Christella Ntirugiribambe was 22 when her father—a Rwandan national—was abducted from a busy market street in June 2015. He hasn’t been seen since.
In the years that followed his abduction in Nairobi, Kenya, she brought up her four siblings in Canada all the while living in the shadow of fear. “When he was alive I felt safe,” she told The Daily Beast. “One of the biggest things I realized after he went was that I wasn’t.”
Despite living thousands of miles from Rwanda, she is one of many members of the diaspora living in fear of the Rwandan state. The recent arrest of Paul Rusesabagina has struck a chord—a reminder that time and distance is no deterrent. “They will never stop,” says David Himbara, former senior aide and economic adviser to Rwandan President Paul Kagame now turned critic.
After years in the crosshairs of the government, an elaborate ruse involving a private jet in Dubai seemingly tricked Rusesabagina, the inspiration behind the Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda, back to Rwanda where he now languishes in jail. President Kagame has been credited with ending the genocide, which killed a reported 800,000 people, and putting the country back together in its aftermath, but his critics point to cross-border abductions and assassinations as evidence of another side: a leader that bears a grudge and stops at nothing to crush dissent.
“If you find yourself even near that country, or they can trick you there, they’ll do it. It’s the same old story,” Christella told us over the phone as we discuss the arrest of Rusesabagina. The Daily Beast spent weeks digging into what happened to her father, Jean Chrysostome Ntirugiribambe, speaking to those who knew him, including friends, family members and colleagues.
None of these people could provide any concrete evidence to prove who took Jean Chrysostome. But his disappearance is not an isolated case and the pattern has left those we spoke to, in countries from Kenya to Canada, living in fear of the same thing: the long reaching arm of the Rwandan state.
“They can poison you,” says Himbara, talking from his home in Canada. He is referring to the Rwandan government, and is reiterating a sentiment other Rwandans in exile have repeated to us. Regardless of whether there is truth to this particular accusation, the fear appears very real—and widespread.
“Once the Rwandan government has a problem with you, they never give up,” said Faustin Rukundo, a member of a Rwandan opposition group who lives in the U.K.
He speaks from experience. In 2017, his pregnant wife, British national Violette Uwamahoro, was taken off a bus by two men in civilian clothing while visiting family in Rwanda. She was held for weeks and questioned about her husband. According to the couple, the Rwandan authorities denied holding her until police in the U.K. tracked her phone. We interviewed Uwamahoro after the ordeal back in 2017: “Once the Rwandan government says they don’t have you, it means they’ll kill you or they have killed you,” she said.
Rukundo himself was subject to a hacking attack last year. He kept getting missed WhatsApp calls and when he tried to call back the numbers, no one picked up. “I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what,” he said. It turns out Rukundo had been targeted by NSO’s Pegasus, a spyware that finds its ways into the target's phone and transmits information like location details or call records.
“I can honestly tell you we are terrified,” he told The Daily Beast from the U.K. “When I get in the car, I text my wife, when I leave work, I text her.”
“The concerns of you being killed are constant,” agrees Robert Higiro, a former Rwandan military officer who fled Rwanda and now lives in the U.S. “You’d be very naive if you ever thought you were safe.”
Who was Jean Chrysostome Ntirugiribambe?
When I ask Christella Ntirugiribambe whether she is afraid of speaking out about what happened to her father, she tells me: “He’s our dad, you have to do that. If we don’t, who else will?”
On the evening he went missing, her father had just finished grocery shopping when three men approached him. According to witnesses, they then forced him into a car at gunpoint. Passers-by allegedly tried to intervene but a warning shot was fired. The vehicle sped off, with Jean Chrysostome inside. That was the last time anyone saw him.
Christella has long grappled with why. In the years before her father went missing, he had been a defense investigator and legal assistant at the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the court set up to try those deemed responsible for the genocide. He’d conducted most of his work from his home in Nairobi, shuttling to the small, dusty Tanzanian city of Arusha, the seat of the tribunal, for cases. Sometimes he also was a defense witness in cases.
The tribunal focused on prosecuting those who organized the genocide during which 800,000 people died in just 100 days. Questions about how thousands of ordinary people were sucked into a wave of genocidal madness have continued to plague Rwanda and beyond, while the international community has grappled with how it did so little to stop the violence.
