On Christmas day in 2018, Bella was walking out of a hotel in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, where she had been booked to sing for the holiday. After her show, she celebrated with friends and enjoyed the afternoon at the hotel bar. Stepping onto the street to make her way home, Bella— whose name has been changed due to concerns for her safety—was stopped by police officers.
“I had my service card that showed I was working there, they didn’t care about that,” she told VICE World News. Bella said that authorities then took her to the neighborhood police station. She wasn’t guilty of a crime, but the police falsely asserted that she was homeless and that she sold drugs. They also referred to her as a “he” instead of a “she.”
Bella is a transgender woman, and while Rwanda is considered one of East Africa’s most progressive countries, legal protections for its LGBTQ community are not guaranteed. Although transgender people in Rwanda cannot be charged with a crime based on their sexuality or gender identity, they are frequently abused by law enforcement and detained for indeterminate amounts of time at facilities that lack transparency.
When the police finished her charge report, they transferred her to the Gikondo Transit Center, a facility that, according to a government letter of intent, temporarily houses and rehabilitates people exhibiting “deviant acts or behaviors.” It was a place she had been sent before on similarly unfounded accusations.
“That is where the bad life started,” said Bella. “When you reach there they directly cut your hair, they remove your clothes, and see who you are. They put me in front of 400 people and removed my clothes. They said, ‘See how he’s behaving, and he has a penis.’”
Bella was held at the Gikondo Center for six weeks before she was released. During that time, she said, her rights were violated through constant abuse and assault. Forced to stay in a tiny room known as “the cat box” intermittently throughout her detainment as punishment, Bella was held in a dark, dirty chamber and had to urinate and defecate on herself. “You can’t move,” she said. “No window, nothing, a hole just for one person. After that I was out of my mind.”
“I was told to become a man,” she added, describing her many beatings. “They told me I was a demon, that because of me God doesn’t help the world, and rain doesn’t come.” Bella also said that she was raped by fellow detainees at least three separate times that she can recall. “Without a condom, without lubricant…You start thinking bad things, even willing to do suicide.”
In 2016, at an event in San Francisco, an American reporter asked Rwandan president Paul Kagame his thoughts on how LGBTQ Rwandans fit into the nation’s future. “It hasn't been our problem and we don't intend to make it a problem,” Kagame told an enthusiastic crowd. It was a simple and relatively benign response, but it was worlds apart from what leaders in neighboring Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi had to say; all are on record calling for the arrest, banishment, or even death of LGBTQ people in their respective countries.
Rwanda could have gone down that path, but chose not to during a 2009 review of its penal code. A number of Rwandan parliamentarians called for the criminalization of same-sex relations following the passage of a similar Ugandan bill, but a coalition of Rwandan human rights organizations and international advocates successfully argued against it. Then-Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama struck down the proposed addition and said, “The government I serve and speak for on certain issues cannot and will not in any way criminalize homosexuality.”
In 2011, Rwanda signed a joint United Nations statement condemning global violence against LGBTQ people, making the country one of only six African nations and 85 countries internationally to do so. Of Africa’s 54 countries, Rwanda is one of 22 without laws that criminalize same-sex conduct.
Yet, despite these successes, Rwanda’s government still does not acknowledge the abuse of LGBTQ citizens like Bella.
“Homosexuality is not criminalized in Rwanda, but many LGBTI people keep their sexuality and gender identity secret in an attempt to avoid rejection, discrimination and abuse, which in the long run inevitably denies them their basic human rights,” said Nizeyimana Seleman, executive director of Hope And Care Organization, a Rwandan group that works to increase educational opportunities and health services to LGBTQ youth and sex workers. “This has led many more to choose to silence when faced with injustice.” (In Rwanda, the LGBTQ community is most often referred to as LGBTI).
“The worst times of my life were spent in that center.”
Although Rwanda’s constitution protects citizens from discrimination, it doesn’t specify protections for one’s sexual orientation or gender identity explicitly, as it does for ancestry, race, sex, religion, economic status, physical and mental disability, cultural differences, opinion, language, and “any other form of discrimination.” The lack of explicit legal protections for LGBTQ Rwandans enables the arbitrary detention of transgender people like Bella in the Gikondo Transit Center, which is known not only for its abuse of the LGBTQ community, but for its historical mistreatment of homeless youth.
In 2006, Human Rights Watch reported unchecked abuse against street children at the center. Known locally as “Kwa Kabuga”—meaning “Kabuga’s place” in reference to its former use as a holding facility for genocide financer Félicien Kabuga—the massive campus holds Kigali’s homeless children, street hawkers, sex workers, and others. Local and regional media outlets have reported on abuses at Gikondo Center, notably of a college student who was beaten so badly at the facility in 2013 that he later died. But officials have routinely denied allegations of abuse at Gikondo Center, and scathing Human Rights Watch reports released in 2015 and 2020 were met with staunch consternation by public officials. Justice Minister Johnston Busingye said the latest report was “politically motivated,” but did not respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE World News.
