December 23, 2021

Habibu Mudathiru’s Tears, Regrets and Message To His Children

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As time elapses, Maj (Rtd) Mudathiru Habibu’s memory of his past 51 years on earth, is fading. Since June 27, 2019 up until March 25 this year, the country was treated to images of a disoriented-looking man. He appeared on crutches with one leg heavily bandaged and carried by soldiers to and from court. This December 20, The Chronicles sat down with him for nearly three hours to try to piece together the journey of a man who fought in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. At some point, we spent about 10 minutes quietly looking on as he shed tears.

Habibu Mudathiru breaks down during our interview

We begin our interview by asking him to spell for us his exact name and age as the media has been giving different versions. It is spelt as: MUDATHIRU HABIBU, born 1970 in June from Uganda.

On June 27, 2019, an image surfaced on social media of Mudathiru. In rugged and filthy attire, he looked straight in the camera, indication of the shock that moment may have been for him. He had been captured in eastern DR Congo forests. Mudathiru’s right leg was bandaged up to his thigh. Initial reports said he had had many combatants, but about two dozen were captured as well, others killed in action. 

Another photo from that same day showed dead body of Capt (Rtd) Sibomana Charles alias Sibo, killed in same attack. Other photos were of combatants. Videos shared showed soldiers speaking Swahili with Congolese accent interrogating their latest prize.

Since then, there have been conflicting details as to what exactly transpired. The Chronicles now traces step-by-step journey of how Mudathiru and Sibo, both involved in the 1990-1994 liberation war, ended up in eastern Congo forests.

In early January 2013, Mudathiru, who had been in Army retirement since 2010, but was still attached to the Reserve Force, asked for permission to travel called “Movement Order”. It was granted to him. Mudathiru boarded a “Kampala Coach” bus bound for Uganda via Gatuna border. He went straight to Kasese district to his parents where he spent a week. He moved on to Kampala.

In Uganda’s capital, Mudathiru went to stay with some relatives. A few days later, he reported at Rwanda’s High Commission in Kampala, telling the Envoy and Second Secretary that he was reporting his presence in the country just in case anything happened to him. It is normal for Rwandans, like all other countries, to go to their embassy to say they are around. So that if anything happened to them, the embassy can intervene to help them.

Two months later, Mudathiru sent SMS message to his superiors at the Reserve Force back in Rwanda, telling them that he was in Uganda, and was not going to return. Mudathiru tells us he had about $1,000 (about Rwf 674,000 at the time, and Rwf1.1m today), which he had got from selling all household items back in Kanombe, where he stayed. Mudathiru rented a house in Kajjansi, along the Kampala-Entebbe road.   

Why did you leave Rwanda? We ask. Mudathiru stays silent for some minutes, seemingly ashamed to divulge the reason. We pushed him to tell us. “I had been sent to Darfur for peacekeeping from where I returned with a lot of money. But then I spent all of it on useless things and in no time the money was over. I confided in some people that I was going to leave the country,” said Mudathiru, and goes silent, holding back tears.   

The peacekeeping mission Mudathiru is referring to, is Sudan’s troubled region Darfur where Rwanda has been sending troops since 2004. The whole UN/African Union missioned ended December last year. The Rwandan troops went there on a one-year rotational basis.

Mudathiru declines to tell us the amount of money he had, simply smiling, indication he was visibly ashamed of that episode of his life. “I’m sorry for that till now. I feel ashamed to even speak about it,” he said, in mixture of perfect English and Kinyarwanda.

The phone calls to join RNC

Around September 2013, Mudathiru says he received a phone call from Major Robert Higiro, who told him he was calling from Belgium. Exiled Major Higiro is a key member of the Rwanda National Congress, a dissident formation. They were known to each from back in Rwanda, but Mudathiru tells us he doesn’t know how Higiro got his phone number. They discussed possibilities of Mudathiru obtaining UNHCR asylum and relocation to Europe or America. Higiro linked Mudathiru to a one Rasta, a Rwandan and they spoke Kinyarwanda, who, within no time, obtained UN asylum documents for Mudathiru. “It seems Rasta had been conducting such activities for a longtime. So, it was very easy after paying him some money,” said Mudathiru.

In October, after obtaining the UN document, Rasta linked Mudathiru to two men working in State House, the office of the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The men told him they were finalizing plans for him to join RNC. “I was hesitant to go along with their plans. I just wanted to go abroad and start a new life,” he said.

The first face to face meeting with the State House officials was in the morning, on a weekend. They left him there and returned late evening. However, minutes later, Ugandan police officers arrived and arrested Mudathiru. It appears, when he showed hesitancy to accept their proposal, the State House officials tipped off Uganda police. He was held at the Jinja Road Police Station, one of the key facilities in Kampala.

After about two weeks in the Jinja Road Police cell, officials from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), where the docket of refugees and asylum seekers is attached, came to see him. It was confirmed that Mudathiru had full UNHCR documents. The OPM officials took Mudathiru to Sky Hotel.

Habibu Mudathiru stresses a point during our interview

A month later, Mudathiru was relocated to Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement in Arua district, northern Uganda. We ask Mudathiru about exact location of Sky Hotel, which he doesn’t remember. However, we verified that Sky Hotel is located in Naalya, a Kampala suburb. It is a confidential transit hotel used by UNHCR and Uganda’s OPM for asylum seekers. Jailed Israeli-trained ex-Presidential Guard commando Lt Joel Mutabazi also stayed there with his family.

While in the camp, one of his new found neighbours offered him a small old model Ericsson phone. He began fitting into camp life. Months went by. His daughter and son usually came to visit from Rwanda. He had separated with his wife in 2000 so they only co-parented. Then the children relocated completely to the camp from Rwanda.

