Exclusive 5 June, by Judi Rever
Attacks are fuelling anxiety ahead of a global edict for Rwandan refugees to return home.
In the months leading up to his murder, Rwandan journalist Charles Ingabire lived in a state of constant fear. The outspoken critic of Rwanda fled to neighboring Uganda in 2007 but remained a target of death threats because of his dissident views. “He’d received so many warnings to stop writing about the Rwandan government,” said Godwin Agaba, a Rwandan journalist who had dinner with Ingabire the night he was killed. “He really feared for his life,” said Agaba, who was forced to flee Uganda immediately after the assassination of his friend.
In September 2011, unidentified assailants beat Ingabire, stole his computer and warned him to shut down his online website, Inyenyeri News, which fiercely criticized President Paul Kagame’s regime. But the 32-year-old journalist didn’t listen; he continued to work.
On November 30, at a bar in the Kampala suburb of Bukesa, Ingabire was shot twice in the chest. Police discovered five casings of a submachine gun at the scene.
Less than four weeks later, Jerome Ndagijimana, a member of the opposition United Democratic Forces of Rwanda who had just been granted refugee status, was found in a pool of blood, his throat slit, at a store he worked at in Kampala. In his claim for political asylum, Ndagijimana, a Tutsi, said he’d survived previous assassination attempts in his homeland for refusing to cooperate with Rwandan officials attempting to falsely incriminate innocent Hutus in Kacyiru, where he was district counselor.
Ugandan officials announced investigations into both killings, but so far no one has been charged and the murderers remain at large. Such brazen attacks came as no surprise to Rwandans in exile, but provided chilling reminders that Uganda is hardly a safe perch from which to criticize the Rwandan government or defend the rights of refugees.
In fact, since the 1994 genocide, Uganda has given Rwanda free reign to track down, abduct and execute Rwandan political opponents, both Hutu and Tutsi, often with the collaboration of Ugandan police and military, according to refugee advocates and observers.
Although relations between the two countries turned sour from 1999 until 2006, Rwandan intelligence continued to harass refugees in Uganda. Amid renewed ties, threats against Rwandans in exile have reached a new scale. “Diplomatic relations between Uganda and Rwanda improved in the past two years and this has been problematic for Rwandans fleeing their country of origin because Kampala is now replete with Rwandan security agents,” said Tom Rhodes, East Africa consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The latest reported victim of Rwanda’s reach is Oliver Sebakara, a 34-year-old Hutu and university graduate who fled the country in 2005 and went to live in the sprawling refugee settlement in Nakivale, some 200 kilometres southwest of Kampala. In interviews with this journalist, three separate witnesses said on March 16, Sebakara was beaten with electric batons at a bar in Mbarara, some 30 kilometres from Nakivale, where he was drinking with friends. The attackers, dressed in plain clothes, were armed with pistols and warned Sebakara’s friends and wife not to intervene. The victim was then put into a vehicle that headed to Kampala. His wife hasn’t seen him since. His wife said Sebakara had previously worked in intelligence for the Rwandan government, and “was being followed by officials of that government.” She added: “This is about Rwandan politics.”
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said police were looking into the reported abduction. “What I am able to confirm from our own follow-up is that the police in Mbarara have affirmed the reporting of an abduction of Oliver Sebakara by his wife. An investigation by the local police is underway and a file has been opened,” said the UNHCR’s external relations officer, Lucy Claire Beck.
Meanwhile, a prominent refugee activist who recently fled Nakivale for the United States said he believed Sebakara was “a Rwandan target because he was active in defending refugee rights.”
Manzi Mutuyimana, who has fended off several assassination attempts by Kigali, has long been persecuted for speaking out against the Rwandan regime. In July 1994, Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Army murdered 18 of Manzi’s family members at the Karubanda School for Social Workers in Butare, according to Human Rights Watch. Among the victims executed were Manzi’s 79-year-old grandfather and his baby cousin, who was 17 months old.
Manzi said more recently he and Sebakara worked together in Uganda trying to mobilize refugees against a controversial measure known as the cessation clause, which is due to take effect on June 30 and will likely force thousands of Rwandan refugees who fled their country between 1959 and 1998 to return home.
United Nations offices in Africa have endorsed the clause on the grounds that Rwanda has demonstrated measurable political and economic stability since the genocide. But the UN’s Geneva office has patently rejected the idea of handing over Rwandan refugees in Europe to an oppressive state. Canada and the United States have not formally announced their respective policies on the matter.
The governments of Uganda, Zambia and Tanzania are eager to get rid of Rwandans they host. Uganda — which is home to at least 16,500 Rwandan refugees and another 11,500 Rwandan asylum seekers, the vast majority of them ethnic Hutus — has already attempted to repatriate many, but the hundreds who did go home returned immediately with graphic accounts of their experiences.
Amid the spectre of a violent return to Rwanda, refugee leaders have argued that repatriation should be strictly voluntary because most refugees have well founded fears of being persecuted back home.
The latest abduction of a refugee in southwestern Uganda is merely one in a spree of menacing incidents that should be a warning to policy makers who fawn over the economic progress in post-genocide Rwanda and believe that Hutus would be better off in their homeland instead of languishing in camps. It also throws into stark relief the extent to which the United Nations, at the behest of Kigali, has poorly calculated the consequences of turning refugees over to a country in which fundamental freedoms are at risk, restoration of land and property rights is unlikely, and access to free and fair trials is virtually impossible.
