My story: Being an opposition figure in Rwanda

I spent eight years in prison, five of which were in solitary confinement, and my ordeal is still far from over.

Victoire Ingabire
My story is only one example of widespread political oppression in Rwanda writes Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire [Jean Bizimana/Reuters]

In 1994, I was in the Netherlands, studying business management and economy, when a genocide against the Tutsi took place in my home country, Rwanda. In the space of 100 days, countless people were massacred in one of the worst episodes of ethnic cleansing in recent history.

I watched the reports of political upheaval, suffering and death coming from my beloved country in horror. Despite being miles away, I felt compelled to do something, so I founded a political party called The United Democratic Forces of Rwanda (FDU-Inkingi).

After years of political activism in the Netherlands, in January 2010, I returned to Rwanda intending to take on a much more hands-on role in the country’s politics. I intended to register FDU-Inkingi and run in the upcoming presidential election against incumbent Paul Kagame.

I said goodbye to my husband and three children at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol for what I thought was going to be a very short separation. I even promised my youngest son, who was due to turn eight later that year, that I would be back in the Netherlands to celebrate his birthday with him. Of course, I did not know that I would miss that birthday, and many more thereafter, due to political persecution.

On the day of my return to Rwanda, I visited the Gisozi Genocide Memorial Centre and gave a speech urging unity and reconciliation. I criticised the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF)’s policies for not being sufficiently inclusive, and demanded they also recognise and honour all the others who had fallen victim to violence before, during and after the genocide against the Tutsi.

Just three months later, I was arrested and dragged into a politically motivated judiciary process that included years of solitary confinement, relentless smear campaigns and a long, painful separation from my family.

In 2012, the High Court of Rwanda sentenced me to eight years in prison for “conspiring against the government by use of war and terrorism” and “genocide denial”. My speech at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial Centre, where I called for effective reconciliation, was considered evidence of genocide denial. After I appealed to the Supreme Court, my sentence was extended from eight to 15 years.

Immediately upon my imprisonment, I was placed in solitary confinement in the infamous “1930” maximum-security prison in Kigali, where I remained for five years.

In 2016, I was finally shifted from solitary confinement and allowed to serve the rest of my sentence along with the other inmates. But my isolation did not end even then, because prison authorities started transferring any prisoner who dared to talk to me to faraway prisons where their relatives could not visit them. The director of the prison only put an end to these transfers when I pointed out to her that those prisoners she sent away spoke of me and my plight where they were transferred.

In 2014, while still in solitary confinement, I filed a claim against the Rwandan government to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR). In 2016, just as the AfCHPR was set to decide on my claim, the government of Rwanda withdrew its declaration enabling individuals to file complaints with the court. Nonetheless, having already reviewed my claim, the AfCHPR concluded in 2017 that the Rwandan government had violated my rights to freedom of expression and adequate defence. The court also ordered the government to reimburse me and my family for the material and moral prejudice I suffered during my prosecution and imprisonment. The government has not executed that court order to this day.

I was eventually released from prison under presidential grace in 2018 – after eight years of imprisonment. This pardon came with two conditions: I must appear before the primary level prosecutor of my place of residence, at the prosecution office once a month and I must seek authorisation from the minister in charge of justice every time I wish to go out of the country. These conditions shall cease to apply at the end of the remaining period of imprisonment, which I was supposed to serve till 2025. In case I am sentenced for another offence or breaches, any of the aforementioned conditions the granted mercy would be revoked.

After my release, I launched a new political party, Development And Liberty For All (DALFA-Umurinzi), which strives to establish the rule of law and promote sustainable development in Rwanda. But my ordeal is far from over.

Although the Rwandan constitution provides me with the right to political organisation, I am still not permitted to register my political party or seek official approval for it to operate.

Moreover, my detractors are still working hard to turn the public against me and discourage me from participating in politics in my homeland. I am constantly being smeared as a “genocide denier”, a “terrorist” or someone who supports a “genocidal ideology” or “Hutu supremacy”. Those who spread these lies show no “evidence” for their claims other than my Hutu ancestry and the speech I delivered at the genocide memorial in 2010 – a speech in which I merely pointed out that genuine reconciliation would remain elusive until we honour and remember all the victims of all the crimes committed during that dark period in our country’s history.

