A Clean Operation: How Rwanda Relocated Thousands Of Notorious Prisoners Broad Day Light

It is 6:00AM and inmates at the famous 1930 prison are up. It is the D-day. All male prisoners will be treated to a glimpse into the new looking City of Kigali as they head to someplace they have never been to. 1930 is located right in the heart of the city, but prison walls create an isolated world for just them.

They have no clue of the happenings out there, except for one thing; they see buildings erecting above the prisons’ sky every other day.

The city grows taller every day. And that is all they know. Now, the outing today has a twist to it. It will be a one way tour.

Once out of this prison, there will be no return. They are heading to Mageragere prison, another facility that has been under construction for over five years.

It begins with their breakfast. An hour later headcount begins. And anxiety sets in, engulfing everyone. Some prisoners had not seen the outside world for years, a dozen years and more, for many.

1930 is Rwanda’s maximum security prison, so old thus its name. Notorious and high profile inmates are locked up here.

Mention big names in the prosecutors books and they are there or they were there.

Mention some of Rwanda’s notorious killers and they are here at 1930. Today’s prisoners’ transfer is not the typical Guantanamo or Alcatraz style where helicopters fly over the trucks or vehicles transporting inmates or the comical one’s in the Hollywood movies.

This is a well organized and surgical operation. Inmates have been briefed for months.

Ground work has been done and the operation’s steps have been well thought through.

Chances of a mistake are as slim as a razor blade, at least going by the chief of the security detail. It had all the blessings from the commander in chief, all the army generals and the cabinet meeting.

On paper, all is set. A go ahead has already been secured.

Move! The exercise begins; one by one, boarding the military trucks. All inmates are already briefed, remember. They had been told about the transfer weeks earlier. Nevertheless, the human psyche works in different directions regardless.

Their faces are showing mixed feelings, fear, excitement, anxiety, curiosity, others are just flat, not bothered at all.

It is a sunny Saturday morning of February 11, 2017 and over 4,000 male inmates have to relocate to Mageragere Prison, a new facility in the outskirts of the City of Kigali, ending a five-year project of relieving the ever expanding city of this burden the city had worked hard to get rid of.

Operational details

Trucks line up. And the mission begins.

Eleven open roof military trucks have been set for this mission. Other vehicles such as pickups are only meant for security personnel and officials escorting the trucks. Two trucks are set aside to carry the belongings of the inmates. The operation has to be executed during day time to avoid public suspicion and speculation.

The direction is the same, and driving at not more than 50km/hour. Trucks have to be in between pickups carrying heavily armed guards. All possible outcomes have been thought through. A possible accident? Yes, discussed. An ambush? Yes, discussed. An attempted escape? Yes, discussed. And more and more. An exhaustive list of possibilities had been discussed and interventions outlined before the task got green light.

“All security measures were taken into account,” says the Spokesperson for the Rwanda Correctional Services, Chief Inspector of Prisons (CIP) Hillary Sengabo.

It is 7:30am and the engines start. Six trucks take off. The journey takes 40 to 50 minutes. Roads have been cleared by an advance party.

As the inmates are being ferried in a convoy of protected military trucks, onlookers are wondering, ‘what is going on here?’ Clad in their pink uniforms, inmates are popping heads out of the trucks each one wants to have a clear look of the city they had not seen for years. “Inmates with no handcuffs? Where are they being taken?” city dwellers wonder.

Notably though, some notorious genocide convicts such prison Leon Mugesera are not among the relocated inmates, they are already locked up at Nyanza prison an hour more drive towards the southern province from the capital Kigali.

Meanwhile, family members of the inmates are informed.

Some members of the public are aware of the relocation too, but not informed enough about the day and the time of the move; a security detail not to be shared.

CIP Ngabo tells Taarifa that it was decided the exercise be done during the day so that the general public gets see where the prisoners are transferred to. The media is present too, and briefed. Not that much though.

The plan is to end the entire operation by 3pm. All the 4000 inmates will have been transferred and ushered into their respective cells.

Mission accomplished. It is 3pm and task is well executed. End of story.

The Mageragere Prison
The new facility has a capacity to host at least 9,500 inmates. At a later date, more 5,500 male inmates will be relocated from Gasabo prison, commonly known as Kimironko prison, who will join the ones from 1930. The plan is likely to be treated the same way. No details.

Mageragere prison is a double storey building with electricity, separate toilets, bathing rooms, modern kitchen running biogas, health facilities with high speed internet at the premises. Yeah, it is a luxurious home; no similar facility exists in the world.

Prisoners are gone, residents have mixed feelings
Some residents near 1930 expressed their disappointment over relocation, but others feel comfortable. Jean Twagiramungu 33, lives near 1930. He says business has been paralyzed and his sales have dropped. “Inmates and prison guards were potential clients coming to buy in our shops every day. We miss them. Our businesses are not doing well anymore,” says Twagiramungu.
Yet, for some reasons, other residents had no idea about what happned. Mukanoheli Jeanne 35 is not aware of the relocation of 1930 prison. For her, the absence and the inmate’s presence contribute nothing to her life.

“As a casual worker in Kigali, I usually wake up very early reporting to work and come back later in the evening,” she notes.

it does matter anyway, says CIP Ngabo,  construction of Mageragere and relocation of inmates was an urgent matter because 1930 prison is very old.

“It is situated in the middle of the city with high congestion, so we had to relocate for their safety and to ensure cleanliness of the city while abiding by the prison’s international standards,” he says. 1930 does not meet the standards, originally intended for only 2,000 inmates but the number drastically increased to over 50,000 inmates following the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, with most of the inmates serving their sentence for their role in the genocide.
The awful stench from the prison latrines has been unbearable, but due to the relocation, there is some relief. Oxygen is a little fresh.

“I actually feel happier and am enjoying the new atmosphere unlike before,” says Alice Uwera, who lives near the facility.  She says the neighborhood has had a bad stench from the prison for decades. But a neighborhood surrounded by armed security guards “could make us feel uncomfortable,” Uwere says.

Nevertheless, the female prisoners will be relocated too.

Once all inmates are gone, according to city authorities, the plan is to make 1930 a museum and a recreational space.

At least for sure, the dwellers say, the ghosts haunting convicted killers will not shriek from this place anymore. “They followed their tormentors, I don’t know what to say, are we happy? or we are sad, I don’t know,” says Jeannette Uwimana. “It is going to be a totally different place.”  It a new life at 1930 and a new life at Mageragere.

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