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Did two Belgian nationals fall victim to Rwandan death squads?
Two citizens of Bruges died in South-Africa under suspicious circumstances. The family of the first victim, Thomas Ngeze, points the finger at the Rwandan State. The family of Pieter-Jan Staelens, the second victim, has doubts about Rwanda’s part in the two deaths. To anyone who has ever been into contact with Rwandan secret services, this double tragedy brings up bad memories.
In June 2018 Thomas Ngeze was found dead in a Johannesburg hotel room. He was the son of Hassan Ngeze, a Rwandan journalist sentenced for complicity in Rwandan genocide. Father Ngeze is currently serving his sentence in a UN prison in Mali. He recently applied for early release. According to his family, the Rwandan government is sending him a clear message, with Thomas’ death.
On the request of the Ngeze family, Pieter-Jan Staelens was following up the investigation of Thomas’ death. At the end of July Pieter-Jan himself dies in a car fire. According to Ngeze’s family there is a direct connection between the two deaths and involvement of Rwandan death squads cannot be ruled out.
South-Africa is a country where Rwandan spies have been suspected of actively assaulting their enemies. In Belgium as well, secret services were forced to protect individuals from ‘serious threats from the Rwandan embassy’. State security cannot officially confirm that Rwandan death squads have been active on Belgian soil. Witnesses and experts however suspect they have been.
South-Africa is known territory for Rwandan death squads
In the local newspaper Krant van West-Vlaanderen, the family of Thomas Ngeze’s states that Thomas had an appointment with people from the Rwandan embassy just before his death. Camera images of the hotel registered how he was accompanied from the lobby to the hotel room where he was found dead later.
Thomas’ death is reminiscent of the death of Patrick Karegeya. On New Year’s Eve 2013 mister Karegeya was found lifeless in a Johannesburg hotel room. His last encounter was recorded on camera as well. The former chief of Rwandan secret services had already been under political protection in South- Africa for several years and had already survived two attempts on his life. That night however, the hotel meeting ended dramatically.
The investigation on the death of Patrick Karegeya never delivered any results, but two months later an attempt on yet another Rwandan dissident, general Faustin Nyamwasa, failed, once again the attempt took place on South-African soil. South-Africa evicted three Rwandan diplomats following the incident. Diplomatic relations between both countries have dropped to a low point.
A few months later two Canadian journalists, Geoffrey York and Judi Rever, removed all doubts. In a thorough piece in The Globe and Mail, they shared secret recordings of a man who was given the assignment to assassinate both Patrick Karegeya and Faustin Nyamwase. In exchange for successfully executing the mission, Robert Higiro, former major in the Rwandan army, was promised one million dollars and shares in a telecom company.
Fearing for his own life, Higiro did not dare to refuse immediately. He decided to play along, but taped the conversations. When negotiations slowed down, due to issues with advance payments, Higiro decided to flee the country and applied for political asylum in Belgium. After the murder on Karegeya and the failed attempt on the life of Nyamwesa, Higiro shared his story with York and Rever.
Rwandan secret services feel at home in Belgium
Higiro’s audio-recordings and the research of York and Rever confirm the suspicions that the Rwandan government deploys death squads in order to silence opponents of the country . Suspicious deaths were reported not only in South-Africa, but in Uganda and Kenya as well, All of these incidents were attributed to the activities of Rwandan death squads. In Europe several attempts were foiled as well.
In the United Kingdom secret services offered protection to Rwandan critics after they had established a serious threat from the Rwandan embassy. This year British security services are reported to have provided protection for Noble Marara, former bodyguard of president Kagame and author of the book Behind the Presidential Curtains.
Guy Rapaille, withdrawing president of Committee I, the committee of supervision on the intelligence and security services, stated in an interview with the magazine Knack earlier this year, that the presence of Rwandan death squads in Europe is not to be ruled out. He was not able to make any claims about their involvement in Belgium.
Canadian journalist Judi Rever does not question the fact that Rwandan death squads could strike on Belgian soil. She appeared to have become a target of Rwandan security services during a work visit to Belgium in 2014. Rever was working on the preparations of her book In Praise of Blood, which will appear in Dutch in October at Amsterdam University Press. The book describes the crimes of president Kagame’s former rebel forces during and after Rwandan genocide on the Tutsi in the spring of 1994.
‘The threats came from the Rwandan embassy’
When Rever arrived in the hotel in Brussels in 2014, she was awaited by Belgian state security. ‘There had been reliable information that indicated that my safety was at stake. I was informed that the threat came from the Rwandan embassy.’ During her stay in Belgium Rever was put under protection around the clock.
It is not common for foreign journalists to be granted this level of protection in Belgium. ‘My protection must have cost the Belgian state a fortune,’ Rever stated, ‘I had received some threatening messages, but I mostly thought they were just trying to scare me. That day I realized that I was in real danger.’
‘I trust Belgian state security, but Belgian politicians not so much’
Although the experience left a deep impression on Judi Rever, her book still appeared. ‘Whoever writes about Rwanda, soon becomes part of the story. I had to complete this mission. But I do have to confess that ever since I think twice before writing a story on Rwanda, asking myself if it is really worth it to place myself in such a vulnerable position.’
‘Given their experience, Belgium and South-Africa will seriously consider the Rwandan track’
‘I personally have too little information to express an opinion on the deaths of the two Belgians in South-Africa. But I do follow the case’, Rever confirms. ‘Belgium and South-Africa are both countries that have experience with the Rwandan secret services. I assume they have an eye for possible leads that could lead to Rwanda.’
Rever believes that the two countries, given their experience, will at least take the Rwandan track seriously. She also compliments the professional approach of the Belgian security service.
