Rwanda’s Disappeared: Where Are They?

Josie Thum examines the human disappearances and self-censorship rife in modern Rwanda.


Rwanda’s press scene is a media ghost town. Freedom of speech has deteriorated into a widespread culture of fear and self-censorship. This is a result of police-state style oppression of voices seen as dissenting or threatening to the regime. Today tactics such as forced disappearances, forced confessions, torture, intimidation, exiles, harassment and violence are used as political weapons to silence opposition and maintain a hold on a dictatorial power which is dressed in the clothes of democracy.

This year two prominent Rwandan socialist figures are still missing. All questions remain unanswered.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front has been ruling for twenty years. Its rise to power came in the wake of the 1994 national genocide which saw the slaughter of 20% of the population in a 100 day period. The RPF have since continued what has effectively become a one-party state, ruthless in its crushing of dissents and gagging of free speech under the guise of preventing another genocide. Since 2010 the government and its army have been accused by organisations including the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Freedom House for human rights violations which are in breach of national and international laws. The President and head of state Paul Kagame is serving
his second term, having begun his role in 2000 and won large majorities in the two (heavily criticised) elections since then. Although the Rwandan constitution stipulates a President may serve a maximum of two terms, as of last year the parliament are in the process of overturning this. 2015 saw 90% of voters agree to modifying the constitution’s two-term limit; potentially allowing Kagame to rule until 2034. He will stand for election into his third term soon.

With the impending 2017 general election, the spate of political imprisonments and enforced disappearances (which have intensified since the infamous elections of 2010) have continued to mount. The government and its security services have responded with silence in the face of the most recent disappearances this year: Illuminée Iragena and John Ndabarasa have been missing for months.

Illuminée Iragena is a Rwandan political activist who hasn’t been seen since March. She is a mother of three. She was closely involved in the political opposition party FDU-Inkingi and is renowned for founding an NGO which champions the rights of women and underprivileged children in Kigali (the Rwandan capital).

Illuminée was last seen March 26th 2016 leaving for her work as a nurse at King Faisal Hospital in Kigali to which she never arrived. She ran the << ABIRU >> The Rwandan Association for the Promotion and Development of Women which works to help vulnerable families by establishing nurseries in the capital for children born into difficult circumstances. She had been a candidate for the Social Democratic Party in the 2008 legislative elections and was a member of the political opposition organisation FDU-Inkingi (which is not allowed to register as a political party). The president of the FDU-Inkingi, the long-time political left writer and campaigner Victoria Ignabire Umuhoza, spent 16 years in exile. In 2010 she returned. She formed a Permanent Consultative Council of Opposition Parties with two political opposition party leaders. She proposed the creation of a Committee of Truth, Justice and Reconciliation, the introduction of an independent commission to rewrite and interpret Rwanda’s history, and the paunnamed-1ssing of a bill for the right to private ownership and for protection of the weakest members of the public in legal guarantee of their equal opportunities in access to credit and employment. This return was quickly followed by her house arrest and imprisonment later the same year. Today she is in prison serving a fifteen year sentence.

[Read Human Rights Watch’s shocking timetable of violence and oppression against anti-government voices during the 2010 elections:

Illuminée regularly visited Victoria in prison. She disappeared just hours after her fellow FDU-Inkingi member Léonille Gasengayire went to see Victoria with a copy of the book Entre les 4 murs de 1930 whose delivery Illuminée had apparently helped arrange, and which had her name written on the first page. The book, owned by Illuminée, was written by Victoria in prison and, uncensored, is sold freely around the country and is no legal reason to detain those possessing it. On the same day Illuminée went missing, Léonille was arrested under charges of inciting insurrection by bringing Victoria the book. She was denied access to a lawyer. She was beaten in detention by police, questioned about the book, and released three days later having signed a confessional statement saying that Illuminée gave her the book and that she then brought it to the prison. Both these women have been arrested numerous times since 2010 along with other FDU-Inkingi members. Léonille is currently facing a tribunal against charges of stirring up local opposition to expropriation, criticising the government and promoting the banned FDU-Inkingi. If found guilty she, too, could face up to fifteen years in prison where she would join numerous other members of the FDU.

