Jean Berchmans Uwingenzi, 37, who hails from Rutsiro District, in Western Province, was relieved to return home last week after months of incarceration in neighbouring Uganda but he is far from a happy man.
People he believes work with or for Kayumba Nyamwasa, a Rwandan fugitive who lives in South Africa, and is the leader of a new rebel group known as “P5”, tried to recruit him but he refused.
The P5 coalition operates in DR Congo’s South Kivu province, according to a UN report.
It also has extensive active networks in Uganda, according to accounts by Uwingenzi and other deportees.
Uwingenzi went to Uganda, in May last year after he got a job there – in Kabale town, in southwestern Uganda.
Months later, he decided he could earn a better salary when self-employed. So, he quit his job and end last year, he relocated his small family to Kisoro district – also in south western Uganda – and set up his own small chapatti and samosa business.
Things worked out and he settled in. But at the beginning of May, this year, the father of one, decided to take a break and return home for a while.
He boarded a Rwanda bound bus along with his wife and five-year-old son.
When the bus arrived at the border, he bumped into a former secondary schoolmate from Rubavu District who, surprisingly, is now – given the uniform he wore and the conversation they had – is serving in a Ugandan paramilitary force.
Uwingenzi recalls they had been schoolmates with this man from around 2004 to 2005.
“We talked, and he told me that they are well catered for. He encouraged me to come and join them but I was unwilling. I told him that let me first get home in Rwanda and I will respond later when I return,” Uwingenzi told reporters on Monday.
About five minutes after they parted ways with his old schoolmate, Ugandan police officers arrested him and his wife. Both were handcuffed and led to separate places.
Since then Uwingenzi has not seen his wife and son.
“I was taken to the police station in Kisoro but my wife and child stayed behind. I don’t know where they were taken.”
Five days after his arrest, he was, like many others before him, taken to court and charged with being in Uganda illegally yet the police officers who arrested him had confiscated all evidence of his legal stay in the country and his money and personal belongings.
In court, he pleaded innocent. He told the court how police officers took his papers. The court ruled that he goes back and report there after two weeks. This regular reporting to court [after two weeks] would be repeated several times afterwards while he stayed in prison being tortured every day, “until, after four months I was told to go home.”
Uwingenzi, among others, finds it difficult to seat up properly because of the beatings he received. Some Rwandans have died as a consequence of torture in Uganda.
While in prison, he said, authorities brought in a visiting team from the UN.
Ask for refugee status
Inmates from Rwanda were told to ask for refugee status in Uganda. This, Uwingenzi and the others, refused much to the annoyance of prison authorities.
When the UN team left the prison, the Rwandans faced the wrath of the prison authorities.
“Later the prison boss asked for me to be sent to him. I was beaten up. Then he told me that I should have accepted a refugee status and not ashamed him in the presence of visitors. So, I was beaten again until they got tired. I was threatened not to tell the judge about it because, they said, if I did I would be transferred to Kiburara prison for harsher labour. So, I kept quiet. But I suffered gravely because that is how I developed painful sores on my behind and can’t seat easily.”
He was eventually released on the evening of September 4, last week.
But, the next day, prison wardens ordered him to go and work in the prison’s Irish potato farm. This took him by surprise.
When he asked why this was happening yet he had been set free, they told him that that is how it works if he wants to ever go back home. He would first pass time working in the field.
He resigned to his fate. He actually thought he would never see home again.
After a long day in the field, he heard a voice calling somewhere behind him; “pastor!” a nickname people called him years back, in Rubavu where he used to work. He turned only to see three young men.
He instantly recognised two of them. One was a student and the other a commercial motorcyclist in Rubavu town, way back. The third, he did not know but he could tell they were all Rwandans and had just arrived at the prison grounds.
“I approached them and they asked me ‘so, how are things here at Kayumba’s?’ This astonished me but I composed myself. I wondered how this could be Kayumba’s place but I pretended I’d heard nothing. I, instead, inquired about them and when they had arrived there.”
“They told me that they had just arrived. They said, ‘we thought we had come to join the army but now it seems we are going to spend the day planting Irish potatoes.’ They said they arrived in the morning.”
Their conversation, however, did not last long.
A police officer who was watching over Uwingenzi put a stop to it and ordered him to continue his day’s assignment.
“I resumed my work but kept glancing at the trio. I saw a man approach them. I recognised him instantly as Vincent, a man who used to come to a restaurant in Gisenyi near a place where I used to work. The man was wearing military trousers, a white Lacoste t-shirt, and carrying a walkie-talkie. He talked to them for a while and then approached me.
“He is called Vincent but there [in Uganda] they call him Amos. He too recognised me. So we talked, at length, and he asked me how I got where I was and all that. He told me, ‘you shouldn’t go back to Rwanda because you will be arrested.’ I told him that I will go, come what may, because what I had gone through in Uganda was enough.”
The man called Vincent tried to sway Uwingenzi, ceaselessly, but the latter was determined to go home.
“In the end, he said ‘listen, let me give you an assignment, when you get back home, instead of dying of hunger, get us soldiers [recruits].’ He pointed at the three young men and told me, ‘even those boys are here through that mission and, the person who sent them was paid. We pay between UgShs65,000 (about Rwf16,000) and UgShs130,000.”
UgShs130,000, Uwingenzi was told, is paid for a recruit who is a former soldier.
“He explained all these things and then gave me a number I could use to contact him so that I link him up with them [potential recruits] or inform him if I find any.
I was also given another number of his senior. The senior officer actually arrived shortly after being called and wrote down his number himself.”
Later on, Uwingenzi got chance to again talk to the three young men. He wanted to try and ask who exactly had sent them to Uganda “and in the process of them trying to describe the person, I realised that it was actually a young man we had earlier been imprisoned together with.”
Uwingenzi recalled that the young man in question had mysteriously been bailed out after two Rwandan men came to court as his sureties.
“I don’t know him but we were all surprised when he got bail and left after a short time in prison. We were shocked. He got out after two weeks yet we had been in for two months.”
After another day planting potatoes, Uwingenzi was then driven to the Rwandan border, but he was convinced something was not right.
‘RNC’s operations in Uganda obvious’
Uwingenzi strongly believes that what he witnessed in Kisoro was part of a bigger RNC operation in Uganda.
“RNC’s operation in Uganda is obvious; you detect it in the manner in which they separately talk to every Rwandan in jail, seeking information and recruits. I believe that even among those deported from Uganda there are some who return but keep it a secret yet they met with Ugandan soldiers and others.
“I noticed that there are Rwandans who suddenly appear in prison on charges of lack of travel papers but after a week or so, you see them leaving. But earlier when they arrived you could find them asking fellow Rwandans about our lives, and asking questions such as ‘wouldn’t it be good to join Kayumba’s army?’ and so on.”
The manner in which such people would later be exonerated and set free, he said, was also suspect.
“These people were actually sent in, as fellow Rwandans, to get information from us. And the Government there, clearly, has a role in all this. Others are sent in to simply frighten us; for example, there were those telling us that nobody is going to Rwanda any longer. They told us that whoever crosses into Rwanda is killed.”
In March, Kigali issued an advisory against travel to Uganda citing continued harassment, illegal arrests, torture and irregular deportations of Rwandan nationals in Uganda; Kampala’s active support to dissident and terrorist groups bent on destabilising Rwanda, and economic sabotage.