Katuna, a boomtown in Kabale District at the parallels of Uganda and Rwanda, is haunted by a spectre of violence.
Since Rwanda closed the border, the kindred spirit that once prevailed among these communities was shattered. Today, suspicion remains rife on both sides of the border.
Any slight straying into Rwanda, even within inches, has dire consequences for nationals from either side. As the conflict between Kigali and Kampala continues to fester, residents are now governed under the barrel of the gun.
The canopies of knitted tree branches dotting the hills, a spitting distance across the border, give marksmen a cover to target those who attempt to cross on either side.
In the place of hope lies fear. Commerce that once thrived at the border has been disrupted. The bond that prevailed among closely-knit families that live on either side has also been tested.
Rwanda initially said it had closed the Gatuna border as a result of repairs it planned to implement on sections of its border road that connects Katuna to Kigali. But in a veiled message, the Kigali establishment accused Uganda of detaining its citizens incommunicado and lending support to subversive elements bent on sowing seeds of mayhem in Rwanda, allegations Uganda has rejected.
Ugandans and other nationalities are allowed to cross from either side at will. Rwandans are only allowed to enter their country but not to get out. Only Rwandan truck drivers are allowed to exit if transiting to Kenya, but not Uganda.
Specifically, Ugandan goods are not permitted into Rwanda. No reason or official communication has been provided for a decision, which flouts the East African Community protocol on the free movement of goods and persons.
Last Monday, Mr Jean Pierre Havugimana, a Rwandan national living in Kabya Village in Gicumbi District, was shot as he carried 50kgs of potatoes from Uganda.
He was admitted to a health facility in Kabale, where he underwent surgery to remove the bullet before being discharged last Saturday. He is currently pondering whether to return home or seek asylum.
The Daily Monitor editions of Wednesday and Thursday last week, which carried stories of Mr Havugimana’s shooting, were also blocked at Gatuna from entering into Rwanda for reportedly carrying “malicious content”.
Havugimana narrated that he was travelling with a colleague who was shot dead, a claim we could not independently verify. However, this incident adds to previous ones.
In early May, a Rwandan businessman was shot by the Rwandan security as he tried to smuggle about 500kgs of beans into Uganda. In the same month, a Ugandan and Rwandan were shot dead on the Ugandan side.
Communities near the border districts live in fear as this row could potentially ignite a tinderbox before the Kisangani ghost is exorcised.
Kampala and Kigali have had a love-hate relationship after their armies fought in the eastern DR Congo’s city of Kisangani in 1999 and 2000.
In 2005, half of Mr Museveni’s presidential convoy was cut into two at the Uganda-Rwanda border at Gatuna and some Ugandan delegates were denied entry into Rwanda to attend a two-day Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa meeting in Kigali.
During years that followed, relations between the two sister countries and erstwhile allies were fragile as cloak and dagger games peaked until 2010, when the relations seemed to have normalised.
On February 28, Rwanda closed Gatuna and Cyanika borders in Kabale and Kisoro districts, respectively, stating that this was meant to pave way for the upgrade of the one-stop border posts. Uganda is similarly constructing a one-stop border post on its side.
The chairperson of the Katuna Business Community, Mr Franco Kulinako, told Daily Monitor last week that the business community is the most affected.
“There is no business; businesses have closed, and those who can, have relocated to Busia or South Sudan. It gets worse when there is risk of one being shot, nothing scares me more than that,” Mr Kulinako said.
He said buses, which are allowed through Katuna, carry less passengers unlike before.
Mr Nelson Nshangabasheija, the mayor for Katuna Town Council, said the border closure has had far-reaching implications on both sides.
“The problem is Rwanda. For us, the border is ever open and we have never stopped anyone,” Mr Nshangabasheija said last Thursday.
Katuna’s decline has a direct linkage on Kabale Town, which is the main hub for commerce. Several traders we talked to bemoaned the slow business over the past months and the tough times ahead; many are now looking at seeking trade opportunities with DR Congo through Kisoro District, which is about 80km away. Those affected are small-scale businesses such as bars, lodges, restaurants, and shops, while the large ones include hotels and retail shops, as well as farmers.
Following the blockade at Gatuna and Cyanika border posts, Rwanda advised businessmen and truck drivers to use Mirama Hills border post in Ntungamo District to access Kigali.