<< Human Rights Watch has documented several disappearances, politically motivated arrests, and unlawful detentions in Rwanda, especially of suspected government opponents or critics. With less than one year to go before the country’s August 2017 presidential elections, political space remains very limited, with tight restrictions on freedom of expression and association […] Very few opposition politicians are able to function in Rwanda, and human rights organizations and independent media are weak>>

Family members calling for an investigation into Illuminée’s disappearance have received no offi- cial response and fear she may have died in detention, having been unlawfully detained and tortured. There have been unconfirmed reports that Illuminée is dead. In April Justin Bahunga from the FDU-Inkingi writing in The Rwandan insisted that according to informed and reliable sources, she had been taken to ‘the infamous Kali military camp’ and that she has since been moved to one of many government ‘safe houses’. The camp was condemned by Amnesty International for its illegal detention and brutal torture of civilians. It reported the camp as using torture methods including electrocution, plastic bags placed over heads, beatings and sensory deprivation. Joseph Matata, founder of Belgium-based human rights activist group CLIIR (Centre of the Struggle against Impunity and Injustice in Rwanda) said in a call for government action on Illuminée’s disappearance: ‘It is obvious that the Rwandan authorities continue to persecute and hunt opponents as they try to violently stifle the inevitable awakening of the consciences of the Rwandan people’.

Illuminée’s husband and former Kigali representative of the FDU-Inkingi, Martin Ntavuka, was moved by his wife’s disappearance to flee the country from fear of arrest, or being made ‘missing’ as well.

The concerning mystery surrounding Illuminée Iragena’s state and whereabouts persists. Despite appeals from her family, various media outlets, humanitarian organisations, and the Rwandan government’s July 2016 response to the Geneva Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review stating it would ‘eliminate all provisions that undermine freedom of expression in an ongoing review of laws on the media and political parties’, it remains inactive and mute about this woman’s disappearance.

This year has seen another disappearance of a journalist in Rwanda. John Ndabarasa was last seen on August 7th in Kigali. John was a journalist at Sana Radio and a musician, writing about social issues such as the effects of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. See one of his songs here. John is close to anti-government convicts, being the relative of Joel Mutabazi (who was forcibly retuned to Rwanda in 2013 and is serving life imprisonment) and thunnamed-2e brother of Jackson Karemera (whose whereabouts are unknown since his rearrest in 2014).

People close to both John and Illuminée describe having received messages after the pair’s disappearances – supposedly from them – saying that they were going abroad. Neither John nor Illuminée’s families believe that either of their loved ones have left the country.

These extremely worrying missing persons cases have received next to no international attention. We have responsibility to ask about the whereabouts of these figures. If the world shows little interest in the violent, dictatorial and oppressive actions of a country, it is left comfortably unchallenged to continue its conduct in the shadows. Whatever we may like to believe or tell ourselves in platitudes, public interest is powerful. With the internet we are far from nobody. By campaigning on social media and pressuring governments about these issues they may be pushed by heightened public attention and media scrutiny to respond. It is a lie that there’s nothing we can do in the face of these issues. It’s an easy consolatory escape. By engaging and creating an interest, we create a demand for answers. In spite of speculations as to Illuminée’s death, survivors of the Kali military camp have been known to be detained for up to nine months. There’s hope. Whatever the outcome of these two disappearance cases we must care. We must talk about it. Show that it is unacceptable. And by shining a spotlight on the Rwandan government’s atrocities, it may be forced to change.

We have a responsibility to make use of our freedom of speech to help those who’s freedom is oppressed. Start by asking the question: where are they? #WhereAreThey? #Iragena, #Ndabarasa ? Why is there not an answer? Why does our media not care? Why are people not asking this? Not trying to find out? What about the rights to freedom of 11+ million Rwandans? What about the others living in fear of falling, disappeared, into shadowed apathy?

#WhereAreThey? If you’re asking yourself the question, ask others too.

@PaulKagame – President

@RwandaGov – Government

@Rwandapolice – Police

@amurekezi – Prime Minister

Government Ministers: @BusingyeJohns



























Read the Amnesty report on Rwanda’s current situation here.


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