Morover, refugee advocates say Sebakara’s fate highlights the disturbing use of Ugandan territory as a deadly playground for Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front. “The context (for his disappearance) is the fact that Kagame used to be head of Uganda’s security. Tutsis who were refugees in Uganda can enter and exit and run around Uganda as though they’re Ugandans,” said Barbara Harrell-Bond, a refugee advocate and founder of the Refugees Studies Centre at Oxford University. “So there is a constant threat of abduction and killing of Hutu refugees in Uganda. I constantly get emails from Rwandans who are hiding in some village. It’s ubiquitous,” she said, pointing out that Tutsis such as Ingabire who have fallen out with Kagame are also at risk.
“Of course the Ugandan police and Ugandan security are often cooperative, like individuals who are old friends,” said Harrell-Bond, who has done extensive research in Uganda and is co-director of Fahamu Refugee Programme, which provides information to those who provide legal aid to refugees.
Harrell-Bond and her colleagues have gone head-to-head with Ugandan authorities over their treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
Uganda categorically dismisses charges of such complicity and maintains that Rwandan refugees are not under threat on its territory. “These are lies,” said Douglas Asiimwe, a senior protection office who works for Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister’s Directorate of Refugees and Disaster Management, when questioned about abductions, disappearances and assassinations. “There was the case of Ingabire, but I’ve not heard of any other case,” he insisted. Asiimwe said he not aware of the latest abduction in Mbarara and doubted whether the witnesses’ accounts were even true. “No refugee has disappeared as far as I know,” he said. “I was (recently) in Mbarara. I was in the camps. I hadn’t heard anywhere, there or at the police station, that anyone had disappeared.”
But Asiimwe’s quick assertion that refugees are safe in Uganda belies the reality on the ground, according to a series of emails sent by refugee leaders to Ugandan officials and UNHCR staff.
Emails exchanged show refugee leaders and advocates repeatedly requesting protection for Rwandans threatened by suspected security agents. Among the cases brought to the attention of authorities were a number of arrests and disappearances, including the murders of Godroi Ndayambaje in July 2009, of Jean-Marie Hategekimana in February 2010 and of Joseph Karushya, a refugee who was abducted in July 2010 and later found dead in the Nile River.
Despite a temporary fallout over lucrative resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda have restored bilateral, brotherly ties. But the cozy relationship has imperiled Rwandan refugees seeking protection. On July 14, 2010, Ugandan police entered Nakivale and Kyaka refugee settlements, luring 1,700 refugees and asylum seekers with promises of food. With the help of the Rwandan military, they surrounded the refugees and forced them onto trucks heading to Rwanda. The UNHCR, the media and human rights organizations reported that two refugees jumped to their deaths, 25 people were injured and many children were separated from their parents.
The refugees did their own investigation into the incident and found that 14 people died in the operation, one of whom was strangled, three who were shot dead by police, two who were trampled, three who died of beatings, three who jumped off the truck, along with one woman who was ‘disenwombed’ and a man whose genitals were amputated by barbed wire. The refugees published the names of the victims and said their burial places could be accounted for.
Incredibly, when pressed about this incident, Uganda’s Commissioner for Refugees David Kazungu denied that refugees were forcefully returned. “That is utter rubbish and false. It is not true. Nobody died and nobody was forcefully returned,” Kazungu insisted.
“And as of today, not even the UNHCR has come to give us information indicating that people have been abducted,” Kazungu said. “There are no abductions or disappearances of refugees. The isolated cases that appear, we handle them accordingly.”
Meanwhile, the UNHCR expressed confidence in Uganda’s ability to protect refugees on its territory, while admitting that ‘some high profile Rwandans’ had problems. "We have a few individuals who have individual concerns," said Esther Kiragu, the UNHCR’s senior protection officer in Kampala. “But generally for most Rwandans, Uganda is really not an unsafe place. The government of Uganda does take its responsibility of protecting people seriously," she added.
Kiragu said since she arrived in Uganda early 2012, she hasn’t heard of any cases of coercion against refugees returning to Rwanda, and expected any future repatriation to proceed without violence. “You always have to be on guard but I don’t foresee any force being used at all,” she said.
She also emphasized that UN staff handling reintegration of returnees in Rwanda had informed her that conditions were safe. “This is what our office there that deals with reintegration tells us. And we have no reason not to believe them.”
While the United Nations stands by its claim that Rwanda is a safe country for refugees who fled before 1998, some would disagree. “Rwandans who died in waves of RPF violence from 1990 onward weren’t just community leaders; the majority of them were simple peasants,” Eugene Ndahayo, a member of the opposition United Democratic Forces. “Because Rwanda is a dictatorship, nobody can move. So in absolute terms, in the eyes of the international community, there is political stability. But that’s because everyone has shut up and can’t do anything. That’s why Rwanda gives off the image of being politically stable,” Ndahayo said from his base in France. “There’s no political instability in North Korea either.”
Perhaps most striking is the overwhelming opposition among refugees to the cessation clause, despite the security problems they already face in Uganda. Refugee advocates say that more than 90 percent of refugees who have been briefed on the matter do not want to return home.
And some, if not many, are caught on a perilous journey between two dangers.
A refugee whose wife and children were killed in June 1994 by RPA soldiers in the eastern Rwandan prefecture of Kibungo tried to reclaim his home in the aftermath of the genocide but said he received death threats. In 2006 he fled to Uganda. The refugee in question also lost a brother in 2010 in joint attempts in Nakivale to violently force Rwandans onto trucks, and became a new target when he demanded answers as to why his brother died. “I am very afraid. I cannot repatriate to Rwanda because I am not safe there,” said the refugee. “But I am not safe in Uganda either. I need to go to another country or else I will die.”