Muhero and Rusisiro swamps that straddle Gahara and Nyamugali sectors in Kirehe District on the border between Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi look like deserted rice fields.
Located 42 kilometers off Cyunuzi trading centre along Ngoma-Rusumo border highway, the swamps and a river offer a perfect haven for drug traffickers.
As the old adage goes, ‘If you’re to jump a swamp, you need to make one long hurdle’ drug traffickers endure a 40-minute trek through the swamps from the neighbouring countries, carrying sacks of cannabis, especially in wee hours.
It’s a story shared by residents, former drug dealers, and commercial motorcyclists that used to transport the self-proclaimed ‘kings of the swamp’.
Over the past six months alone, more than one tonne of cannabis were seized in Kirehe, one of the districts known to be major transit routes for drug dealers.
Almost all the cannabis, that has since been disposed of was trafficked through these swamps, says Chief Inspector of Police Eria Bugingo, the District Police Commander of Kirehe.
One of the former drug dealers, Alphonse Muhirwa, says: “We used to move in numbers and, in most cases, under the cover of night along with collaborators to alert us of the whereabouts of security personnel”.
Muhirwa has since abandoned the illegal undertaking and ventured into business in Cyunuzi, where he runs a retail shop.
“It’s a journey of enormous risk. The swamps are home to countless deadly animals, including snakes,” Muhirwa says.
Another commercial motorcyclist, Shaban Habyarimana, 40, knows all the maneuvers of drug traffickers in this border area and is familiar with all the footpaths in the swamps.
“Most of the cannabis come from commune Ruzo in Giteranyo province of Burundi, and from Tanzania, especially in Gisebura and its trafficked through Mitako along the banks of River Kagera near Nyamugari sector (in Rwanda),” narrates Habyarimana.
On visiting the bank of the Gahara and Nyamugali swamps you will find makeshift bridges constructed by traffickers to facilitate cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians to cross the small rivers at the border.
There are also reports that some drug traffickers enjoy the protection of grassroots leaders in the area, but CIP Bugingo, who confirmed these reports, said that implicated local leaders were arrested.
Crackdown on dealers
“The first approach in dealing with the problem was to map-out the routes, right from the illegal borders, through Kirehe and to neighbouring districts like Ngoma and Rwamagana, but also identifying the dealers,” says the DPC.
“This was fairly possible because of increased awareness and partnership with local leaders and the people, which eased flow of information. Because of this partnership, we have seen a tremendous reduction in the rate of trafficking, especially that most of those known to be in this criminal business have been arrested,” the DPC added.
Last month, only 90kg of cannabis were intercepted in Kirehe. This was unusual because previously thousands of kilogrammes would be seized in just a month.
In the last five years, Police recorded 18,383 cases related to narcotic drugs. Last year alone, Police recorded about 4470 cases constituting 18 per cent of all crimes registered during the year.
More than 4100 drug dealers, 3600 of them males, were also arrested last year with those aged between 18 and 35 years accounting for 71 per cent. At least 48 drug dealers arrested last year were aged below 18 years, according to the Police.
In December last year, Rwanda National Police (RNP), alongside the ministries of Health, Local Government, and Youth, launched a countrywide campaign against narcotic drugs, a move aimed at both breaking the chains of supply and to destroy the local market.
So far, narcotic drugs valued at over Rwf150 million, were seized and destroyed between November last year and January this year in Burera and Rubavu districts, the other major transit routes for illicit drugs, where the joint campaign has been held.
In last December, about 160 drug dealers were arrested in Burera alone.
During the campaign in Rubavu, a female drug dealer, who was arrested in the area, shocked people when she explained how she would swim across Lake Kivu with bags of cannabis from DR Congo. She had been doing this for a year.
Some drug traffickers wrap them around their bodies, others starch them in luggage, pumpkins and bicycle tyres, some women carry them at their backs as babies, while others put them in veils. Others hire vehicles and motorcycles to ferry them at night.
