionally mind the shop.
But, a few months into his visit, Hitimana wanted to return home, but his brother was reluctant to let him go. It took an appeal to their mother for the older brother to relent, and give him enough money to return home.
At the border with Rwanda, he was picked by Uganda Police, he too for being in Uganda illegally, and like all the others, was deprived of his possessions, including any money he had.
The East African Community (EAC) guarantees free movement of people, and citizens of the EAC need only a national identity card, from their respective countries.
As you cross the border, you are given an additional piece of paper, hand written, and no bigger than a postage stamp. Hitimana had washed his piece of paper in his clothes, and without it, was deemed to be in Uganda illegally. He was taken straight to Ntungamo Police station, and to a local magistrate’s three days later, where he quickly accepted wrong doing.
He hoped that a show of contrition might earn him a reprieve, or at the very least, leniency. Instead, it earned him three months in jail, after which he was to be taken back to the border, where he had been picked up, and deported.
At the end of his three months however, rather than being deported, he was taken back to the Police station, where he was forced to work, cleaning, washing, and any other task his captors directed him to do. During that time, he saw many other Rwandans being deported, but he was kept captive.
Things got worse, when his captors said that Rwanda had shot at Ugandan drug smugglers, and he should be made to pay for what had been done to them. It was then he says, he was tortured, and his fingers all but broken. A few days after they had begun this torture, he says a new policeman he hadn’t seen before, came to talk to him. The Policeman was kind, and took him to hospital, where his fingers were bandaged. He also spoke Kinyarwanda. He then made him an offer.
“He said, ‘you are young and strong, why not join Kayumba [General Kayumba Nyamwasa] you would be well paid?’ I had heard a lot about Kayumba when I was at home, that he hated our country. It didn’t sound like something I wanted to do, and I told him, I really didn’t think I could manage it.”
The Policeman continued to be pleasant, and invited Hitimana to his home, where he pressed him again to join Kayumba’s forces. “They took me to his home, and we were chatting nicely. And he said, ‘look, I have some people going to join Kayumba, why don’t you go with them?’ I told him I didn’t think I could manage it, and in any case, I needed to get back to my mother. I lied to him that my mother was alone, and she needed me.”
Hitimana was sent back to the Police station, where his routine of unpaid work continued. He spent more time at the Police station than the three months he had spent in prison.
The pleasant Policeman, whom he identified as Byaruhanga continued to come and try to change his mind about joining Kayumba’s forces. Hitimana continued to protest that he could not. Byaruhanga then gave him some money to travel back to Rwanda, and his telephone number, telling to call if he ever changed his mind.