On a late night in early October 2019, residents of Kinigi in Musanze district in northwest Rwanda were woken by heavy gunfight. A rebel onslaught was underway in a place known globally as home to mountain gorillas.
At least 15 people lost their lives, 14 injured, and property was looted or destroyed. Though heavily armed, the security forces managed to contain the attack and many of the attackers captured, some by local villagers.
The same area today played host to Kwita Izina gorillas naming ceremony, a signature event on the international tourism and conservation calendar.
At the 18th edition, 20 newborn mountain gorillas got their names from a select guest list that included Laurene Powell, a billionaire and wife of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs.
In a video appearance, heir to the British throne Prince Charles also graced the party, giving boost to the event held physically for the first since 2019. It was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The name I give [my baby gorilla] is Ubwuzuzanye, which means Harmony since the restoration of harmony between nature, people and planet is the most critical issue facing humanity,” said Prince Charles.
Prime Minister Dr Edouard Ngirente and First Lady Jeannette Kagame joined the thousands of guests and local residents. Illustrious shows and displays were beamed on giant screens.
There was loud applause at the presence of football big wigs including renowned African name Didier Drogba. The local residents know them from faithfully following European soccer.
Though Kinigi was a party scene today, back on the night of October 4, 2019, it witnessed horror. No similar rebel attack had ever been attempted, despite being on border region, separated a kept safe by mountain ranges with dense forests.
The area is dotted with high end hospitality facilities, some going for over $1,000 a night. It is no accident, as those who visit the gorillas part with $1,500 for a tour of the gorilla families like pocket change.
In the months that followed, up until January this year, a trial for 38 captured rebels was held at a military court in Kigali. It was established during the proceedings that all the attackers were members of RUD-Urunama Rwandan militia operating from eastern DR Congo. The other groups there are FLN/MRCD/CNRD linked to Paul Rusesabagina, FDLR and P5 linked to exiled former army chief Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa based in South Africa.
These RUD-Urunana defendants were charged and convicted of three charges; joining an illegal armed group, attempting to use war to remove the current government, and terrorism (including murder, accessory to murder, and armed robbery among others).
Six got maximum sentence; Selemani Kabayija, the deputy commander of the attack, Theoneste Habumukiza, Emmanuel Hakizimana, Alex Ndayisaba, Fidèle Nzabonimpa, and Jean Damascène Ntigurirwa.
Five of the suspects were sentenced to 25 years in jail, 21 others sentenced to 15 years in jail, while six got ten years of imprisonment.
The attack appears to have been clearly designed to cause as much panic and subsequently, insecurity, to make the area a no-go for the high paying international tourists. It could, so they planned, starve government of cash and international profile, ultimately force it into negotiations.
If the pomp and glamour that was on display today at the Kwita Izina, is anything to go by, it didn’t look like there was ever any rebel attack.