When travel documents were hell

The comfortable cushion of the bus made it as comfortable as a home. The booming music blender made it even more enjoyable. The semi-tinted windows gave a picture of leisure and indeed the people seemed laid back.

The comfortable cushion of the bus made it as comfortable as a home. The booming music blender made it even more enjoyable. The semi-tinted windows gave a picture of leisure and indeed the people seemed laid back.

The description may confuse someone into thinking it’s a house, but this is an Atraco bus, headed to Kibuye (Karongi) in the Western Province of Rwanda.

As it moves swiftly with no trouble on the tarmac runway, passengers are caught up in a conversation; a heartfelt conversation that had affected their lives greatly. A tale of a tortured past that made them dwell in invisible handcuffs for so long.

“It’s too good to believe, traveling to Kigali and back to Kibuye on the same day! Surely I had longed for this,” said Deodone Ndayizeye.

All Ndayizeye’s prayers towards 1994 were directed to having a good highway like that for Gisenyi.

“I can’t stop recalling all the troubles we went through, requesting the former government to construct our road, though the endeavors always came back empty and unanswered,” said Obedi Muhire.

According to Muhire, whenever a government official visited Kibuye, requesting for a highway had become a song. Only a two and a half hour journey would take close to 7 hours then.

As the passengers continue expressing their grief and expressing the hell they went through in order to travel, I discover that only travel documents would bail them out. Travel documents to travel within the country!

Liberation to Rwanda means a lot and it reddened Rwanda of very many invisible chains. Among these chains were the travel documents and the terrible procedure of securing them.

People grew up barely knowing any other part of the country apart from their own home areas just because they would never secure the ‘golden document.’

“Travel documents were important in a way that the national identity card never really counted,” said Theresa Muhayinka, a genocide survivor residing in Gishyita (Karongi district).

The terrible Procedure of securing a travel document

As she narrates, it’s evident that Theresa was totally fedup and affected by the procedure.
“It all started by visiting the ‘commune’ where application forms were offered,”Muhayinka explained. These forms had questions on a person’s identity.

Full names, place of residence, where they intended to go, the reasons for their travel and finally their ethnicity!
“The ethnicity was the central reason for accepting or denying one’s travel,” explained Muhayinka.

Queues would parade at the commune offices waiting for travel documents in vain. People would miss weddings, relatives’ last funeral rites and all important moments in their family lives just because they would never secure the ‘travel document.’

“Especially in early 1993, no Tusti would travel because they would always dub us traitors who were going to meet rebel groups,” says Ponsiane Mirindi.

His was a tough ordeal when he failed to pay last respects to his mother because he was denied a travel document. Being a resident of Bugesera, he started on the long procedure of purchasing a travel document after knowing that his mother was ill.

“I decided to do it earlier because I knew it wasn’t an easy task,” says Mirindi.
A fortnight after, his mother passed on before Mirindi got the travel document!

The place destined for someone’s journey would also forbid them from securing a travel document! Amongst the estimated 10% Tusti, many resided in the Western Province.

This made a travel document to the Western province extremely hard to get and those who were lucky to get one couldn’t be so lucky with the roadblocks!
“On several occasions, the Tutsi would be stopped at the roadblock. They would be told to go back home,” say Mirindi.

Roadblocks that were all over the country would do their hindrance job quite well. To ensure that people stayed in their respective home areas, car number plates were different!

Vehicle number plates started with initials depending on the Prefectures {provinces} they were from. For instance Gisenyi begun with G and then digits followed.

Though a travel document only went for Rwf100 in 1993, traveling was never a risk to take. For people who would survive the roadblocks, they wouldn’t survive the through examination at their destination.

“Relatives had to present the visitor at the Local council Chairman, who would decide whether the visitor should stay and for how many days the stay would take,” says Mirindi.
Then, visiting Kigali was like going to heaven. People would offer bribes just to go to Kigali.

Though some of the roads were pathetic, people ended up wishing to travel on the wretched roads than stay home helpless about the whole traveling situation.

Compared to today where it’s every Rwandan’s right to travel all over the country without a travel document, it’s really a dream come true to many.

“I would give everything to remain with the freedom to travel. To me liberation refers to this,” says Ndayizeye.

“Growing up without knowing surrounding areas also made Rwandans vulnerable when the genocide happened. We barely knew even the nearest neighborhood and had no contacts,” he adds.