Rwanda's island: Rehab centre or reform prison?

Rwanda's isolated island of Iwawa appears idyllic, but it has housed thousands of drug users, as well as reputedly those the authoritarian government deems unsuitable for society. Photo: AFP / STEPHANIE AGLIETTI

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 28 kilometres 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 coordinator Nicolas Niyongabo said they are all still free to leave the island if they wish.

AFP

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