Interview with Portia Karegeya on the death of her father Patrick Karegeya
By: Jennifer Fierberg
In the wake of extreme tragedy is one rarely able to articulate their emotions let alone answer questions about the loss that has torn through their family. Patrick Karegeya, former head spy chief for President Paul Kagame and founding member of the Rwandan opposition group the Rwanda National Congress was found strangled in a hotel room in South Africa on New Year’s Day 2014. A tie back from the hotel curtains and a bloody towel were found in the hotel safe. His murder remains under investigation by the South African police and the family states that the police are making strides in solving the case. It is a complicated manner because Karegeya’s close friend and political comrade also faced a similar situation but survived the attempt on his life and his case remains before the court.
Portia Karegeya, only daughter to Patrick Karegeya, agreed to sit down for an interview with this writer about her father, and how the family is coping with this devastating loss. Miss Karegeya is an extremely intelligent young woman who is highly educated and well spoken. This interview was not easy for her due to the subject matter but she agreed to it and stated that she found the process cathartic. Her mother also read through and approved of the final draft.
JF: First, let me please express my deepest condolences to you and your family for the tragic loss of your father. His death affected so many people the world over and he is greatly missed. Where were you when you heard about the murder of your father and who contacted you?
PK: I was in Montreal in my apartment. I called my cousin at around 13:35/45 because he had started a chat group with the WhatsApp app with all the family members except dad and it was entitled “Loss.” I think he was just trying to tell us all at the same time but I didn’t wait I immediately phoned and forced him to say the words. So in answer to your question technically no one contacted me, I called my cousin.
JF: When was your last contact with your father and, if you wish, what did you discuss?
PK: My last contact with him was on the 30th of December at 15:35 and the call lasted exactly 18 minutes and 42 seconds, I know this because Skype keeps very specific call logs. We talked about nothing and everything. We laughed about mini-skirt banning in Uganda and the Irony of Schumacher being in a coma because of a Ski accident of all things. Then we made big plans for 2014. We actually said, this year will be the year of the Karegeya’s and that we would be reunited again at some point and he said he was going to work hard and I said I would get a good job and our goal was to be there for my brother Richard’s High School Graduation. Also, and in retrospect quite hauntingly, I had asked him what he had been up to and he said he had come from diner with a guy from Kigali, whom I now know was Apollo Kirisisi. I made a joke in Kinyarwanda asking, “You really still trust those guys” meaning random Rwandans in general and he just said, “argh…I know...but sometime you have to.” I really wish he hadn’t but that’s who he was, if you were his friend that was it, he didn’t question it until given a reason to do so. It’s unfortunate that the reason not to trust this guy came in the form of murder.
JF: Losing your father at such a young age, or any age, is horrible. What gets you through your darkest hours?
PK: In a word – gratitude. I almost wish I could invent a new word, a new adjective that could somehow describe the depth and the quiet and subtle almost secret yet visibly enormous love that my father and I shared. I know for a fact that that kind of love between father and daughter is rare. He just loved me so much, and we were so so close and we just shared that special kind of father daughter bond that can be seen but can’t really be explained. I shone so brightly in his eyes and he in mine. So what gets me through it is reminding myself as often as I can, even though it breaks my heart that he is no longer here, that I’m so lucky I got to have him at all, and not just in a peripheral way but as my father. I didn’t even really have to share him I got to be his onlydaughter. He was so many things, to so many people, but before anything, he was my dad, and man was he good at his job! 24 years I got to have him, that is so much more that a lot of girls get, and sometimes they get that and more but it’s a relationship full of strife and all sorts of issues. It can be a relationship that’s burdensome but it was never this for me. It’s probably the most successful relationship I’ll ever have with any man ever. This has to be the most longwinded answer to a simple question…
JF: The last time you hit the public radar of Rwandan issues was when you were stranded in Uganda after President Kagame cancelled your passport. How were you able to finally leave the country and how long did it take?
PK: It took just under 3 months. A lot of politicking when into it from very high up offices. I don’t want to name the good people that helped me as I wouldn’t want them to be in trouble because of me as the final leg of my exit was shrouded in much secrecy. In the end, it was decided that a passport for me could be issued and I was able to apply for my Canadian study visa and leave.
However, I have no problem saying that after I had been detained at the airport for over 10 hours I was taken to see the Chief of Police Major General Kale Kayihura (a former colleague and ‘friend’ of my father’s actually) in the hope that he might be able to help. I sat in front of him my face swollen from all the crying and when I asked why this was happening he looked me right in the eye and said “I’m told you travel around doing your father’s work, and what is more I’m also told that you abuse the president on Facebook.” At that point, it was all I could do not to laugh, I asked if he was sincerely telling me that my big crime and the reason that Uganda (whom neither I nor my father have any issues with) was confiscating my passport was because I wrote a ‘facebookstatus’ about Kagame? Then he told me “You know these things, are complicated and circumstances are difficult” I honestly didn’t even know what to think after that. Later another government official who really helped me told me he was sorry, that this was all politics and that I had been ‘collateral damage.’ I’m telling you this just to give you some context about what it’s like to be on the RPF hit list, no slight against Kagame is too small to go unnoticed and whatever means are available to hurt his ‘enemies’ – torture of innocent ‘enemy’ children included – will be used. (I just want to add a disclaimer, I’m not actually comparing what happened to me to actual physical torture that many people go through, it’s just an imagery thing)
JF: There has been some talk about you going into politics to follow in the footsteps of your father. Is this accurate and what do you hope to accomplish in the political arena? What role do you see yourself playing?
