Raissa Ujeneza is a 23 year old studying international and European law in the Netherlands. Her mother is Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, whom Rwanda’s high court sentenced Tuesday to eight years in prison for treason and genocide denial. RNW visited Ujeneza at her home to hear what she was thinking and feeling shortly after the verdict was announced.
“She only went [to Rwanda] to bring peace and to reconcile the Rwandan people. And anybody who would understand that would not fight her and would definitely not put her eight years into prison,” says Ujeneza.
Relative to the life sentence that her family had envisioned as a worst-case scenario, the ruling may seem quite mild. But her daughter feels little satisfaction.
“I am also disappointed because it is my mother who they are sentencing [to] eight years while she is innocent,” she says. “It is not just.”
The global gaze
According to Ujeneza, the international criticism that her mother’s case drew spared Ingabire from receiving a life-long imprisonment.
“They are aware that the international community is watching them,” she says about Rwanda.
“The government has been criticized several times on different aspects,” she explains, referring to accusations of Rwanda “participating with the rebel group M23 in the Congo areas” and “meddling” with the Ingabire case.
“Also, my mother’s case has been in the media on several occasions,” she continues. “And the Rwandan government, in trying to show that they are doing a [good] job and that they are acting [according to the] law…they of course gave her eight year sentence instead of the required life sentence…I think and I believe truly that they wanted to give her life.”
Life in the Netherlands
Ujeneza’s life in the Netherlands comes in stark contrast to her mother’s. Ujeneza lives in a colourfully decorated apartment in a small Dutch village.
Ingabire left for Rwanda in 2010 to run against the country’s sitting President Paul Kagame. Ingabire was jailed. Kagame won.
“It’s been quite difficult and quite chaotic. It happened actually that every time she would end up in prison in the beginning, before she was arrested, I had an exam,” says Ujeneza when asked how she has coped with her mother’s situation.
“I try to separate myself, having one side which focuses on school and everything that is going on in my own life. And another side that is focused on her trial and everything that comes along with it.”
But how does the young woman prevent herself from feeling split into two?
“You get used to it,” she says. “You get used to switching off a button and do what you have to do and when you have to do it, and switch it on when you have to focus on this area which is quite confronting my emotions.”
Now that the verdict has been announced, Ingabire and her supporters are expected to bring the case to a higher court.
“We will not take this verdict for what it is. We know that the court has favoured in the Rwandan government’s demands actually and we want justice to be served,” says Ujeneza. “We will go to the Supreme Court and, if necessary, we will also take this trial abroad outside the Rwandan country,” she says, noting that the case could be appropriate for the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.
Although she might not see her for years and admits to missing her very much, Ujeneza clearly wants her mother to persevere.
Still, one can’t help but wonder if on the day Ingabire is liberated, whether her own family will want to keep her in close reign.
“I realize that my mother would probably not let herself [be] held down,” says her daughter, with a laugh. “She is very determined and I recognize that in my brothers and myself. Once we want something we really go for it and we have that from her. She cannot be stopped and she shouldn’t be stopped. Definitely not. She’s living out what she believes: she believes that Rwanda can be healed again. And she should be supported in that and she should not be stopped.”
Ujeneza confidently adds: “Not even by her own children.”