A rwandan national who returned home from Uganda over the weekend after spending a year in prison has said he was asked to choose between declaring himself a refugee and detention.
Jean-Baptiste Niyomucunguzi, from Burera District, said he was intercepted by Ugandan police on June 4, 2018 on his way back home to Rwanda from a market across the border in Kisoro District, where he had travelled the day before.
He told journalists in Kigali yesterday that Ugandan police confiscated his travel documents as he approached the border and he was asked to declare himself as an asylum-seeker offering to have him transferred to a refugee camp in Rwamwanja, hundreds of kilometres deep into Uganda.
"I rejected their offer and they detained me," he said. "In jail, we were clobbered and subjected to hard labour... we were most of the time working on fields growing maize and beans on the prison farm."
He said that some Rwandans who were intercepted while returning home agreed to be transferred to the Rwamwanja Refugee Camp, for fear of being imprisoned and tortured.
"Some of us did not want to be refugees for no good reason and the price was imprisonment," he said.
Asked how Rwandans were being identified and intercepted, he said security agencies would mount roadblocks and ask for IDs and "would retain your documents the moment they realised you are Rwandan" and then detain you.
"I urge Rwandans to not go to Uganda because it's very dangerous there," he said.
"I was subjected to forced labour and was beaten regularly," he said, adding that between 150 to 200 Rwandans were detained at Kiburara Prison Farm in Ibanda District where he spent 12 months.
He said a court in Kisoro District charged him with illegal entry and sentenced him to 12 months in prison.
Niyomucunguzi said he has never recovered his Rwandan Identity Card and driver's licence from the Ugandan police.
He said that until his arrest in Uganda a year ago, he was a resident of Kidakama Cell, Gahunga Sector in Burera District, which borders Uganda.
Envoy says "hundreds" still in detention
Commenting on the returnee's experience, Rwanda's High Commissioner to Uganda Frank Mugambage said yesterday that forcing illegally-detained Rwandans to declare themselves as refugees is common in Uganda.
"When they are labelled as refugees, it means that the Rwandan government can't reach them to offer consular services," he told The New Times.
Mugambage also said that hundreds of Rwandans are still illegally detained in Uganda.
Niyomucunguzi and another Rwandan, Samuel Nizeyimana, were illegally arrested and detained in Uganda for a year before they returned home last Sunday.
They were separately arrested by Ugandan security operatives in June 2018 and jailed over alleged illegal entry into the neighbouring country.
On his part, Nizeyimana, who hails from Musanze District, said he was arrested on June 3, 2018 in Kisoro District where he had gone to visit his sister.
He said he was released on June 15, 2019 after serving 12 months in jail having been accused of entering Uganda without requisite travel documents.
"I was unfairly charged with illegal entry because they had taken away my documents," he said.
He said he was detained at Kihihi prison in Kanungu District near the Uganda border with DR Congo.
During imprisonment, he said, "we would be used as porters, and were forced to grow maize, cassava, and rice on villagers' farms.
"They beat us a lot while working on people's farms," he said, adding that the prison would be paid by villagers for the work done. "They (supervisors) beat us saying we needed to dig faster because the prison needed to make more money."
"I am so grateful to our government for according us a warm reception and warn other Rwandans not to put themselves in similar trouble," he said. "It is not safe to go to Uganda at all. There is no way to tell whether you are safe or not, even when you have travel documents and cross the border legally they confiscate them and detain you, that's what happened to me," he said.
He said the Ugandan police still retain his national ID.
The two men are the latest to testify about what the Government of Rwanda has termed as continued "harassment, illegal detention, and torture" of Rwandan nationals in Uganda.
The Rwandan government in March issued an advisory against travel to Uganda, saying that hundreds of Rwandan citizens had been arrested and were languishing in mostly un-gazetted detention centres in Uganda.
Most of those who have previously been deported have narrated how they were picked up from public buses, homes, or churches, by mostly armed plain-clothes security agents only to be detained for months without trial and with no access to consular services.
Kigali also accuses Kampala of hosting and facilitating elements and armed groups seeking to destabilise Rwanda, a charge the latter denies.
Some of the torture victims have since lodged a case against the Ugandan government with the East African Court of Justice.