On January 20, 2009, the entire world’s attention was on Washington D.C, the capital of the United States of America, where Barack Hussein Obama was about to be sworn in as the first black President of this great nation.
But for me, this moment, which has acquired the term ‘Obamania’ was nearly spoilt by flashbacks of events that happened far away from Washington, some 27 years ago, triggered by a short story, four paragraphs to be exact, in The New vision Online, headlined “Museveni pardons Rwakasisi.”
Chris Rwakasisi, for those who have never heard of this man, was the security minister in the Obote II administration between 1980 and 1985 in Uganda.
He was in charge of (or so I was told as a kid) a project that brought death and misery to thousands of Rwandans in Uganda then, and he has been languishing in Luzira prison on death row since 1988.
I thought he had been convicted for this terrible crime, only to learn from this story that he was actually done for ‘kidnapping with intent to murder.’
Flashback 1982, in Uganda, events unfolded that would change the course of my life, and that of many other Rwandans, for ever.
In the course of a month I cannot remember, in 1982 in my village of Bulemba near Mbarara, Western Uganda, things started happening that I did not understand as a child, but nonetheless seemed strange and unusual for a small village of cattle keepers.
With the benefit of hindsight, there was politics in the air, emanating from Bushenyi (the hotbed of Uganda People’s Congress-UPC) to Mbarara and from there through Kakoba, to the farmlands of Bulemba, Masha and others along that route, where Rwandese cattle keepers lived in harmony with their Ugandan cousins, the Bahima.
During that month, there were unusual comings and goings in our village; village chiefs (abaruka) were visiting on bicycles; our elders frequenting Mbarara town, beyond their usual bicycle-trips taking milk for sale in the town, and meetings were being held in our village and ‘pubs’ nearby.
That month, the elders gave orders that cows should stay near home, as opposed to the usual practice of going to graze farther afield and returning to their kraal in the evening.
So every afternoon, after the cows had had their lunch-time drink at River Lwizi, the elders would bring them near home, leave us the boys in charge and go to meetings in a nearby bar or under a tree.
I was one of the boys always left in charge of the herds, and by age eight I had mastered the art of cattle herding, including milking the cows.
One of our cows called ‘mucyo’ (light) that originated from Rwanda was so tall that, when I had to milk her, I did so sitting on a stool. Necessity is the mother of all inventions indeed!
Towards the end of that eventful month, news started filtering down to us kids, usually from our mothers or a sister close to mother, that Abanyarwanda (Rwandese) were about to be ‘chased’ (okubingwa) from the area to refugee camps, and some names in charge of that project started emerging: Obote, Rwakasisi, Rurangaranga and many more, down to the local chief, who if my memory serves me well, was Tinkamanyire. ‘Tinka’ as we used to call him, was supposed to be a friend of my family.
But Rwakasisi was the most enthusiastic of all and took on the role of executioner. Every one used to say Rwakasisi agambire…. (Rwakasisi has said….) and that sealed our fate.
Tension had been building against us since February 1981 when Museveni ‘went to the bush’ (okuza omukishaka); locals mentioned this casually without any explanation and I used to wonder what he had gone to do there, but no one believed it would come to this.
We had built a very close community of Rwandese in that area, about six or eight families altogether; we had a reputation of fiercely defending each other, and we always counted the Bahima as our allies, although rivalry existed between us over pasture.
We were harassed together after Museveni, whom other tribes used to call Omunyarwanda (Rwandese), went to the bush to wage war against the Obote regime, and we had stood together until things cooled down.
But on this occasion, our elders must have been shocked by the speed at which allies and friends deserted us. Apart from one ‘friend’ of my family who offered to keep all our belongings, including cows, so we could leave easily (okubabikira ebintu byanyu, haza mugyende gye), they all stood aside as Rwakasisi and his thugs tortured and drove us out of our lands.
After travelling days and nights, babies on their mothers’ backs (we even got a new addition to the family during this journey, when my uncle’s wife had a baby girl, under a tree), our earthily belongings on our heads and herding our animals (my family had politely declined that ‘friendly’ offer), crossing lots of natural hazards along the way, we reached Nakivale refugee settlement, and into a new way of life.
Here, our animals died in quick succession and soon we graduated from Impunzi z’Inka (‘refugees of the cows’ or cattle keeping refugees) to Impunzi z’Isuka (‘refugees of the hoe’ or cultivators), only that we had no hoe and no land to cultivate!
As the animals were dying of starvation and the locals and vultures ate meat to their fill, cholera was doing deadly harm among the humans.
Other Rwandans ended up at the Uganda-Rwanda border, where they were turned back by the Habyarimana regime, because “Rwanda was full.”
Two unexpected consequences came out of this misery, and I want Rwakasisi to know this as he lives out the rest of his life a free man; hardships forced us to focus on schooling (very late for me, obviously) and most importantly reaffirmed our sense of identity.
Thoughts that I was no less of a Ugandan because of my parents’ origin flew out of me never to return, and the longing for my homeland took over. Today I’m a proud citizen of Rwanda!
If anyone has been wondering why Rwandans today are developing their country at supersonic speed, here is your answer!
And like President Museveni has pardoned you, Mr Rwakasisi, I have also forgiven you.
Fire Community Safety Officer
Community Action Team
London Fire Brigade