Today, we observe the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. One purpose of this important annual observance, as stated by the United Nations, is to “pay tribute to those who have devoted their lives to, and lost their lives in, the struggle to promote and protect human rights for all”. The list of such people is long in my country, Rwanda. It includes members of opposition groups, independent activists and journalists, among many others.
While all those who fell in the battle to uphold human rights in Rwanda deserve to be remembered and honoured on this day, here I would like to pay special tribute to those who lost their lives, or disappeared, after responding to my call to struggle for the establishment of genuine democracy, respect for human rights and rule of law in our homeland.
Iragena Illumine, who worked as a nurse at the King Faisal Hospital in Kigali, was a member of my previous party, United Democratic Forces (FDU-Inkingi). In March 2016, she went missing on her way to work. Her family reported her disappearance to the police, but never received an official response. Worried by the lack of information on her situation, international human rights organisations also sent queries to the government. These were also left unanswered. I heard of Iragena’s disappearance while I was still in prison and was devastated. She had been one of my strongest sources of support during my incarceration, regularly visiting me in prison. The last message I ever received from Iragena was handwritten on the front page of the book that she helped me publish from behind bars. She arranged for a copy to be sent to my cell and signed it with “the struggle for democracy continues”. Iragena was in her early thirties and a mother of four when she disappeared. One of her kids has special needs and suffered immensely from being deprived of her mother’s care at a young age.
Boniface Twagirimana, a father of two in his early 40s, was deputy leader of FDU-Inkingi. In September 2017, while I was still in prison, he and several other members of my party were arrested and charged with crimes linked to state security, including forming an irregular armed group and offences against the president. The arrests came after Twagirimana denounced the killing of local party representative Damascene Habarugira as a politically motivated murder tied to his opposition to the government’s agricultural planning policies. Habarugira had gone missing after meeting an official responsible for village security. A few days later, his family members were called to collect his badly mutilated body from a local hospital. In October 2018, Twagirimana was transferred alone from a prison in Kigali to one in southern Rwanda. His family was not informed of the transfer. Three days later, the authorities announced that he had disappeared and suggested he must have escaped without presenting any supporting evidence. To this day, Twagiramana’s spouse is not able to explain to her children what happened to their father.
Anselme Mutuyimana was my assistant. In March 2019, the 30-year-old was kidnapped from a bus station in the western Mahoko area. A day later, his body was found in a forest close to his parents’ home. Mutuyimana was killed just six months after his release from prison, where he spent six years accused of inciting insurrection. His alleged crime was to invite young people from his region to participate in a meeting with the secretary general of my party. Anselme’s mother had passed away a few months before his release and at the time of his death, he was looking forward to comforting his father and spending time with him. The old man, who was already struggling with his wife’s sudden death, was left heavily traumatised after his son’s passing.
Eugene Ndereyimana, 29, was a popular FDU-Inkingi representative in Rwanda’s Eastern Province. He went missing in July 2019 and has never been seen or heard from since. Just two months before his disappearance, in May 2019, we travelled together to the Eastern Province to meet our party’s supporters there. During our visit, we got into an argument with local government representatives. As the exchange became heated, Ndereyimana started recording on his mobile phone. Officials ordered him to delete the recording, but he refused. When he went missing, Ndereyimana was a father of two sons and his wife was pregnant with their third child.
Syldio Dusabumuremyi, a father of two, was the national coordinator of FDU-Inkingi. In September 2019, two unidentified men stabbed him to death as he worked in the shop of a health centre in the Southern Province. Just two days before his murder, he had told me that he feared he might be the next opposition member to be killed or “disappeared”. His children still do not know who killed their father and why.
Venant Abayisenga, 30, was a close aide of mine. In June 2020, he left my house to buy some credit for his phone and has not been seen or heard from since. Venant spent two and a half years in prison accused of terrorism. He was acquitted of all charges and released in January 2020, just six months before his disappearance. Shortly before he went missing, he had recorded and uploaded to YouTube a video in which he talked about the torture he suffered during the early days of his detention. Venant was an orphan. His two siblings still wonder what happened to their brother.
The Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) is yet to announce concrete findings in any of the aforementioned cases.
It is extremely painful for me to witness my followers and other members of the opposition being arrested, killed or forcefully disappeared as they struggle towards protecting and promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Rwanda.
When I came to Rwanda to engage in political activities, I was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for my country – I was prepared to die to ensure the establishment of genuine democracy. During my years of struggle, I met countless activists and opposition members who have the same conviction. Just like the late Nelson Mandela, we all believe “only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won”. We will not give up our struggle, and we will not stop fighting for the betterment of Rwanda. We also will not forget about our unjustly incarcerated and mysteriously killed and disappeared friends and colleagues.
On this International Right to Truth Day, I therefore call on my government to set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate mysterious deaths and disappearances of opposition members, including those of my friends and colleagues.
Truth and accountability will not only help the families of those we lost heal, but will also improve Rwanda’s image in the international arena and pave the way for a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous future for our people.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.