Rwanda island rehab haven has dark side

2014-08-05 22:17
Iwawa, Rwanda which hosts a rehabilitation and skills development centre. (Stephanie Aglietti, AFP)

Iwawa, Rwanda which hosts a rehabilitation and skills development centre. (Stephanie Aglietti, AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Iwawa - Surrounded by glittering waters, Rwanda's remote Iwawa island appears idyllic, but it has housed thousands of drug users, as well as reputedly those the authoritarian government deems unsuitable for society.

Isaac Mugange was an alcoholic and heavy smoker of cannabis, but the 24-year computer technician was sent to the Iwawa Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Centre, a tiny island in the vast waters of Lake Kivu, to wean himself off drugs.

"A family council decided to send me here to rehabilitation, and I agreed," said the young man, who comes from a wealthy background. His large eyes are still reddened by years of abuse.

The jungle-clad island ringed by beaches could appear at times like a holiday camp.

But it has a darker reputation: on the mainland, Iwawa is spoken of by some as a "Guantanamo" or "Alcatraz", a reference to the infamous US prisons.

Critics say Iwawa, officially set up to help drug addicts, also houses beggars, homeless people, street children and petty criminals - or anyone who might taint the clean image Rwanda seeks to promote.

Rwanda's tough leaders have sought to rebuild a society left in ruins after the 1994 genocide, pouring energy into creating an orderly nation with smooth roads, efficient administration and tight security - efforts that critics say can also go too far, suppressing dissent.

Like nearly 2 000 others aged between 18 and 35, Mugange spent a year on the island some 28km from the mainland of southwestern Rwanda. After six months attending sessions with a psychologist, he is now learning carpentry.

Rwandan authorities insist it is a drug detox and rehabilitation centre, not a detention island or prison.

"This centre is a training school that helps youths, first to get rid of drugs, but also to develop professional skills that can help them earn a living... and become a solution for the government rather than a burden," said Servilien Bizimana, deputy director of the centre.


In a workshop nearby, Mugange and 20 companions cut and sand down wood. Behind a basketball court, dozens of youths sitting under shade trees listen to lessons on hygiene.

Others wait at the health centre to be circumcised, as part of a government program aimed to reduce the risk of AIDS.

The centre's leaders insist all residents are on the island voluntarily.

While the government "reserves the right to help the addicts" by sending them to Iwawa, centre co-ordinator Nicolas Niyongabo said they are all still free to leave the island if they wish.

But in Rwanda's capital Kigali, one former resident insists that several escape attempts resulted in drowning. The centre's management says two people drowned due to swimming accidents in 2013.

On the island, Olivier, a man in his 30s, admits to being a drug addict and alcoholic.

"I was arrested by police in Kigali. I was drunk and I didn't have my papers," he said, sitting at a sewing machine.

"I want so much to go to Kigali... my wife does not know where I have been for the past five months, because I do not know the phone number."

Centre residents are allowed to make telephone calls and receive visits, but many families are not informed when their relatives are sent to the island, often on simple administrative orders without legal processes.

Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye said courts were not needed "to make that kind of decision", but doctors and psychologists on the basis of risk and the chance of rehabilitation.

Street hawker

Jean-Claude Rushinga, 24, has spent five months on the island. He denies being an addict, claiming instead to have been a unlicensed street hawker selling clothes.

"I was selling clothes and the police caught me," he said, adding philosophically he had since accepted his exile.

"I said to myself, for once in my life after all, I am going to learn something."

But Niyongabo insists the man is in denial.

"The state spends a lot of money each year on the centre" for drug addicts, and does not deal with simple street vendors, he said.

Nonetheless Rwanda has admitted that last year it sent more then 280 alleged army deserters to be "re-educated" at the site.

Security on the island is provided by the army, although no soldier was seen during the visit by AFP.

And the management denies any mistreatment of residents.

But in Kigali, several former residents complained of severe military-style discipline and corporal punishment.

"There was terrible punishments - caning, walking in a crouched position, you lie on the ground and water is poured on you," a former resident told AFP, asking not to be named.

"I think it is good that the Iwawa centre exists, but it should reduce the punishment," the young man said, who added that he believes his stay enabled him to stop drugs and resume his studies.

Read more on:    rwanda  |  east africa  |  narcotics

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
1 comment
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.