But Jean Chrysostome, whose own role in the troubles is unclear, believed even those accused of the worst crimes deserved a fair hearing. And he’d been good at his job—he was a key member of the legal team that secured the acquittal of General Augustin Ndindiliyimana. Ndindiliyimana was the former chief of staff of the Gendarmerie Nationale, the national police force. He was put on trial in Arusha, charged with 10 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and other violations of the Geneva Conventions.
Technically Ndindiliyimana had been his boss, as during the genocide, Jean Chrysostome had been a captain in the Gendarmerie Nationale.
We tried to understand his role more, finding snippets from a priest’s diary entry in the court’s archives that indicated a “Captain Jean Chrysostome” may have helped evacuate refugees during an attack on a parish in June 1994. Another priest reiterated that the actions of a certain gendarme and a colonel saved many lives that day. The Daily Beast got hold of one of these priests who was then residing in France but he couldn’t remember any of the details all these years on.
The tribunal also opened up wounds on the other side of the divide. During Jean Chrysostome’s time working there, relations between Kagame and the defense side soured. This was partly on account of an idea that was gaining some traction: that he himself should stand trial at the ICTR for the downing of a plane that sparked the genocide. Members of the defense teams started getting arrested or even killed, while defense witnesses began mysteriously going missing. “It was terrifying,” recalls Francois Cantier, a French attorney who represented defendants at the ICTR. “Our life was always in the company of death.”
A Trail of Destruction
By the time Jean Chrysostome was abducted, Rwandan nationals were disappearing or winding up dead inside and outside the nation's borders.
In 2010, the country held its second elections since the genocide. Kagame had won the first direct elections by a colossal 95 per cent of the vote—and he seemed willing to use any method deemed necessary to do the same the second time around.
“This year was a dangerous year. He was becoming more violent,” said Himbara, the former Kagame aide, recalling the months before the election took place.
Himbara knew how impulsive his president could be. In 2000, he was plucked from obscurity in South Africa by President Kagame—one day the university lecturer got a call telling him he was urgently needed in Rwanda, a country he had left as a child. There was a private plane waiting for him. “While waiting to meet the president, I heard on the radio that I had been appointed as his principal private secretary,” said Himbara, chuckling at the madness of the situation.
But things got madder, and much darker. Himbara fled to South Africa in 2010 shortly after watching Kagame beat two staff members for a pair of curtains purchased in the wrong place. “It made me sick to my stomach,” he said. But it wasn’t long before Himbara also fled South Africa. His friend, Rwanda’s former chief of external intelligence turned Kagame critic Patrick Karegeya, was found strangled to death in a Johannesburg hotel on New Years Day 2014.
“A few months before, he was at my house and we were joking—if Kagame had a satellite and could see us both here, he’d get two in one go!,” says Himbara. “I went to Canada for Christmas. When I was about to return, Karegeya got hit and I never came back. I was terrified.”
Karegeya’s killing had been on the cards for a while. In late 2010, former Rwandan officer Robert Higiro says he was instructed by Rwanda’s military intelligence director to kill Karegeya and another dissident. But Hirago tipped them off and they came up with a plot to catch the Kagame regime ordering assassinations red-handed. “I reached out to Patrick [Karegeya],” Higiro tells the Daily Beast. “He advised me to go along with it and said we’d work it out together.”
The two men then secretly recorded the negotiations with the regime. He says Karegeya even set the amount he requested for carrying out the murders: 1 million dollars. The recordings were eventually given to the press and, after Karegeya’s death, Higiro testified in Congress.
But going public came with its risks. In 2015, the U.S. State Department informed Higiro of a threat to his life and relocated him from Belgium, where he was living at the time, to the U.S. “At first I didn’t think I should run as far as the West but it became very serious and I had to find my way to Brussels. But even when I got there, I had to leave,” he said.
Himbara said he has also faced threats in Canada, with a number of other Canadians reporting similar things, including lawyer Christopher Black, who worked with Jean Chrysostome on the Ndindiliyimana case.
An Ordinary Man?
But Jean Chrysostome wasn’t a high-profile figure like Himbara, Higiro or Karegeya.
