Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, stands out as a safe and tidy city. Keeping Kigali clean, however, comes at a high price for those who can least afford to pay it – the city’s homeless, its street hawkers, and others living on society’s edge. Rounded up on a regular basis, these ”undesirables” are locked away in Rwanda’s Gikondo Transit Center, where several hundred people may share a room in cramped conditions, supplies of food and water are insufficient, and certain detainees called “counselors” beat other detainees with wooden sticks. A Human Rights Watch researcher speaks with Birgit Schwarz about the new report, ‘Why Not Call This Place a Prison?’, and the realities in Gikondo Transit Center.
Who are the people held at the center and why were they detained?
The people detained at Gikondo are among the poorest in the capital. They include street hawkers, homeless people, sex workers, beggars, and other vulnerable people from the margins of society -- people who are seen as tarnishing Rwanda’s image as a safe and progressive country. They are arbitrarily rounded up by the police on the streets of Kigali. Gikondo is where people often go to look for a relative or friend who has gone missing. Thousands of people have passed through the center over the past 10 years.
In what way and how often do these round-ups happen?
The round-ups happen arbitrarily, without arrest warrants or any other legal procedures. One woman told us she was arrested on her way to the market and accused of being a prostitute. Many women, especially street vendors, are arrested with their young children. The round-ups come in waves, a former detainee told us. At times nobody is arrested for a whole week and then all of a sudden, there can be round-ups every day. Sometimes as many as 70 people are arrested at the same time, put on trucks and taken to Gikondo.
On what legal grounds are sex workers and homeless people arrested? Are they committing an offense according to Rwandan law?
Sex work and vagrancy are illegal in Rwanda. Human Rights Watch believes that criminalization of sex work is harmful to sex workers, who are overwhelmingly women, and exposes them to enhanced risk of harm, exploitation and violations of their rights. A wider concern here is that due process is not being followed. The arrests are arbitrary, there are no processes in place to regulate arrests, detention, or release. None of the former detainees we had spoken to had been charged or brought before a court. There is not even a legal framework that governs Gikondo, as the minister of justice admitted to us in a letter last year.
In what conditions are these people held?
The center consists of a large warehouse with four rooms built around a courtyard. Former detainees compared its layout to “airplane hangars, big and long.” Several hundred detainees can be made to share one of these rooms; sometimes they do not even have enough space to lie down. Detainees have different names to describe these rooms. They often refer to the women’s room as the room for prostitutes or sex workers, even though many of the women were arrested for other alleged offenses. Another room, for men accused of minor offenses, is commonly called the room for “men who stole and who continue to deny it.”
The standard food ration consists of a cup of boiled maize, sometimes mixed with beans, once a day. Water is only provided sporadically. Medical care is erratic. Hygiene and sanitary conditions are very bad. Mothers with young children are not provided with milk or baby food. The kids are given porridge once a day mixed with water. When there is no porridge, they are given the water that was used to cook the beans.
Detainees are not allowed to contact relatives, friends or lawyers to inform them that they are held at the center, and they cannot receive visits.
Detainees are beaten on a regular basis. Most of the beatings are carried out by other detainees, known as “counselors,” whom the police have put in charge of the center’s internal security. They carry wooden sticks of which they make ample use any time a detainee breaks trivial rules, such as stepping out of the toilet line or talking too loudly. The first beatings usually occur upon arrival to extort “candle money” – money to avoid the beatings. Those who cannot afford to pay, get the stick.
The government claims Gikondo is a rehabilitation center. Why do you call it a detention center?
Rehabilitation implies some sort of process geared toward a positive outcome and reintegration into society. Yet every former detainee we spoke to testified that the period they spent in Gikondo had made their life more difficult. Some had undergone extreme suffering there, as a result of ill-treatment and the deplorable conditions. None of the former detainees we spoke to had gone through any form of rehabilitation or other activities at Gikondo, or received any support or assistance.
Once released, some former detainees, especially sex workers and street vendors, simply went back to the work that had led to their arrest in the first place, for lack of alternatives. As a result, many were then re-arrested and sent back to Gikondo, not only once, but several times. Some of those we spoke to had lost count of the number of times they had been taken there.
Who decides when a detainee is to be released?
Decisions on releases are as arbitrary as decisions on arrests. People can be detained in Gikondo for periods ranging from a few days to several months. Sometimes the guards will decide that a detainee has spent enough time at the center and they’ll simply release them. One woman told us she was released when her 7-month-old son got sick and could not eat anymore. The easiest way to get out is to pay the police. Corruption is common in Gikondo.
What was the most shocking story you came across?
Earlier this year, a woman whom our researcher had already interviewed several times came to see us and broke down crying. She was a street hawker, selling clothing and belts. This time around she had been detained with her small child and, too destitute to pay for “candle money,” was beaten by the “counselors.” “They beat us like cows,” she said. The place made her feel less than human. “You know, we have no one else to go to,” she told us. “Are you going to help us close this place?”
What was the hardest part of this research?
The hardest part was probably trying to reassure the victims that we were going to guard their confidentiality, not reveal their identity, and persuade them that they could speak to us freely. Although they were fearful, many were adamant that the truth about Gikondo be told. “We live in fear of this place,” they’d say. “Do what you can to close this place.”
How did you find out about the center?
We’ve known about it for at least 10 years, since 2005. In 2006, we already published a report on children (particularly street children) who were detained there. It was only in August 2014 that the Rwandan authorities decided to stop sending children to Gikondo.
What do you want the Rwandan government to do about the situation?
Gikondo should be closed immediately. If the Rwandan police have grounds for believing any of the detainees should be charged with a legitimate criminal offense, those people should be transferred to an official normal detention center, brought before a court, and put through the correct process. The Rwandan police should stop rounding up people who are vulnerable and marginalized, and who live on the parameters of the economy and society. Their lives are already difficult enough as it is.
This interview has been edited and condensed.