Mudathiru tells The Chronicles that Major Robert Higiro again telephoned, asking Mudathiru to find for him other “Demobs” (Rwandan demobilized soldiers) around Kampala. Higiro never called again. A few weeks later, another phone call came, with the caller identifying himself as Ntwali Frank, commissioner in charge of Rwandan refugees for the opposition. They briefly discussed joining RNC. Ntwali is the brother-in-law of exiled Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa, based in South Africa, and defacto head of RNC. Ntwali also never called Mudathiru again.

More months went by. Around mid-2016, an official from UNHCR headquarters in Kampala came to the camp to deliver the verdict to Mudathiru that his resettlement to another country had been rejected. “It was a shock for me. I was so disappointed,” he told us. Sometime later, officials from Uganda’s OPM also came to the camp, telling Mudathiru that he shouldn’t lose hope.

Around late 2017, a renowned Rwandan exiled singer Ben Rutabana also phone Mudathiru. Rutabana also brought the same message like that of Higiro and Ntwali. To date, for his part, Rutabana has been missing for sometime and his case has featured widely in Rwandan and regional media.

Two months after the Rutabana phone call, Mudathiru received another call from Kayumba Rugema. He is a known RNC operative, whose details have been reported about widely in the media. Rugema also came to urge Mudathiru to join RNC.

Sometime later, Capt (Rtd) Sibomana Charles alias Sibo, mentioned above as having been killed in combat where Mudathiru was captured, also came to the camp to live there permanently. Unlike Mudathiru, Sibo had obtained refugees status, meaning he could stay in Uganda, while Mudathiru was still at asylum level.

Then Ben Rutabana called Mudathiru again. It was the start of regular communication involving Rutabana, Mudathiru, Rugema and Sibo. They were laying ground for Mudathiru and Sibo to travel to DR Congo to manage training and recruitment for a rebel force called “P5”.

However, what we noted is that Mudathiru kept insisting during our interview that the others (Rutabana, Mudathiru, Rugema and Sibo) were luring him into joining RNC and P5 but he wasn’t enthusiastic. He repeatedly said to The Chronicles that his goal was to travel “abroad” to start a new life.  

“During my conversations with Sibo, I always wondered whether [Gen] Kayumba Nyamwasa ever travelled to the frontline to visit troops in Congo. Nobody gave me an answer. It is part of the reason I didn’t want to join any political group or rebel force,” said Mudathiru.

The bizarre arrest in Burundi

At this point, about one-and-half hour into our interview, Mudathiru began experiencing excruciating pain from his injured leg. We had to stop the interview severally for minutes to allow him regain some comfort. He was also complaining of pain in the abdomen and headache. Mudathiru repeatedly touched his lower abdomen in seeming agony. He said in addition to the injury, he also suffered from diabetes. 

On July 20, 2017, is when a Rwandan RNC operative Charles Sunday came to the camp to pick Mudathiru and Sibo to start their mission to DRC. The two escaped at night without notifying anyone. Mudathiru left his children in the camp. The three travelled all night, in a Toyota Hiace van (known in Uganda as “Drone”), arriving in Kampala the next morning.

In Kampala, they went straight to the home of Richard Mateeka, son of Maj Gen John Mateeka. Charles Sunday left Mudathiru and Sibo staying in that home. They became normal guests, sharing meals with the family including Richard’s wife. After a week, Richard, Mudathiru and Sibo set off for another journey, this time from Kampala to Mbarara, western Uganda, spending a day there. They linked with Charles Sunday and another individual whom Mudathiru says was only identified as “Dr Sam”, who we have established is actually Dr Sam Ruvuma, brother to Ugandan military officer Lt. Col. Gideon Katinda. Much has appeared in Rwandan and Uganda media about Dr Sam.

In Mbarara, Richard Mateeka left them there. For the next leg of the journey, to Kikagati border with Tanzania, they travelled in a small car driven by Charles Sunday. They spent a night at the border. The next day, Charles Sunday handed Mudathiru and Sibo each a Ugandan travel document fully stamped. Dr Sam drove the car back. Mudathiru, Sunday and Sibo crossed the Ugandan side of the border without anyone checking their documents. On the Tanzanian side, they were stamped and let through without any hiccup.

Mudathiru tells The Chronicles that he and Maj Gen Mateeka were known to each other “from the 80s during the NRA war”. The Chronicles has independently verified that Richard Mateeka is attached to Ugandan military intelligence. Either coincidentally, or by design, the father John Mateeka, was promoted from Brig General to Major General in November 2017. He retired from the Ugandan Army in July 2018.

This is screenshot from video news item Maj Gen John Mateeka held with NTV Uganda television shortly after retiring

Inside Tanzania, the three men boarded a bus, travelling about 600km to the Tanzania-Burundi border, arriving late evening. It was Charles Sunday who paid the bus fare. The paper travel document they had, allowed them to cross from Tanzania to Burundi. Both border posts stamped it without any incident. They boarded a public taxi on to Bujumbura. They checked into Transit Hotel. It was the second time Mudathiru had been to Bujumbura.  

At that Transit Hotel, Charles Sunday left after two days, probably back to Uganda. Mudathiru and Sibo met him again later in Congo rebel camps. At the Hotel, Mudathiru and Sibo spent a week, regularly being visited by Major Bertin Gahungu alias Moses, from SNR, Burundi’s intelligence body. A bizarre incident happened, in which Burundi Police showed up at the hotel and arrested the two of them, taking them to Police HQ. Barely two hours later, Major Bertin came to pick them from the Burundian Police, and returned them to the Hotel.   

“We thought, maybe, the staff at the hotel saw us speaking Kinyarwanda and reported to the authorities since it was at the height of anti-Rwandans crackdown in Burundi,” said Mudathiru.

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