PK: I don’t know where all this talk is coming from. I am 100% not an aspiring politician at all. I’m an aspiring human rights advocate, I’m happy to be outspoken at some point in the future about that, maybe even specifically about human rights abuses in Rwanda but I do not aspire to be the future former head of external intelligence.
JF: There are many differing narratives about what your father did and did not do when he worked for Kagame in Rwanda. What is your understanding about his time in the RPF and did he ever discuss it?
PK: He did not discuss his job day to day with us; we were all under the age of 15 the first time he was arrested and suffice it to say we knew little to nothing about the goings on in government. After he got of out of his first detainment, he opened up about his differences with the regime, or more specifically Kagame. What I know is that he tendered his resignation and ask to return to civilian life in 2000 just after a little under five years of service because he disagreed with the way things were going, (I can go into detail about specific issues he had but I don’t know how appropriate it is for me to discuss such things) he was refused leave to resign initially under the guise of the fact that there were no suitable replacements and that he would need to spend sometime training another person. He was then effectively relieved of his job as the head of external security in 2003. He was sent to study some military classes in the Ruhengeri province, which he once described to me as effectively asking a PhD Student to attend high school for a refresher course. Then in 2004, he was officially demoted to army spokesperson until his eventual detainment in early 2005. I also know that he found out that he would be detained before it happened and he could have fled but he chose not to. He said that he didn’t leave because he didn’t want to leave room for the accusations against him to be legitimized in anyway, he wanted them to be seen for the falsities that they were and still are I suppose.
JF: What are you doing now? Are you in college and if so what are you studying? Do you also work and if so what do you do?
PK: I just completed my Masters in Law and I am planning to write to the New York bar and look for employment. In the meantime I have a part-time job as an English teacher.
JF: I know you are one of three siblings. How are your brothers coping with the loss of your father? Do you see each other often?
PK: My brothers, to my surprise (older sibling superiority complex) have been astoundingly strong and of good spirit in spite of it all. I dare say they’ve grown into inspiring young men. Unfortunately, under the circumstances we had not seen each other in 3 years until the funeral. Hopefully, things will change for the better in the coming years and we can reunite more often. However, Skype has been a wonderful tool in helping us still feel close so although it sounds terrible not to have seen each other in so long, it has been only a physical distance, we are constantly in each others’ lives.
JF: At the funeral for your father, your mother had strong words for any of Kagame’s spies that might be attending. What did she say and how is she coping with this loss?
PK: She said, ‘shame on you, you should be embarrassed’ because they have failed in their endeavour to break our spirit, and they will continue to fail because they perpetrate only evil. My mother, at least to me, is miraculous, she is just inexplicably strong, she has been through so much but her faith carries her through and all this has done is make her more determined to prosper and continue the fight for freedom in my father’s stead.
JF: What is your belief about what happened to your father on that fateful night and has there been any new information in the investigation from South Africa? Have they kept you and your family updated?
PK: I don’t have any ‘belief’ per se, I just believe in the objective facts, he was lured to a hotel room by someone he believed to be a friend – Apollo Kirisisi – and there he was trapped and set upon by what has been confirmed as multiple and not just one individual, and those individuals then proceeded to strangle him to death.
JF: Many believe President Kagame is behind your father’s murder. Is that your belief as well?
PK: This isn’t my belief; this is something I have to say that I know to be profoundly true. I am well aware that for my safety and for the sake of political correctness I should probably be more ambivalent about this and equivocate quite a bit but my conscious won’t allow me to do it. Before Apollo, there were others who were sent to do the same and fortunately, they defected and opted not to do so. The truth of the matter is, in no uncertain terms, Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda is the person who sought after, orchestrated (along with his henchmen) and ordered the murder of my father. Furthermore, President Kagame, in subsequent comments on my father’s murder, has all but offered a tacit admission. My father isn’t even the first, he is just the most publicized so far, but there are a string of political killings that came before him, if anything as my mother likes to say by the grace of God he was given some ‘bonus’ years. However, should it make the pill harder for all to swallow, I’ll say that all the about is simply my ‘belief’ that I’m choosing to take as fact.
JF: What is the legacy that your father left you with, and what was his greatest piece of advice to you and your family?
PK: The legacy he has left us I would say is a good name, a name that will forever be synonymous with courage (isn’t it funny that the name almost sounds like it has the word courage in it), fearlessness in the face of adversity, generosity of spirit and a great love for people and especially family. The greatest advice he ever gave me was to be a useful human being, to never let anyone have dominion over my person and to make all my own decisions.
JF: How do you want the world to remember Patrick Karegeya?
PK: As a good man, a kind man, a man who was never intimidated by anyone or anything and who believed ferociously in everybody’s freedom to live the life that they want to live without hindrance or interference from any other person. Someone who was generous to a fault. He was the type of man that if someone came to rob him they would leave with his wallet and a friend.