When Albert Imanizabayo, 27, a resident of Kagugu Sector in Burera District, traveled to Uganda’s Kisoro District a year ago, he had no idea that just being Rwandan would land him in jail from where he would endure gruesome torture for a year.
Located in Northern Province, Burera District, which is Imanizabayo’s home district, shares a common border with Kisoro District on the Ugandan side and for many years, border communities have customarily criss-crossed borders without much ado.
Before his ill-fated trip, Imanizabayo worked as a hairdresser in Bunagana, a small border town on the DR Congo-Uganda border, which is not far from the Rwandan border.
On August 11, 2018 it was his day off.
It is then that he crossed the border to do some shopping in a market in Kisoro, and later on his return trip, something weird happened. Plain clothed men arrested him.
Initially, he was dumbfounded but somehow kept thinking it was a prank of sorts.
His crime, as he was informed, was that his temporary movement pass had expired and he was in Uganda illegally.
However, soon he realized he was actually in trouble. Things moved fast and two days later, he was a prisoner.
“My jeton [a pass that permits entry into a neighbouring country for a day or two, or no more than a week] was still valid. But, right away, these people took me to a police station. They accused me of being in the country without travelling documents. A few days later, on August 13, I was taken to court. Court handed me a year’s jail sentence and I was taken to the prison in Kisoro,” he told reporters in Kigali on Monday.
Two day later, he was moved more than 80 kilometeres away, to another prison in Kabale District where he spent three weeks before again being moved even further to Kihihi – northwest of Kabale – in Kanungu District also in Southwestern Uganda.
It was in the prison in Kihihi that he suffered gruesome torture, he said, noting that prisoners where constantly beaten while they worked hours on end tilling the ground, cutting and carrying heavy logs.
“One day, about 40 of us were forced to dig a vast area of more than 10 hectares. We were always being beaten.”
His worst memory, he recounted, was one day when he was forced to carry on his bare head a very heavy and hot saucepan.
Imanizabayo said: “They forced me to pick it right from the fire, carry it on my head to where other prisoners were in the field some good distance away from the kitchen. It was heavy with food …and I tried to cover on my head but this was of no use as the pain was agonizing.
“I knew I would face it worse if I fell and the kaunga [maize meal] poured because the beatings I would get would be worse. So I suffered all the way till I got it off my head but a bad wound quickly developed and it did not heal for long,” he added, touching slowly healing bruises on the top of his head.
“This wound did not really stop paining me for six months. Instead of giving me proper medication all they gave me was tablets to press and smear on it but the wound just deteriorated and I had a rot on my head.”
Carrying the burning saucepan was not the only form of torture, he said.
The prisoners there – about 40 of them being Rwandan nationals facing similar charges – endured endless hard labour.
In July this year, he was taken back to Kisoro where, after a month, he was set free.
Imanizabayo was deported on Saturday, a very broken man; unable to perceive that things will get better.
“Now, what also hurt me much again is that when I was set to be released, they took me to Kisoro prison and there I was asked for money so that they bring me home to Rwanda,” he said, indicating he was told to pay UgShs20,000.
In Kisoro prison, he recalls, there were about 50 other Rwandans.
“In Kabale, however, there are more than 100 Rwandans.”
For more than a year now, things have not been well with Rwanda and Uganda and many Rwandans have suffered as a result.
Like hundreds other Rwandans, Imanizabayo’s bad luck came about because relations between the two countries worsened with Kampala now reportedly supporting anti-Kigali armed groups, including RNC and FDLR.
Despite an agreement signed between the heads of state of Rwanda and Uganda last week with commitment to normalize relations by hundreds of Rwandan citizens in Ugandan jails.
Recently, the State Minister for East African Affair, Olivier Nduhungirehe said that Rwanda was much committed to normalize ties but would only lift a travel advisory against Rwandans going to Uganda once all those in jail are freed.
The travel advisory which was announced in March this year by the Minister Foreign Affairs was prompted by the arbitrary arrest of Rwandans by Ugandan security operatives.
At the time, the minister said that government was not left with any option but advising citizens against unessential travel to the neighbouring country because their security could not be guaranteed.