Last week when a friend asked me to escort him to Kigali Central Prison, popularly known as 1930, my heart skipped a beat. Before last week, I had only visited the prison once. But that memory haunts me to-date. My work then involved taking care of important guests of Government and I would have been obliged to do whatever they wanted but, luckily, after that none asked to visit.
That day in 1995, our important guest was in the company of equally important government officials, which allowed me time to quickly run back to pick a document I had forgotten in the car. Then I tried to rejoin the others, pushing through a chaotic maze of prisoners in motley colours of their dirty, worn clothes. As I pressed forward, a stocky man blocked me and hissed: "Me sipeaki Engrishi!" Suddenly a number of dirty bodies were pressing against me and I was seized in fright and squeaked: "Musonera, help!" Musonera was part of the security detail but, even before he came, they had cleared the way.
Phew, the fright! The prisoners had seen the English title of my document and knew I was one of those they called "cockroaches" recently returned from exile in Uganda. I hate to imagine what would have happened!
Now fast forward to last week. At the prison gate, when I asked to see those who are in on genocide crimes, I was told they formed the bulk of those in workshops we were visiting. As we moved through a group of prisoners bending over their sewing machines, I marvelled at their spotlessly clean pink uniforms and the healthy appearance they exuded. In an inner office, a prisoner in charge got up to lead us to the carpentry area and, once there, I deliberately greeted them in English with: "Good morning, gentlemen!" And the response: "Good morning, sir!" with an odd "Good morning, gentleman!" here and there. But "-man", not "-men"!
When I asked: "Why are you in prison?" many responded with "We did genocide!" but that they understood the question alone was amazing. And so was their eagerness to engage us and explain themselves rather than seek self-assertion in belligerence.
One of them explained how they were learning languages and acquiring a variety of skills. Today, he said, they regretted their barbaric actions of 1994 as before that they were also victims of a history that had been distorted by colonialism and short-sighted, selfish post-independence leaders. Leaders who taught them that prosperity lay in eliminating their fellow citizens and acquiring their possessions. Those possessions involving nothing more than pieces of land that they could not develop beyond tilling with a hand hoe.
When he broke down, another prisoner took over to explain how their leaders had kept them in the bondage of poverty and civil strife. Today they are witness to the enriching unity of Rwandans and the effectiveness of pragmatic programmes whose aim is to build enduring, shared prosperity. Now they know that instead of claiming legitimacy in ethnic cocoons, they should join their compatriots in contributing to building a world of united and strong societies.
It was interesting to see that these erstwhile architects, perpetrators or whatever, of Genocide seemed to understand Government programmes more than the rest of us outside.
Of courses, my friend and I had not come in search of the profundity of socio-political lectures. Ours was a search for the levity of mundane things like a well-priced, strong bed! So, we thanked our professorial prisoners and left.
But it got me thinking. Maybe the many Rwandans unhappy with the short sentence in prison handed to Ms Ingabire Victoire have no reason to worry. A stint in prison, however short, may be enough to open up one's mind to a wide worldly view. It removes you from same-thought promoters and gives you time for reflection. In her case, it may rescue her from being held eternally captive to the narrow, primitive politics of "ethnic superiority".
No denying that she may have been guilty on all counts preferred. An examination alone of the documents codenamed "24 February" seized in Holland by Dutch Police exposes a withering indictment. The documents that bear her handwriting, in notes she made on the texts, outline the military plan discussed at the meeting. In attendance were members of UFDR, ADR, Nation Imbaraga and the now-notorious terrorist group, FDLR. The aim of the meeting, per the document: "We have to establish a military structure with a military leadership, indentify a training location, identify instructors and start recruiting." The aim is to create a state of insecurity. Then we, the grass, can suffer.
All of which ties in well with her grand entrance in Rwanda in 2010. Appear as a messiah at the airport; mock genocide survivors with a claim of its being double at Gisozi Genocide Memorial centre; glorify the architect of the 1959 pogroms, Mbonyumutwa, in Gitarama; visit prisons and assure genocide convicts of coming redemption. Let the Government touch you and, in the words of génocidaires apologist Steve Hege, "international opinion [will sour] on the Rwandan regime." Add that to the insecurity you will have helped initiate and, voilà, the 1994 horror.
But, well, the courts have spoken. And we, law-abiding citizens that we are, must proffer due respect.
Luckily, as our brothers and sisters in 1930 have demonstrated, a short stint in prison may be enough to cleanse one of such evil designs. And it may open eyes to the bounty that may result out of harmonious co-existence.