When you ask Nelson Mugabo, 44, how is he doing, his response with a nod, is; “Ndaho bisanzwe” – literary meaning ‘I’m OK, nothing unusual’. But the father of six: 2 girls, 2 boys and 2 girls respectively, is anything but fine.
He was among the first Rwandan nationals arrested in the wave that hit the community back in early August 2017. By the day of his arrival with 8 others at Gatuna border post on January 8 last year around 1am, Mugabo had spent exactly 3 years in the dreaded Ugandan military intelligence detention facilities.
Mugabo spent at least four weeks on treatment at the Kanombe Military Hospital in Kigali due to the nature of his torture injuries. He moved to Tabagwe sector, Nyagatare district at the home of his mother. “I was in a very bad state that is why I decided to stay near her in case I was breathing my last,” he told us during interview in Tabagwe.
Mugabo was right to choose the mother’s home, because throughout the period he was missing, it is the elderly widow who took care of his 5 children and wife since their sole breadwinner was no more. The wife and children relocated from Rubavu district and some children were out of school. They are aged; 17, 14, 11, 8 and 5. Then recently, the family welcomed their last-born.
At the mother’s home is where Mugabo’s elder sister and two young brothers also lived. After a week, he found a house for rent a short distance from home, where he moved with wife and the five children. Mugabo received some funding on arrival from government, but appears adamant to say how much. He used some of that money to open a small shop selling consumer items like soap, salt and necessities needed in rural areas.
As the wife, who has yet to master speaking Kinyarwanda – mostly using Swahili, managed the shop, Mugabo began toiling; doing anything he could find including working at construction sites, to earn small wages.
With a combination of the COVID-19 national lockdowns that followed throughout last year, and uncertainty this year, Mugabo has turned from a successful jovial trader, to being extremely reserved. He has little to celebrate; except that he has been able to complete the 3-bedroom house he had been building even before his disappearance.
“The small financial support I received found a very long list of urgent needs including tuition for the children,” he said. “Every time I wonder to myself whether I will ever be at same level as my acquittances”.
Back in Uganda, Mugabo was dealing in men clothing and some items for women. He bought big quantities, which he resold in Rubavu, and mostly across in Goma, eastern DR Congo. It was good business.
But then how did Mugabo Nelson end up in Uganda, we ask.
Around late evening of August 17, 2017, Mugabo was in a motel room in Rubago, a suburb of Kampala. He had bought a bus ticket preparing to return to Rwanda that night.
Suddenly, heavily armed plain-cloth men with heads covered except small eye openings, stormed into his room. They also wore overcoats written on JATT, the Ugandan police notorious anti-terrorism unit.
One of them pointed a gun at him, as another shouted in Swahili; “Piga muginga,”, a common pronouncement in security circles literary meaning; ‘beat the fool’.
In ensuing seconds, the men fired eight bullets inside the room, in a possible attempt to kill him. None of the bullets hit him. Mugabo attempted to fight the men suspecting they were robbers who wanted his possessions; money, two phones, laptop, watch, shoes and clothes.
The men trampled on him, battering him with gun butts. One of the men had a brand-new gardenhoe stick (Umuhini w’Isuka). Subdued, they handcuffed and undressed him, leaving just the trouser on. The men used his Undershirt to blindfold him. All the while, Mugabo pleaded with them.
“I told them I’m a Rwandan trader with all necessary documents, and they were responding ‘that is actually why we are here’….,” Mugabo narrated to us. They drove for a long distance in the Toyota Noah up to Kigumba, a town in Kiryandongo district, more than 220km northwest of Kampala.
During the trip, the men used everything in their possession including a Hydraulic Car Jab (Ijeki). As they drove, the men kept repeating same question; ‘What mission do you have with Kayihura?’, referring to the embattled former Ugandan police chief Gen Kale Kayihura.
