Three years after Fidel Gatsinzi, widely known in Rwanda as Mzee and Chairman, was left for dead, he is still battling complications from a 14-day ordeal in the custody of Ugandan intelligence services.
Kidnapped on the morning of December 9, 2017 by two men, both Rwandan dissidents from a hotel in Ntinda, an upscale suburb of the Ugandan capital Kampala, it marked the beginning of his test of hell. He was deported back to Rwanda on December 22 morning hours from Mbarara, in western Uganda.
The media and social media carried shocking images of the once jovial ‘Chairman’. His body was swollen, a clear manifestation of starvation. He couldn’t walk, and even sitting was marked with groans of pain. Gatsinzi’s condition caused outrage in Rwandan homes, offices and streets. On social media, some wondered why Ugandans live in peace here, while Rwandans cannot in Uganda.
This week, The Chronicles visited Mzee Gatsinzi at his home in Kanombe, a Kigali suburb. He was laying in the living room with a large recovering scar on his right knee. It was a result of a knee replacement surgery done last month on October 26. He had been enduring gruesome pain since deportation.
Today, Gatsinzi wears eye-glasses. Another of those emerging strange complications, doctors had to extract blood clots from his eyes.
So how did the clots end up there? Gatsinzi remembers that on the day of his kidnap, the second location he was transferred to was a Ugandan military intelligence CMI facility in Kitante, another Kampala suburb. There, a soldier changed his hood, covering him with one that had fresh blood on the inside. It had been used on another victim, perhaps dead by then.
Gatsinzi could feel the blood flowing down his head, some of it going into his eyes. He stayed with that hood – the blood eventually drying on him. Since he was put into Ice and a cold room in attempt to freeze him to death, the blood which entered his eyes clotted.
The effects began manifesting after he had left hospital in Kigali. The eyes couldn’t open fully and was seeing fuzzy images. In some situations, he could see static objects running towards him. Hard the doctors not identified the problem on time, they told him he could have gone blind completely.
On arrival, Gatsinzi was on extensive treatment for about four weeks. For months that followed he continued treatment, some of it still ongoing to date. Remember back in Uganda facility, he had spent two days with his body immersed in container of Ice and later in a freezing cold-room like one used to preserve free produce. As a consequence, his vital internal body organs were severely affected. The whole body was also paralyzed when he arrived in Rwanda.
From Kampala facilities, he was moved to Mbarara, 268.4 km westwards. In the notorious Uganda military barracks in Mbarara called Makenke, Gatsinzi spent 6 days there. The officer in charge ordered that he is not given food, drink or even the medication he had come with from Kampala facilities. Apart from saliva, nothing else was going down his stomach, and so nothing was being excreted. There is no doubt his kidneys were unsafe.
The consequences of the above, are what Gatsinzi lives with on a daily basis. He cannot spend many minutes standing, or walking, as the body is still weak.
But who is paying for all this unending, and certainly, expensive treatment?
Gatsinzi tells us there is no way he would have been able to get the level of treatment he has received to date. “That is why I will keep reminding you young people; that having a government that cares for its people, is incomparable. I keep repeating that to my children….,” he tells us before revealing that all his medical bills are being catered for by the state.
The knee surgery alone cost Rwf 5m ($5,000). The eye glasses he wears were also from the state. Gatsinzi’s case is no different. All those who have been deported have been treated at no personal cost.
That is not all; Gatsinzi’s emerging issues are not just physical, but psychological as well. He has to see a psychiatrist on regular basis to deal with constant hallucinations. When they start, he cannot sleep for days and has to take up medication to get back to normal.
“There are scenes in the detention facilities that have stack with me forever, they keep playing out in my head,” he said.
One of those scenes is images and videos of him that have been flooded online, and were widely broadcast on television stations, of the day he arrived in Rwanda on December 22, 2017. The images of Gatsinzi are still played as background information whenever more deportees arrive.
Because of the impact the images cause him, there was a suggestion by his children that a petition be filed with media organizations to stop using those images. They didn’t come through with the petition. Gatsinzi tells The Chronicles that if we used that image or video in this story, he and the family would have to let it pass without reading it.
Another scene that has traumatized him is when he and others were taken into a room where a new suspect had been brought in. The soldiers said that the suspect was Nixon Agasiirwe. Gatsinzi and others were made to watch as he was hanged upside down and the torture ensued. He was beaten so bad that mucus and blood were oozing out of his stomach and he fell unconscious, says Gatsinzi.
