Muhongerwa Jessica, left Rwanda in early 2014 to seek greener pastures. The single-mother of 3 daughters, at the time, after discussions with her sister who lives in Lukaya (central Uganda), sold her restaurant in Kayonza district at Rwf 3.5m ($3,500 today) and moved to Mbarara town. Within a few months, the bar which Muhongerwa operated had a steady clientele with good income.
By the time of her kidnapping on December 14, 2017, Muhongerwa says her business was worth at least Rwf 10m ($10,000). All was lost that day when 4 soldiers including a woman arrived at her bar around 10pm. They ordered her to remove the Sweater she had on top of the blouse and to blindfold herself with it. The captors spoke Swahili, which Muhongerwa knew very well as she was born in Tanzania.
After two weeks of unimaginable ordeal that included regular electrocution and being constantly hooded, Muhongerwa with 4 others were bundled into a van from a CMI facility and driven to Kagitumba border. Others were: Agasaro vanessa, Dina Kamikazi, Fred Turatsinze and Munyangaju Munyaneza Hubert.
The Rwandan side received them, and journalists were also waiting. From there, were taken to a shop to get basics like clothing and personal hygiene items, then headed to guest house in Remera to rest. “They told us we can eat or drink anything, but for me I went straight to sleep in my room because I was badly missing a bed after sleeping on tiled floor all those days,” said Muhongerwa with some laughter.
The next day, were transferred to hospital where all kinds of medical tests were conducted and treatments administered. Particularly for the women, The Chronicles corroborated the different narrations which show the authorities here believed they could have been sexually abused, and so needed more specialized interventions.
“Being stateless is very bad. I was feeling so good as our officials looked after us like children,” said Muhongerwa.
After a few days in hospital, were given “transport” and asked to go to families. Muhongerwa was already in contact with her close relatives in Kirehe district, eastern Rwanda bordering Tanzania. She travelled that day. From that first week, up to June 2019, Muhongerwa lived there, all the while looking for ways to restart her life.
Muhongerwa tells The Chronicles that after a year living with relatives, she learnt the Ministry of Local Government (MINALOC), through districts had programs that support vulnerable people. She took her chances. At MINALOC, Muhongerwa was referred to Rwamagana district which was constructing a model village in Nyakaliro sector.
Muhongerwa waited for about a year. She arrived in the new house on June 26, 2019 and since it was a life-changing moment. She speaks about it with a visible laughter: “Even if I sleep on an empty stomach, at least I know Rwanda cares about me. I have no words to express the feeling of owning a house when I was renting all these years of my adult time…”
A movie-like trip back to Uganda
Today she lives in a free 3-bedroom large house which is part of the Rwimbogo model village, located in Nyakaliro sector, situated in the rural part of Rwamagana district, about 2-hours drive from Kigali.
The remaining challenge Muhongerwa still faces is that the local administration promised to give her ownership documents for her house, which they have yet to fulfill. She is still hopeful, intending to use the house as collateral for a bank loan to start a business.
So how does the family of five survive since Muhongerwa doesn’t have a permanent job?
“It is tough,” she said. “However, the good thing is that the primary-secondary school you saw on the way here is completely free all through till S6. And the niece who lives with me is employed there. In addition, during COVID-19 lockdowns, we received food and other items.”
Muhongerwa was also loaned a plot of land around the village by the district, where she does small scale farming, growing mainly beans, cassava and potatoes. It is this combination of sources that keep the family fed. But for a woman who was used to holding significant sums of money from her bar business in Uganda, Muhongerwa is visibly struggling to come to terms with surviving on very little.
And what about the children, how did they come back from Uganda?
The feat Muhongerwa undertook to bring them is testament of how much risk a mother can be willing to take for her children. Muhongerwa, against the advice of everyone, decided to travel to Uganda to pick her children after four months in Kirehe district.
The trip is fit for a movie. It was a Friday. She boarded a bus late evening disguised as a Muslim woman. At Kagitumba one-stop border post, neither Rwandan or Ugandan officials noticed her. Muhongerwa travelled to her sister’s place in Lukaya which is dozens of kilometers along the Mbarara-Kampala highway. The next morning on Saturday, Muhongerwa went straight to the boarding school of her three daughters.
She narrated; “It was a weekend and I had not visited for long. I asked the school to let me take them for a weekend. They let me without any questions as they knew I was their mother. I think they believed I would eventually return them after the weekend, which is usually done by parents.”
Muhongerwa and the children stayed in doors at the sister’s home until return to Rwanda on Sunday night with the children.
She added: “How would you expect me to be here when my children are across the border. I was wondering to myself; what if they are kidnapped as well.”
House of only women
The moment Muhongerwa was safely in Rwanda, she tells The Chronicles, she pleaded with her sister who was still in Uganda to relocate back home. The entire family didn’t want her there. She complied.
Today, Muhongerwa’s lives with her daughters aged 13, 11, 9 and an older niece who works at the local school, a few meters from the model village. The two younger girls were at that school when we visited as it was school term.
How come it’s just a family of women, we joke, to which Muhongerwa responds amid laughter; “We are doing fine. Men cause a lot of stress.”
The eldest daughter recently passed primary level very well to go to S1, which the mother says is going to be a challenge as she was admitted to an expensive school in Bugesera district, a considerable distance far away. The mother has to start finding a way to keep the daughter in school.
Throughout Muhongerwa’s detention; her captors demanded she tells them if she was a soldier or policewoman, and why she came to Uganda. The contrary answers of saying she had only come for purely economic reasons were followed by being put in a pull of water as live electric wires were dipped in there.
The metallic chair in the interrogation room was also connected to electricity. The beatings didn’t seem to end, that Muhongerwa, who is brown, had turned black on many parts of her body.
But then, why do you think you were targeted of all people, we ask Muhongerwa. She says during the August 2017 presidential polls, like many Rwandans, she publicly wore T-shirts of President Kagame and even returned to vote from Kayonza in Rwanda. She suspects it was that public display of links to whatever was happening in Rwanda, that may have made Ugandan intelligence to track her.