Ironically, the United States and the United Kingdom, Rwanda’s closest and most influential allies, share the view that failing to honour the many Hutus and others killed during the genocide paints an incomplete picture of this dark chapter in my country’s history – my detractors, curiously, never dare to accuse them of “genocide denial”.

Those who want to silence and intimidate me also continue to baselessly brand me a terrorist, despite the AfCHPR ’s conclusion that my 2012 terror conviction was based on nothing but fabricated testimonies of coerced witnesses.

But for all the pain and suffering I have endured in Rwanda, my most profound ache is for the years I was forced to spend away from my husband and children. I have not been allowed to leave Rwanda since arriving here in 2010. The son I promised to see on his eighth birthday is now 19 years old, and I have not seen him for the past 12 years. He grew up to be a musician and recently released a song called “Long Way” in which he recounts how painful it has been for him to grow up without his mother. I do hope to see him again in the near future.

Like any other parent, I always dreamed of attending my children’s weddings. However, when my only daughter got married, I was in prison. Recently my oldest son also got married. As I still cannot leave Rwanda without the justice minister’s permission, I applied to the ministry. But my application was ignored. As a result, I had to watch the wedding on my computer at my home in Kigali. I do hope to see all my family again in the near future.

Neither the ongoing attacks against me, nor being kept away from my family for years dented my love for Rwanda or broke my resolve to serve my country, but I would be lying if I said I do not fear for my life. I am fearful because many of my key supporters have been killed or mysteriously disappeared over the past 12 years.

In October 2018, Boniface Twagirimana, the deputy leader of the FDU-Inkingi, went missing while in a high-security prison. In March 2019, Anselme Mutuyimana, my assistant, was found dead in a forest. The consequent investigation revealed that he was strangled. In July 2019, Eugene Ndereyimana, an FDU-Inkingi representative in the eastern province of Rwanda, went missing to never be heard from again. In September 2019, Syldio Dusabumuremyi, national coordinator for FDU-Inkingi, was stabbed to death by two unidentified men. In May 2020, Théophile Ntirutwa, a member of my party, survived an assassination attempt. He was later imprisoned under politically motivated charges and remains behind bars to this day. In June 2020, Venant Abayisenga, my close aide, left his house to buy some credit for his phone and has not been seen or heard from since.

The Rwandan Investigation Bureau is yet to announce any findings on any of these murders and forced disappearances. The only thing that gives me some peace of mind is the fact that I have a surveillance team following me all the time.

Thankfully, my experiences as an opposition figure in Rwanda have not only been negative. Actually, despite all the attacks and obstacles I faced in my political journey, at every turn I have found new reasons to keep going. My fellow citizens’ support throughout this painful odyssey – both from within and outside Rwanda – has fortified me with courage and kept my hopes for a better future alive. Despite many of my supporters being killed, jailed or disappeared, new ones kept emerging, ready to give me a hand either by conveying my political message at local and international levels or merely helping me with my everyday life.

Moreover, the persecution I faced at the hands of Rwandan authorities raised my profile in Rwanda and beyond. From meeting people in prison and later touring and talking to people from diverse backgrounds across Rwanda and within the diaspora, I had the opportunity to listen to the grievances of countless Rwandans and share my political vision with them. My family’s fearless support has also been priceless throughout these years. In 2020, my daughter and her two children even managed to visit me in Kigali.

My story is only one example of widespread political oppression in Rwanda. This never-ending cycle of political violence is not only devastating our country and our people, but also causing instability in the wider Great Lakes region. But it does not have to be this way.

If the government agrees to enter into a genuine dialogue with the political opposition as well as Rwandan civil society organisations at home and in the diaspora, we can build a new, truly democratic Rwanda and bring stability to the Great Lakes region. To show how this can be achieved, in June 2021, together with fellow opposition figure Me Bernard Ntaganda, we published the “roadmap for a promising future of Rwanda”. In this document, we laid out the simple steps the government can take to break the cycle of violence, enable true reconciliation, protect human rights and bring prosperity to our country.

I do not hold any grudge against anyone for what I have been through, but I also have no intention of giving up the fight. I love my country, but I am deeply worried about its future. If the government continues with the persecution of dissenting voices, the future will bring nothing but more suffering for our people.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.