By the time he disappeared, his contract with the tribunal had ended. Life had seemingly slowed down. Christella says her father was juggling starting up an agribusiness in Kenya and writing a Christian book on marriage following the death of his wife in 2012. “Some people commented on how good his relationship with my mum was, so I suppose that made him think he should write a book!” she said laughing.
But Christella says there were indications that something was wrong. Rumors were circulating among the Rwandan community in Nairobi that her father was on some kind of blacklist. “Among Rwandese people, if someone says you’re on a list, it means you probably are and you have to be careful,” she said.
Jean Chrysostome had started to take these rumors seriously. For a whole year before his abduction, his daughter says he’d been receiving strange calls. When he picked up the phone, no one would speak. So he got two phones. He started preparing the children. “He knew what could happen,” she said. But Christella doesn’t know exactly what had changed that year. “I wish I’d taken more notice,” she said. She knows he was sharing criticisms of President Kagame online, mostly over WhatsApp with friends.
She also heard from a friend of her father’s that he had been helping find safe accommodation for a man named Emmanuel Mughisa. The friend, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed this to the Daily Beast.
At the time, Mughisa was living under the pseudonym Emile Gafirita. He was due to fly to France to speak to a judge about reopening the enquiry into the plane crash of the former president, an investigation that has been a diplomatic wound between France and Rwanda. His lawyer, Francois Cantier, says Mughisa claimed to have been in the vehicle that transported missiles to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) headquarters prior to the plane being shot down. President Kagame was the commander of the RPF.
But there was a hiccup: “The judge only agreed to protect my client under his real name,” recalled Cantier, who had worked at the ICTR and was later contacted by Mughisa with the information. “I knew giving the name would be very dangerous... I know the Rwandan context.”
And he was right—within a few days of the name being put in the official court records, he says, Mughisa was gone; snatched off the streets of Nairobi.
Seven months later, Jean Chrysostome endured the same fate.
A Tangled Web
There are many question marks around the abduction of Jean Chrysostome. Why did he go missing? Was it his work at the tribunal or his efforts finding a safe house for Mugisha? Who took him and where is he now?
Cantier says he has long wondered about the connection between Mugisha and Jean Chrysostome’s disappearance. “I think my client was kidnapped, tortured for the names of people he knew and then killed.” Why not just kill him on the street if you didn’t want to know his connections, he reasoned.
Meanwhile, Christella said the car involved in the abduction was traced to the Kenyan flying squad, an elite quick response unit. According to her, a former flying squad member was later arrested for organizing her father’s kidnapping, although he was subsequently released.
The cross-border abductions of Rwandan nationals within Africa are often thought to be done with the cooperation of police officers or soldiers from their host country. For example, numerous Ugandan police officers were arrested in 2017 for the abduction of Lt. Joel Mutabazi, a former bodyguard of Kagame. Mutabazi surfaced in Rwanda and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
There were also reports that Jean Chrysostome had been working at a charity called Terram Pacis. One of their staff members, a Rwandan-Norwegian called Emmanuel Munyaruguru, had gone missing the year before while visiting refugee camps in Uganda. It is difficult to be certain that it is the same man, but an Emmanuel Munyaruguru based in Norway was listed in a U.N. report as being one of the most significant diaspora supporters of a group founded by some of the Hutu extremists involved in the genocide.
We don’t know if Jean Chrysostome was associating with people like Emmanuel Munyaruguru.
But Christella just wants answers. Over the last five years, the clues have dried up. The Kenyan CID, which investigates the more complex crimes, took over once the flying squad were implicated and progress slowed down, says Christella. “The case died after that,” she says. “All we’ve heard is rumors. We’ve had no solid evidence in years.”
For Christella, juggling bringing up the family while making a life for herself in Canada has made it difficult to keep on top of the case. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough. But I’m trying my best,” she said. She continues to pine for some form of resolution “… I wish someone would pick up my father’s case and there would be accountability.”
But the lack of truth and reconciliation following the genocide has left the country still torn in pieces, and the man who was supposed to be its savior continues to oversee his own brutal recriminations against both sides of the former divide.
Accountability, it seems, is a long way off.