Bernard Rwagasore, 42, and Jean damascene Baziruwiha, 47, went to Uganda last year looking for economic opportunity – as is often the case for citizens of East African Community partner states who frequently cross borders within the bloc.
Rwagasore would later find something to do as a school gardener in Wakiso District, while Baziruwiha started practicing fishing at a landing site on the shores of Lake Victoria – a popular destination for fishermen across the region.
Soon after, the two men also integrated in the local communities, becoming active members of a local church under the Pentecostal Church International of Uganda, or ADEPR-PCIU, birthed by the Association of Pentecostal Churches in Rwanda (ADEPR).
Little did they know that authorities would once pounce on them and throw them in jail because they were Rwandan.
They were arrested on the same day and held for months before they were eventually deported on Sunday.
Trouble started early this year, Baziruwiha told reporters on Tuesday, when some locals started harassing him just because he was Rwandan. This came amidst internal church wangles.
On the fateful day in late May as he returned home from work his phone rang and he casually answered only to learn that it was the area District Internal Security Officer (DISO) summoning him to his office.
He was bothered a little but shrugged it aside and started preparing to visit the office.
He had not thought that petty differences with some local members in his church would result into summons by a security officer. Nonetheless, the next morning he gathered church documents he considered relevant and reported to the DISO’s office.
He was going to clear his name or so he thought.
But once at the DISO office, he was surprised by the interrogation he was subjected to.
“He asked me, ‘who gave you permission to come and establish a church here?’. He also told me that his mission was to remove all Rwandans from the area. He then called a police officer to take me away.”
Baziruwiha and Rwagasore were led away and imprisoned.
The next day a police officer asked them: “So, you two are the intelligence people from Rwanda? You are the ones sent by your country to spy?”
The questions were unsettling.
But they naively thought that the saga was a mistake, or a sort of misunderstanding, and all would clear up with time. Later, while in prison, they interacted with two Rwandan women detained at the same facility and learnt that their church’s senior pastors had also been arrested and imprisoned in an unknown place.
“This information really got me scared. If our senior pastors could be arrested, I wondered, how about us ordinary folks? I was worried. We started praying,” Baziruwiha said.
They had heard tales of Rwandans disappearing but it had never crossed their mind that they too could one day be victims, they said.
Since 2017 hundreds of Rwandans have been arrested by Ugandan security agents, and subsequently held incommunicado and tortured. Many who have since been released have told of despicable treatment at the hands of individuals linked to the Ugandan military during their detention in ‘safe houses.’ So many more are still missing.
As a result, the Rwandan government in March issued an advisory against travel to Uganda.
All the while evidence has been piling showing Uganda’s involvement with anti-Rwanda plots, including overt support to dissident and armed groups such as RNC and FDLR, the offshoot of the forces that are largely blamed for the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi which claimed over a million lives.
Victims have also cited well known dissident Rwandan individuals in arbitrary arrests of Rwandans in Uganda, and threatening those arrested with torture or murder if they don’t accept to join rebellion against the Kigali government.
Rwanda says hundreds of its nationals have been arrested, held incommunicado in inhumane conditions, tortured and denied consular or family access, or irregularly deported.
Taken to court, in red uniform
Fortunately, Baziruwiha and Rwagasore were taken to court.
The judge kicked out the case saying only a higher court had the mandate to try their case given its gravity. They were returned to a jail where they found more than 40 other Rwandans who had, unlike the duo, never appeared before any judge despite having been jailed “for years.”
Prison wardens dressed them in red prison uniform – not the usual yellow uniform for ordinary prisoners. Red uniform, they later learnt, is for very dangerous criminals.
When they eventually returned to court, last month, Baziruwiha, “knowing how corrupt Ugandan judges can be”, told his colleague that they should try to bribe their way out of prison. A friend of theirs reached the judge and negotiated. The judge accepted UgShs1 million (around Rwf250, 000) and he changed the charge.
Subsequently, they were “found guilty of being Rwandans who were fishing illegally” in Uganda.
The judge ruled that they be taken back to the police for deportation back to Rwanda.
But the police officer who received them was taken aback by the court’s ruling. He vowed to have them re-arrested. A new charge sheet was quickly drawn up and the duo who “signed without reading or questioning anything” were returned to jail.
Fortunately, after spending an additional week in detention they were suddenly taken to an immigration department, from where they were given a meal and told to wait for deportation.
Unlike Rwagasore, Baziruwiha says he entered Uganda and stayed there legally.
The duo, however, said that despite the psychological torture endured during interrogation and throughout their incarceration they did not suffer the beatings and other forms of physical torture many other Rwandans endure at the hands of Uganda’s dreaded Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI).
Some of the torture victims who have since returned home have previously revealed that their tormentors often included operatives of Kayumba Nyamwasa’s RNC, a group created by Rwandan fugitives that’s linked to a spate of fatal grenade attacks in Kigali between 2010 and 2014.
A UN report of experts released December 2018 established that Kampala was a major source of new recruits for ‘P5’, a coalition that brings together different Rwandan rebel groups, including RNC and FDLR.
The armed groups maintain bases in eastern DR Congo, where an RNC base was recently overrun by Congolese forces, leaving scores of its fighters dead or captured, including key commanders.