“The worst times of my life were spent in that center,” Mugisha, a former street child who wished to remain anonymous to protect his privacy, told VICE World News. Mugisha estimates that he was seized and held at the Gikondo Center almost two dozen times.
“Because it falls under the notion of rehabilitation, they completely skirt accountability,” Lewis Mudge, Central Africa Director of Human Rights Watch, said about the center. “They skirt basic norms which would respect not only the rights, but the dignity of these people who are being accused.”
The largest of 28 transit centers operating across Rwanda, the Gikondo Center serves the entire municipality of Kigali. Thousands of people pass through these facilities every year that are, theoretically, supposed to rehabilitate people exhibiting “deviant behaviors,” or temporarily house them during their transfer to a separate rehabilitation center or jail. “Deviant” in the eyes of Rwandan law enforcement can essentially be anything, according to the ministerial order determining the function of transit centers, which outlines a few key offenses such as begging and informal street vending, as well as “any other deviant behavior that is harmful to the public.” Importantly, homosexuality is not listed as a “deviant” behavior on the form.
In an annual report published last year, Rwanda’s own National Commission for Human Rights wrote that some people are wrongfully admitted to transit centers due to this open-ended definition. They advised a review of the clause, considering “the last sentence leaves a loophole so that some persons can take advantage and abuse human rights.” The same report found that some people at Gikondo Center had spent more than three months in the facility, though legally, according to the government document, a person “cannot exceed a period of two months in the center.” Those apprehended in transit centers are also “not to be subjected to any form of discrimination,” or “corporal punishment.” (Rwanda’s National Rehabilitation Service, or NRS, is in charge of the administration of all transit centers; Director General Gilbert Gumira did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Gabi, a transgender woman whose name has been changed due to safety concerns, told VICE World News that she was detained in Gikondo Center for six months in 2018. Gabi said authorities told her, “We are going to keep you here until you change, you will remain here until we see that you are no longer a girl as you are saying.”
“We are going to keep you here until you change, you will remain here until we see that you are no longer a girl as you are saying.”
“The others could stay one month, two weeks,” Gabi said. “They asked me, 'We see that you are a boy, why do you say that you are a woman?' And they beat me every day. I even prayed so that I could die, instead of continuing like that.”
“Issues go wrong at the umudugudu [village] level,” said Tom Mulisa, executive director of the Great Lakes Initiative for Human Development, a legal nonprofit focusing on human rights. “That’s where things are going bad.” According to the regulatory framework for the centers, almost anyone can call for another person to be sent to a transit center. Family members often call their village leader upon recognition of their child’s gender identity or sexuality, who then communicate with a community security force to bring the accused to a police station. There, police make the transfer to the Gikondo Center.
Mugisha said that during his repeated stays at the facility in the early and mid-2000s, teenagers perceived to be LGBTQ were always treated significantly worse than other street children, and were even targeted and abducted by authorities to the center. “If they catch you and they can see that you're gay, they'll just take you, even when you've done nothing,” Mugisha said. “The ones who looked girlish were always beaten up. They never let those kids go. They would stay there and suffer.”
When Nunu moved to Kigali from the countryside at 18 years old, it was her first time ever meeting other transgender people. “We shared a life like sisters,” she said. “I was very happy because when I was together with them, I could feel safe.”
Nunu, whose name has been changed to protect her safety, first worked as an umukozi, a Kinyarwanda word meaning “worker” that usually denotes duties like housework, cooking, and child care. When she had free time, Nunu met other members of the LGBTQ community while attending trainings about stigma-free healthcare and employment. Nunu was learning about her rights for the first time, and became inspired. The more she met others who shared her life experience, the more involved she became. “I started a life together with the other trans, and planned how to do something to fight for our rights.”
While Nunu was proud of earning her own money, and would often enjoy nights out with her friends in Kigali’s Nyarugenge District, their reception by other patrons was mixed. At bars, she said, they were often turned away or beaten. “Even if you have money, they tell you they're not going to give you anything,” Nunu said. It was during one of these evenings Nunu was first detained by police, as she attempted to take a motorcycle taxi home. She was asked for her national identification card, which lists her gender as male. Nunu said the police asked her, “Why do you look like a girl?”
“That is how I was born,” she told them. “They took me directly because of that reason.”
Nunu was detained at Gikondo Center three times between 2018 and 2019. “The life at that center is very bad, but when it comes to trans people it is another thing entirely,” she said. “When they find you are a part of the LGBTI community they give you a case which will help you remain there.”
False charges are frequently used to detain transgender people at the Center, and Mulisa told VICE World News that detainees are frequently accused of drug use. “They are never found wth the substance that they are alleged to be taking,” Mulisa said. “When they find you don’t have any [legal] case, they keep you at Kabuga. This becomes a pretext for anyone, it is simple to say we are holding you for being in possession [of drugs].”
