One family’s agony as they search for ‘abducted’ relative in Uganda

A middle-aged Rwandan woman and her son recount the ordeal while in Kampala as they searched for a family member who went missing in the neighboring country late last year.
Marguerite Mukanyarwaya with her son Damascene Muhawenimana speaking to journalists yesterday. Emmanuel Kwizera

A middle-aged Rwandan woman and her son on Friday recounted the ordeal while in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, as they searched for a family member who went missing in the neighbouring country late last year.

Damascene Muhawenimana, 37, along with his mother, Marguerite Mukanyarwaya, 58, an evangelist, both from Nyamasheke District, last November embarked on the trip to Kampala.

They hurriedly embarked on the trip to Kampala after Muhawenimana’s younger brother, Bernard Kwizera, unusually went off grid for over a month.

His phones were off and the family was afraid for him.

On November 15 last year, Muhawenimana said, they boarded a late evening bus to Kampala.

It was one full month since the family had last heard from Kwizera, 30, who operated a phone repair shop in the Uganda capital and was doing fairly well in his business, according to the family.

In the recent past, a number of Rwandan nationals have been picked up in different parts of Uganda, detained and tortured, by Ugandan security agencies. Some have been lucky as they were eventually deported.

But others have not been lucky and are still missing. 

“When we last talked, he [Kwizera] had called me. The only conversation we had was him saying, ‘Damascene, I am in trouble,’ before the phone went dead,” Muhawenimana recalled.

“We couldn’t reach him anymore. All his other lines were off. The entire family was bothered.”

They traveled by bus at night and arrived in Kampala in the morning and immediately boarded bodabodas [motorcycle taxis] and headed to a Kampala suburb called Ggaba, where the brother lived.

On arrival, the first people they talked to had not heard from or seen Kwizera in a while.

But a young man who worked with Kwizera put them in touch with a bodaboda operator who claimed he knew where he was being detained. The knowledge that their relative was in detention troubled them but it brought some relief.

The man then directed them to a police station called Kajjansi – also in Kampala, where “police officers first confused us and told us that he was not there.”

By evening, the weary duo gave up but later as the mother decided to go and find a place to rest for the night, the son wandered back to town to make inquiries on any leads he could get.

Muhawenimana returned to the same police station early the next day, accompanied by a local who would help especially as an interpreter. He spent hours on end trying to inquire about his brother’s fate again, but all to no avail.

When they asked to meet the station’s commanding officer they were told to return at 5pm in the evening. That is what Muhawenimana did.

“About 20 minutes after we returned, I heard a vehicle stop just nearby where we were standing. When I turned to look, someone roughly put a bag on my head and put cuffs on my hands and legs. We were bundled into a vehicle, still blindfolded and driven away,” Muhawenimana said. 

Later, he realized that they were at a police station called Lubowa. Here, they spent “three dreadful days” undergoing harsh interrogation and torture meted on him and other Rwandans he found there.

When his mother – who, luckily, was not detained, and other well-wishers, visited the station to inquire about them, Muhawenimana said, they were quickly moved to another location he was later to be told was a facility belonging to Uganda’s Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) in the city.

Rwandans in CMI? 

“Here we were tortured badly. I was beaten and asked so many questions about Rwanda, the police, army and the government. I told them that Rwanda is peaceful and people are okay. But they told me this is not right. I was beaten whenever I said anything good about my country.”

“My interrogators spoke good Kinyarwanda; just the way I do. We were harassed and tortured by Rwandans at CMI, that I am sure. They accused me of being a Rwandan spy. They just didn’t want to hear my story and the fact that I had come to search for my lost brother.”

Muhawenimana said he was asked endless questions and tortured for nearly two months.

And he was not alone.

He recalls an old man who had been beaten to the extent that the skin and fresh on his buttocks peeled off. “We saw this whenever we were allowed to go and clean up. He was in utter pain.”

Muhawenimana said he was lucky to only be beaten up with sticks.

Other detainees, he said, all Rwandan nationals, were beaten using electric cables with live wires.

One other prisoner he managed to know is a young man who told him his name is Ivan Rugemamanzi.

It is only by God’s grace, he says, that he was able to get out, two months later, after being moved from Kireka police station and back to Kajjansi.

CMI, RNC links

During captivity, Muhawenimana said that from what he saw and heard, he has no doubts about a close link between Uganda’s CMI and the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an exile-based terrorist outfit, started by Rwandan fugitives.

“These are Rwandans working with CMI. What really irked and puzzled me was; are these Rwandans the ones using CMI or it is the other way round?”

Muhawenimana returned to Rwanda last week.

He was lucky, but his brother is still missing.

Earlier, on the day he and some others were set free on police bond and asked to report after a month.

“When I got out, however, others told me that if I dared report back to police, I would disappear for good. I called back home, and then advised to contact our embassy in Kampala. The embassy welcomed me and helped me. That very day, I was fed and then decided to find my way to the bus park. I was not allowed to leave the city but I decided to move.”

Unscrupulous individuals

Earlier, when he left Rwanda, he had Rwf506, 000 but this, along with his personal briefs was confiscated and never returned.

Unlike Muhawenimana who had to endure two months of detention and torture, his mother said that a week after spending sleepless nights in Kampala and after losing lots of money, and two sons, she returned home.

But among others, she has not forgotten what she went through with a Rwandan identified as Kavamahanga, who now resides in Uganda, who tricked them into believing that he would help them but only defrauded them, among others.

The man, she says, was a pastor – just like herself – in Rwanda before he relocated to Uganda and has, apparently joined the ranks of RNC and other anti-Kigali movements.

Mukanyarwaya said she spent Rwf800,000 in the search of her sons, to no avail.

She spent a week in Kampala and returned home apprehensive and frustrated.

She said that when Kwizera was first arrested last year, she had actually been in Uganda to visit him and do evangelism work. She claimed that her son was taken because Ugandan security operatives wanted his car.

“My son had a new car he bought at s80 million Ugandan shillings. By the time I last visited him, they were after it,” she said.  

She added: “What I witnessed all the time I travelled to Uganda is that our country is hated out there. Then there is Kavamahanga, a man who I now strongly believe is operating with those bad people against his country. This is a man who had tried to be an evangelist here in Rwanda but people never liked him and he took off to Uganda.”

“Kavamahanga now spends his time talking ill about Rwanda.”