On April 16, Elie Semajeri, the 50-year-old village chief of the Majengo neighborhood in Gisenyi sector, was arrested by the Rwandan military. Uniformed soldiers approached his house late at night and forced him into a white pickup truck. He cried out, resisting arrest. Neighbors awoke, throwing stones at surrounding houses to alert them that their chief was being taken against his will.
This scene has become increasingly commonplace in Rwanda recently. Rwandans are disappearing.
In one district alone — the Rubavu district — 14 missing persons cases have been reported since March. Most suspect the Rwandan government, which has grown increasingly intent on arresting anyone associated with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (DFLR.) This militant group, based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC,) consists mostly of former participants of the 1994 genocide.
Semajeri, like others who live in the Rubavu district, would often visit relatives who live just across the western border in DRC. Such behavior attracted the attention of Rwandan authorities who, under President Paul Kagame, see the capture of DFLR members as a national priority.
But besides the obvious concerns of holding citizens in secret custody — as stated by the State Department earlier this month — the Rwandan government does not yet have a well-defined law forbidding such activity.
The Rwandan Penal Code prohibits public servants and civilians alike from kidnapping or unlawfully detaining anyone. It even prohibits one from keeping silent upon witnessing such a violation of another’s liberty. But the vague nature of the language fails to clearly outlaw enforced disappearances.
The ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF,) has responded coldly. Official statements deem the accusations absurd, and President Kagame boldly maintained that arrests of suspects must continue for the sake of Rwanda’s stability.
On May 8, Human Rights Watch met with officials of Rubavu District to discuss the recent disappearances. Karangwa Murenge, the district’s police commander, agreed that the reported number of disappearances was increasing but denied government involvement. He suggested that missing people might have simply traveled to neighboring DRC without telling anyone.
In any case, Major General Mubarak Muganga told Ruvabu District residents in a public meeting that the RDF was detaining people who had voluntarily confessed to collaboration with the DFLR.
Brigadier General Joseph Nzabamwita, spokesman for the RDF, told Human Rights Watch that the Rwandan government does not engage in unlawful detention. He denies the link between the recent disappearance of Rwandans and General Muganga’s detainment of alleged DFLR collaborators.
And what of Semajeri, the village chief who vanished in pacified cries of help?
Family members were told he was being questioned and would be released soon after. After a day passed, relatives checked police stations only to be told he wasn’t there. Nearly a month later in early May — out of desperation — they wrote letters to their local government describing what happened to their missing patriarch and village leader.
They have yet to receive a response.
— Shehrose Mian