Health, economic implications
While appearing on a talk-show recently, the Minister for Health, Dr Diane Gashumba, said that some cases of heart, liver, kidney and mental problems have been attributed to abuse of narcotic drugs.
According to records from the National Rehabilitation Service (NRS), the Government spends more than Rwf800 million every year (about Rwf70 million a month) on rehabilitation programmes at Iwawa Rehabilitation and Vocational Skills Development Centre (IRVSDC) to rehabilitate over 3800 drug addicts at the facility.
The rehabilitation is conducted in two phases; first six months of psychological and health rehabilitation, and another six months for vocational training.
According to Aime Bosenibamwe, the coordinator of NRS, the Government is looking at “mass rehabilitation” of addicts as one of the effective ways to support efforts to kill the illicit drugs market.
“The political approach now is to invest more in rehabilitation. If the Police and other organs are working to break chains of supply it is also imperative to rehabilitate those affected and work together to ensure that there are no new consumers, and this is why the Government is upgrading Gitagata rehabilitation centre and constructing another rehabilitation centre in Nyamagabe District,” said Bosenibamwe.
Gitagata is being upgraded to increase its capacity to 1000, up from the current 400. The facelift is also meant to create wards for addicted girls aged below 18 years, and female addicts aged between 18 and 35.
Nyamagabe rehabilitation centre, that will be built at a tune of Rwf3 billion, will have the capacity to accommodate 2000 people, once completed. It will host male juveniles as well as drug addicts who are aged between 18 and 35 years.
Since 2012, about 12,228 addicted youth aged between 18 and 35, have been rehabilitated and equipped with vocational skills, with about 90 per cent of them now completely healed and engaged in income-generating activities, officials say. A total of 989 others graduated from Iwawa in various vocational fields early this month.
Domestic, cross-border efforts
According to the Minister for Youth, Rosemary Mbabazi, illicit drugs significantly undermine youth development in various aspects, including education, and expose them to health risks.
The majority of those in rehabilitation centres are said to be school dropouts or in the age bracket of those supposed to be in school or part of the labour force.
“The youth are at the centre of the national transformation, but they are hampered by drug abuse. As a ministry, we extend special skills and rehab services to those affected,” said Minister Mbabazi.
According to the minister, the Government also came up with a guarantee and grant scheme that help the youth in general to start self-help projects.
“Through the Youth Connekt programme, we also award best 30 youth innovations every year. In the coming months, we will also start a talent search and development programme right from the sector to the national level.
“All these programmes are meant to divert the minds of the youth away from drug abuse and other vices, develop their skills and turn them into entrepreneurs,” she said.
Meanwhile, Rwanda National Police says that massive awareness campaigns backed by continuous operations will help bring to book drug dealers, break supply chains, and facilitate national rehabilitation programmes to bear fruit.
“We have mapped out major routes used by traffickers and the public have started to own this battle by reporting dealers. The (Police) canine unit is also being effective in searches and tracking stores of dealers, the marine unit operations in water bodies is also playing a major role,” Police spokesperson CP Theos Badege said.
He added: “We are also working with our sister law-enforcement agencies in neighbouring countries, like Tanzania, to destroy cannabis farms and conduct joint operations.”
Joint marine operations between RNP and Tanzania Police Force are conducted in River Kagera.
“We are also working with other players like faith-based organisations, owners of hospitality facilities, local leaders and youth groups, including former drug dealers,” said CP Badege.
Harsher punishment in the pipeline
Meanwhile, increased awareness and operations seem to be yielding fruit. In Kigali, for example, consumers say there is a scarcity with the price of a pellet, that previously went for between Rwf100 and Rwf300, shooting up to between Rwf500 and Rwf700.
Furthermore, authorities are moving to revise the laws to devise more severe punishments. The Law Reform Commission is revising the law related to narcotic drugs with view to increase the penalty for trafficking or dealing in narcotic drugs from the current five-year maximum sentence to between 20 years and life sentence.