Jean Marie Micombero, a Rwandan dissident whose safety has been in danger in Belgium, shares the same confidence. Once he was the Secretary-General of the Rwandan ministry of Defense and a member of the country’s court-martial. Since 2011 he has been granted protection as a political refugee.
‘Belgian politicians do not seem aware of the clandestine activities of the country on Belgian soil. Rwanda takes advantage of this.’
‘I do not think the Belgian security services underestimate Rwanda. The real danger is Belgian politicians underestimating Rwanda. They do not seem aware of the clandestine activities of the country on Belgian soil. Rwanda takes advantage of this.’
He feels safe in Belgium however, ‘because in Belgium there is knowledge and experience about Rwanda which you cannot find easily in other countries. But there must also be a political will to curtail certain activities and impose sanctions if things get out of hand.’ Micombero has less confidence in his new homeland on this level.
Spreading fear and doubt is a weapon
Rwanda’s secret services, and perhaps also its death squads, may be active in South Africa and Belgium. Whether Rwanda would really go as far as to kill two Belgian men on South African soil, just to rely a message to a man who has already been convicted, is a different question.
‘Suspicion alone frightens many people’
Judi Rever thinks that Rwanda is most dangerous when incriminating information about the state threatens to surface. ‘But you cannot exclude anything. Suspicion alone frightens many people.’
The psychological effect of these two cases on Rwanda’s critical voices and dissidents has in fact already become reality. Presumptions of espionage also put pressure on mutual trust within the Rwandan diaspora in Belgium.
Jean Marie Micombero confirms that the spread of fear is an important weapon of the Rwandan secret services. ‘Someone who does not know Rwanda that well might say that we are all somewhat paranoid. But I know the system all too well. You have to consider every possibility.’
‘Daily Rwanda recruits people in Belgium to spy within the diaspora.’ For that reason, Micombero built some safety mechanisms in his daily routine. But he continues to maintain contacts within the Rwandan community. ‘I want to stay informed about what is happening in my country. Unlike others I will not isolate myself, but I am always on my guard.’
Belgian youngsters from the Rwandan diaspora are set up against each other
Micombero is strategic and careful in his contacts within the Rwandan diaspora in Belgium. He advises Belgian young people of Rwandan descent who want to strengthen ties with the country of origin, to be more cautious. According to him this group is a particular target for recruitment. ‘Rwanda organizes camps for youngsters from the diaspora. These are campaigns that serve to stir up patriotic feelings and then recruit gullible youngsters for their own foreign agenda’, warns Micombero.
Natacha Abingeneye, one of the driving forces behind Jambo VZW, an association for human rights that unites young people from the diaspora of the Great Lakes region, recognizes the story. ‘I see a lot of Belgian young people leave for Rwanda. Sometimes to enter such a camp. Sometimes it goes a step further and a youngster is promised a nice career in the country of origin.’
But according to Natacha, such a professional offer is rarely unconditional, which only becomes clear much later. ‘A young Belgian was offered a nice job at the Rwandan ministry. But after a promising start the threats and intimidations followed. Afterwards he turned out not to have met certain expectations. They thought he was close with a person in Belgium, who held the interest of the Rwandan secret services. When the connection did not seem that strong after all he did not turn out to be a useful pawn and he got into trouble. I can give you more examples like this.’
‘That Belgian youngsters are being used weighs on the relationships within the community’
‘The fact that Belgian youngsters are being used in Rwanda’s foreign strategy weighs on the relationships within the community’, says Natacha. ‘We grow up together in Belgium and initially we do not even know who is Hutu and who is Tutsi. We go to the same schools and meet each other at the same parties.’ But when Natacha and her friends try to diversify Jambo, where the members mainly have a Hutu background, the unity quickly disintegrates.
‘Young people with a Tutsi background are suddenly warned about the fact that we are children of genocidaires and therefore dangerous.’ According to Natacha, it goes so far that friends preventively broke contact with her before traveling to Rwanda. Friendships on Facebook are increasingly being broken after intimidations and insinuations.
‘Many young people may initially be somewhat naive about the activities of Rwanda on Belgian soil, but that naivety quickly disappears when you consider the impact on real bonds and friendships’, says Natacha.
A difficult search for truth begins
On social media Natacha often receives threats due to her activities at Jambo. ‘At a certain point I was so frightened it affected my health. I started to shut myself in, was constantly looking over my shoulder. My career and private life suffered severely. Moving has brought me a lot of peace.’
The concerns of the family of Thomas Ngeze are personally dear to Natacha. Her father was also suspected of being a part of the Rwandan genocide. In 2005 he participated in an investigation of the Rwandan tribunal. However, he never appeared before the tribunal because his body was discovered in the canal of Brussels that very year.’
‘His disappearance and death were initially considered suspicious. Before his death he left a letter in custody with different people. If something should happen with him the letter should be released.’ The father of Natacha stated in his writing that he was under pressure to make incriminating statements against certain individuals. According to him he had been asked to make false accusations. He wanted to make an official statement before the tribunal, but wished to end cooperation with the researchers.
‘We never got the answers we hoped to get’
In the end the official cause of death was ‘suicide’. ‘Incredible’, according to his daughter. ‘Maybe it was the Rwandan government, maybe Hutu extremists, maybe there is yet another explanation for his death. But it is not suicide. We never got the answers we hoped to get,’ Natacha says. ‘I empathize with the family of Thoma Ngenze and Pieter-Jan Staelens and hope that they will receive the answers I never got.’
Meanwhile the Belgian Prosecutor is following the South-African investigation into the passing of the two residents of Bruges. Both in Belgium and in South Africa, the two deaths are currently regarded as two separate files. The public prosecutor’s office is also preparing an application to conduct its own judicial investigation in South Africa.
This piece was translated from Dutch by Elise Vandepoele and Pable Elisa Velásquez Llanos