Trucks are allowed to enter the neighbouring country, but custom officials revealed that cargo total volumes between Uganda and Rwanda have fallen. Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) data shows that the value of Ugandan exports to Rwanda reduced by 27 per cent from Shs585b to Shs426b between the financial years 2017/2018 and 2018/2019, and likewise imports trade value shrank by a 23 percentage from Shs160b to Shs123b.
URA data for the period between July 2018 and June 2019 shows that the number of trucks using Mirama Hills have more than tripled on both inflow and outflow, due to the closure of Katuna and re-directing of all cargo trucks since March.
Between March and June, 7,582 trucks crossed through Mirama Hills but the number of buses and small cars reduced during the same “period due to the reduced cross-border movement of Rwandan citizens”.
On June 10, Kigali temporarily opened its Gatuna border for two weeks during which period 311 trucks were allowed through. It was later closed.
According to the Private Sector Foundation-Uganda (PSF-U), the umbrella body for the private sector, on average, Uganda raked in $16m (Shs56b) monthly from trade inflows with Rwanda mainly through Katuna. This figure has since reduced to less than $3m (Shs10b).
Mr Gideon Badagawa, the PSF-U executive director, said the standoff is bad for business.
“Investors came here because we promised them a market in the wider region. Now, the market in DR Congo is not stable, South Sudan has issues, now Uganda and Rwanda have issues, that is very bad for the private sector,” Mr Badagawa said.
“No wonder our industries are operating at only 40 per cent. Industry is driven by market. You close them you stifle industry, and as long as the situation degenerates, things will be bad.
Yes, Mirama Hills is a good alternative but for now, Katuna is ideal because it is quite proximate to Rwanda; today some traders cannot afford to go via Mirama Hills,” he added.
Authorities in Kabale and Ntungamo District also reported a surge in smuggling on both sides, however risky it is.
A security official in Ntungamo, who spoke anonymously because he is not authorised to speak to the media, said more Rwandans are shot or apprehended trying to cross into Uganda.
Enter the talks
Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa told Daily Monitor that a second meeting of the ad hoc commission of Ugandan and Rwandan government officials, for implementation of terms of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between President Museveni and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame in August, is scheduled next Monday in Kampala.
The ad hoc commission was agreed upon in the August 26 MoU signed by Presidents Museveni and Kagame, and witnessed by Angola’s leader Joao Lourenco, DR Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi, and Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo.
During the Kigali meeting, the ad hoc commission agreed on six talking points, including a treaty on extradition to provide a “framework for future exchange of criminal fugitives” between the two countries, and due process being followed in dealing with each other’s citizens, and refraining from any acts of destabilisation against each other.
Previously, Kigali has arbitrarily and illegally over-stepped Uganda boundaries to forcefully arrest and repatriate those it says are fugitives.
Other key points, according to a communiqué issued in September, included Rwanda being provided a list of its nationals detained by Ugandan security forces whom it wants released as soon as possible, information which Uganda “committed to verify.”
The two sides also committed to cease all forms of propaganda in mainstream and social media, while the issue of free movement of persons and goods and services across the common border and other outstanding issues were referred for discussion during the Kampala meeting.
Of the six talking points, only one has so far been enforced - the cessation of all forms of propaganda in mainstream and social media.
The ad hoc commission is comprised of, among others, ministers of foreign and internal affairs, and intelligence chiefs of the two countries.
Last week, President Kagame appointed a new Foreign Affairs minister Vincent Biruta, replacing Dr Richard Sezibira.
It remains unclear what the main talking points for Monday’s meeting will be, but there is a likelihood that Kigali will seek the release of those it claims are being illegally held by Ugandan security officials.
Kampala has offered a riposte claiming that some of the detained Rwandans are held on espionage charges.
Speaking to journalists last Friday in Kigali, President Kagame said the ad hoc commission meetings are supposed to “resolve outstanding issues” and the Kigali meeting was a success.
He said Rwanda has kept the Gatuna border closed, which was initially on account of some ‘rehabilitation works’, as reciprocation of the continued “illegal” detention of Rwandans by Ugandan authorities.
“The demand from the other side (Uganda) is you must open the border. And we say yeah, we will open the borders. But how about the origin of the problem?” President Kagame said.
“We don’t want to open borders which will only be one way. The other ones who use it, you arrest them. Because if you are talking about trade, but you arrest people using the border points, do you want goods to just move like these driverless vehicles; it is going to be difficult finding sacks of beans moving on their own.”
“If you have people who committed crimes, do you pile them and fail to produce them in a court of law? This has been our concern. It is some kind of mess. We should be better than this, and can definitely do better,” he added.