Rwanda’s transit centers are supposed to charge alleged offenders within 72 hours of arrival, when they are then transferred to a police station and taken to court for a hearing, or placed in a separate rehabilitation facility. Transgender people can’t be charged with a crime based on their gender identity, but unsubstantiated claims can keep them at Gikondo Center for an indeterminate amount of time. “They will make sure you cannot gather a single account or trace that the person has been arrested for allegedly being LGBTI,” said Mulisa, who has helped four transgender people leave Gikondo Center in October 2020 alone. All four were apprehended on drug charges, and only one accusation was legitimate. While some transgender Rwandans are correctly implicated in drug use by police officers, many face unfounded charges and conspicuously transphobic abuse in the transit centers.
The second time Nunu was apprehended and taken to Gikondo Center, she was working in Kigali’s Nyabugogo bus park. There, police accused her of theft. The third time, she was accompanying a friend to the hospital with several other transgender people. All of them were seized by police, and later taken to the center. “I experienced a very hard life, being beaten, [other people held at the transit center] were exchanging me for sex,” Nunu said. “They said that I brought Satan to them. I missed peace, and I was hopeless.”
“They treat you like you are not a human being.”
Bella also noted that authorities at the Gikondo Center told detainees to not tell people what happened to them. She said that they told her that if she shared her experience with anyone, “you will see more than this.” Bella, Nunu, and Gabi all told VICE World News that they were also released from the center without exit documents, which made it even harder to hold their abusive jailers accountable. Now, Bella hopes her story will change the future for Rwanda’s transgender community.
“They treat you like you are not a human being,” Bella said. “It’s not rehabilitation where they put people to suffer. It’s like in hell.”
Dr. Aflodis Kagaba runs the Health Development Initiative, a Rwandan non-profit organization working to advance healthcare for vulnerable communities including LGBTQ, sex workers, and women seeking safe abortions. He says that of all the identities represented under the LGBTQ umbrella, transgender Rwandans face the highest stigma.
“When it comes to transgenders, they have very specific challenges,” Kagaba told VICE World News. “Most likely they are the ones who find themselves going to Kwa Kabuga or being pushed [out] by communities, or being rejected wherever they are.”
Sulemani Muhirwa, an Human Development Initiative Program Officer primarily serving the LGBTQ community, and the coordinator for one of HDI’s community centers in Kigali, says that the lack of awareness to LGBTQ rights extends beyond the community level, into the ranks of law enforcement. On a visit to the Gikondo Center in 2018 to investigate if a transgender person was detained without cause, Muhirwa himself was suddenly targeted by the center’s police commander.
Muhira told VICE World News that an officer asked him, “Are they allowed? They can even dress like that?” A crowd of people waiting to visit friends and relatives inside the facility looked on, while Muhirwa tried to explain the legal rights of LGBTQ people. The commander began to mock him, and accused him of being a lesbian.
“Education about rights, protection, and freedom of LGBTI members is needed for law enforcement,” Muhirwa said. “[As] duty bearers, they should respect, protect and fulfill the rights of LGBTI people as they do for other community members.” Muhirwa’s organization has conducted numerous sensitization trainings across a range of sectors in the last decade, in an attempt to bridge that divide.
Advocates for Rwanda’s LGBTQ community hope the country will rise to its constitutionally-enshrined ideals of anti-discrimination and protection under the law for all Rwandans. “From 2018 I can testify to some valuable changes in terms of behaviors and perceptions,” Muhirwa said. He cites a more tolerant media landscape, successful sensitization campaigns, and the gradual expansion of stigma-free healthcare as part of that shift. But there is still work to be done for full recognition of rights for transgender people, he acknowledged. “I hope soon Rwandan society will treat them as their fellow Rwandans who also need that freedom, respect, protection, and love.”
“The journey to change people's beliefs takes time,” Kagaba said. “When we train law enforcement like the police, or some lawyers, for the first time it’s very hard. But the more you continue conversations, it opens up. And you can see that people have a shift in their thinking.”
Still, a transformation is happening. In July, the Great Lakes Initiative for Human Development secured a 24 hour toll-free number for wrongfully arrested LGBTQ Rwandans. The hotline was funded by UNAIDS in partnership with the Rwanda Biomedical Center. “We put in place two lawyers to always intervene whenever there is an arrest,” Mulisa said. “If we can provide such a service, when some people are falsely accused and falsely arrested, [we] can stop this.”
“My God, that is what we need,” Bella said when she first learned about the hotline. Having direct contact with lawyers in the presence of police is helpful, she said, because of their expertise. “You have someone who [can] speak for you…they will treat you well, like they treat others.”
Since July, five transgender people have used the hotline following their arrest by police. All were released.