They reached a wildlife park, where they removed him from the car. Lifted the blindfold and that is how Mugabo noticed it was a park. They put him on firing squad. He asked to be allowed to pray. It is the one who appeared to be the leader of the captors that stopped them from executing Mugabo, telling his colleagues that the “bosses know we have him”. Mugabo would learn many weeks later that this particular officer was called Denis, attached to JATT.
They got back into the vehicle and drove for more kilometers. In the car, one said in Luganda language: “Oba tugende bwetutuka ku bridge tumuwe lift agende ewabwe.” – loosely translated as; “Maybe we drop him off at the bridge for a lift back to their origin.”
However, as they stopped on the bridge preparing to take Mugabo out, shot him and throw the body in the fast-moving river, two vehicles appeared. The lights of the vehicles disrupted the action. Mugabo was put back into the car and they drove off back to Kampala.
“God did not want me to die that day; that I know for sure. I had survived execution at the last second,” said Mugabo.
In comes Mugabo’s elderly mother
Later, in the months that followed, Mugabo learnt that the bridge where they stopped was on River Nile. The “lift” was meant to refer to dumping Mugabo’s body in the river to end up in Ethiopia, supposedly the origin for Tutsis. So, to the captors, it was like sending Mugabo, the Tutsi, back to his origin, Ethiopia. This notion is infamous with genocide ideologue Dr Leon Mugesera from a 1992 speech.
The next morning is when the van arrived at the final destination in Kampala. Mugabo says he heard the soldiers they found there retorting; “Did you slaughter a cow from the car?”, as Mugabo’s blood was all over the seats and he had wounds all over the body, particularly the head.
At this facility is when the interrogations and torture began. The wailing and groans were order of the day in the facility. In that facility, arrivals were tied on bars on the stairs to a Go-Down. Then hanging hands followed. Then waterboarding came.
There were Arab-like people in cells. For weeks and weeks, the route was the same. After 3 months, Rwandans began arriving. A lot happened to Mugabo, it cannot all be described here.
Months later, Mugabo had shared his home location with one of the Rwandans who found him in the CMI facility. After release, that Rwandan went looking for Mugabo’s mother in Tabagwe sector. It is then that the elderly woman began going regularly to Nyagatare district looking for news about her son.
At some point, a person telephoned Mugabo’s mother from across in Uganda from area bordering Tabagwe. The caller said he knew where Mugabo was, and needed Rwf 500,000 to get the mother the details. Mugabo’s mother sold a piece of land, and was about to pay the money. In our conversation, Mugabo’s mother tells us it was people from her church who discouraged her from paying the money. That is how far a desperate mother was willing to go.
Mugabo was deported following a high-profile ceremony at Kampala Serena Hotel. It was at the peak of Rwanda-Uganda talks that have since collapsed. He was brought to border together with Rene Rutagungira, Herman Nzeyimana, Etienne Nsanzabahizi, Emmanuel Rwamucyo, Augustin Rutayisire, Adrien Munyagabe, Gilbert Urayeneza and Jean-Claude Iyakaremye.
Back at the CMI facility, Mugabo remembers a man identified as “Yoweri”, who claimed to be son of President Yoweri Museveni, conceived during the bush war period of 1980-1986. The man said he was being incarcerated to eliminate him as the Museveni family saw him as a burden. “Yoweri” had rare details about the years he was looked after by Gen Salim Saleh Akandwanaho, the younger brother of President Museveni.
To date, Mugabo limps and has to walk with the aid of a walking stick. The damage to his thighs and other internal body organs could be permanent. He may have to keep taking different medicines for the rest of his life.
Augustin Rutayisire, whom we visited for this project, is also another reason Mugabo survived. They met at a CMI facility, but Rutayisire was charged in military court and remanded to Luzira Prison because it was determined he was a civilian. There, Rutayisire’s fate became public. It is from there that he and others jailed together shared information with people who visited about Mugabo and other Rwandans in CMI facilities.