All the while, the soldiers were telling those looking on that they had better start talking, or else they were up next. “There are torture scenes you witness and that can be enough for you to die even after you are told to return home,” said Gatsinzi.
At that moment, up until after his return to Rwanda, Gatsinzi says he never knew Nixon Agasiirwe, and why the soldiers were intent on causing him as much damage as possible. Back in Rwanda, Gatsinzi began to see Nixon’s images on Ugandan media, and he was mentioned in every information by Gen Kale Kayihura, the embattled former Ugandan police chief.
Nixon Agasiirwe headed the police’s elite Special Operations Unit under Kayihura. He, with other police officers, were accused of a multitude of crimes including allegations that they aided in illegal transfer to Rwanda of dissidents. Bitter infighting within the Ugandan security establishment led to arrest of Gen Kayihura and all his alleged henchmen, including Nixon. Kayihura was arrested while Gatsinzi was in Rwanda, but Nixon had been arrested earlier in 2017 before Gatsinzi was kidnapped.
On arrival at the CMI Makindye facility, Gatsinzi sat there at the spot where a container with Ice was stationed. In it was a Ugandan man who was put there late evening. By 5am next morning, soldiers checked and found he had frozen to death. Gatsinzi was inserted in it next. He knew that was it; death. That scene will remain engrained in his memory.
Today, Mzee Gatsinzi says his family and overwhelming support from ordinary Rwandans he meets who saw him on TV and in online images, is the reason he has stayed strong. Before kidnap, Gatsinzi was a common face at traditional bride giveaways due to his mastery of traditional norms. He resumed doing that, but to very few of them as he is still weak.
Mzee Gatsinzi is a proud father of a son, followed up by three daughters, all grown up. Their mother passed on years ago. Two of the older daughters are married. He has grandchildren.
Gatsinzi has businesses in Rwanda, which were also operating from Uganda. He is also a respected figure in Rwandan official circles here.
Brigadier Charles Asiimwe popularly known as CK
On the day Gatsinzi was kidnapped, the son managed to sneak out of Uganda that night together with a cousin sister who left her marriage in Uganda. Due to state sponsored anti-Rwandan propaganda, Gatsinzi and most of the family members who were living in Uganda had all decided to relocate but were prevented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The trip from which he was kidnapped, Gatsinzi had gone to visit the son at Uganda Christian University in Mukono, located about 1-hour drive east of Kampala.
Gatsinzi was picked by agents of dissident group, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) and Ugandan intelligence operatives. Two Rwandans, Kayumba Rugema and a one Mukombozi were in charge. Blindfolded, they took everything from Gatsinzi. At either Mbuya military barracks, CMI Makindye HQ or Mbarara military barracks, RNC operatives were there as he was tortured, telling him he would be slaughtered unless he confessed to espionage.
There was even an unforgettable encounter that Gatsinzi had with Brigadier Charles Asiimwe popularly known as CK, the CMI deputy chief. Gatsinzi narrated what happened: “I was hooded but knew he was there before me. I asked him; ‘I was born here and raise in this country – Is this the NRM that I knew? It is no different from State Research of [former president] Idi Amin’…CK wondered why I was saying that. I continued that; ‘Before I became RPF cadre, I was NRM cadre and attended Kyankwanzi. I can assure you that if NRM continues like this, then you are finished.’…”
That statement by Gatsinzi opened another round of torture as CK unleashed his huge and muscular bodyguard.
Looking back for past three years, Gatsinzi has been able to explain why his torturers made sure he didn’t die. Because of the publicized nature of his kidnap and public pressure from Rwandan government, it saved him. That began to make sense after deportation.
For example, he says, while other inmates were left to freeze to death in the Cold-room and Ice, he was put there for a few minutes and removed. He was also given medication in Kampala, before it was taken away in Mbarara.
The week that Gatsinzi spent at Makenke barracks without any food or drink, is also making sense today. “Looking back, I think they knew I was going home because of pressure from Rwanda, so they starved me to make sure I die in Rwanda…”
The ordeal of Mzee Chairman Fidel Gatsinzi cannot be completed here; there is simply too much to narrate. As we prepared to say goodbye, he gave indication that as his health improves, he plans to write a book.