"Do you want to cross to Uganda and be mistreated? They will arrest and torture you. We will not allow you to take that risk!"
That is what an Immigration official at Gatuna — the busiest border crossing between Rwanda and Uganda — told The EastAfrican on Friday. And he was dead serious.
"It's for your security that you won't be allowed to go to Uganda," he said.
Then he allowed Ugandan, US and Chinese passport holders to cross without much of a fuss.
Stranded. That was the situation Rwandan travellers to Uganda found themselves in after Kigali announced the closure of the Gatuna border post, ostensibly to allow for the completion of the one-stop border post, which has been delayed for two years.
Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Richard Sezibera said that, while "no one is stopped from travelling to Uganda," Rwandans were advised against it.
"Rwandans are strongly advised not to travel to Uganda for their own safety. We had issues of security with those who crossed to Uganda and Rwandans are advised not to unnecessarily go there, but they are not being stopped," Dr Sezibera told The EastAfrican.
On Thursday, hundreds of travellers were stranded at the border crossing, after they were barred by Immigration officials from crossing into Uganda.
Some pleaded with the border officials, arguing that their reasons for travel were urgent, but to no avail. They were forced to return to Kigali, two hours away.
On Friday, when The EastAfrican visited Gatuna, only a handful of Rwandans were around, hoping they would be allowed to cross to Uganda, but the Rwandan officials were adamant. There were elderly women and men visiting relatives in the nearby district of Kabale.
Gatuna is one of the busiest transit routes in the region, serving travellers to and from Uganda, Kenya and even South Sudan.
The travellers who crossed into Uganda had to find other means of travel, as the road was blocked by trucks, and bus companies plying the route had suspended operations. Taxi operators took advantage of the situation and flocked to the border post to offer services — at thrice the normal fare.
Trade between the two neighbours has been affected, with goods trucks stuck on either side of the border. Informal traders, too, found it difficult to cross because of lack of affordable transportation.
In Kampala, Rwandan ambassador Frank Mugambaje was summoned by the government to explain the impasse.
Philemon Mateke, Uganda’s Minister of State for Regional Affairs called Rwanda’s decision to block the movement of goods and persons a declaration of a trade war.
“We don’t know their motive, but we think it is a declaration of a trade war,” he said.
Truck drivers interviewed on Friday said that they were not informed in time of the border closure plan.
"We have come a long way only to be directed to Kagitumba when we got here. Customs officials have refused to clear us. Going to Kagitumba from here will more than double our costs," one driver told The EastAfrican.
Uganda is accusing Kigali of launching a trade war. As traffic piled up on both sides of Gatuna, the Rwanda Revenue Authority on Thursday circulated a memorandum diverting heavy trucks to the Kagitumba-Mirama hills border, more than three hours away.
RRA said the diversion was intended to expedite construction of the one-stop border post, but when The EastAfrican visited Kagitumba on Friday, only non-Rwandan nationals and foreign registered vehicles were being allowed to proceed.
“Today morning the policemen came to barricade the entrance to the border, and you can’t pass if you are not Ugandan,” said Jean Baptiste Nsekuye, a local.
Traders also complained of loss of business.
“It’s apparent that there is something going on that we are not being told about. We need the authorities to make things clear because it has resulted into losses for everyone here,” said a porter, adding that his daily income had declined from $5.6 to $1 since Wednesday.
At Cyanika border post, another crossing point between the two countries, The EastAfrican established that it had been closed for three days by Friday.
Sam Bitangaro, Member of Parliament for Bufumbira County South in Uganda, while acknowledging the need to expedite construction of the Gatuna post, wondered why Cyanika too was closed, and why no reason was offered for the closure. Mr Bitangaro said because of the closure, communities have not been able to trade and schools have been affected.
Uganda government spokesman Ofwono Opondo, too, raised similar concerns, saying innocent children were being blocked from attending school on the Ugandan side.
He added that; “There’s no witch-hunt of Rwandese in Uganda. There’s nobody from Rwanda being held by the Ugandan authorities for any reason. We would like to send a clear message to Rwanda that there’s no one Uganda is harassing or has in custody.”
This statement was however rejected by Rwanda, which insists that it has evidence to the contrary.
“We have a list of people who have been arrested. They are arresting people, in Mbarara and Kisoro... why would you endanger yourself by travelling there?” Dr Sezibera told The EastAfrican.
Mr Bitangaro, in whose constituency the Cyanika border post falls, however said the Rwandan officials had, as a “humanitarian act,” allowed dealers in perishable goods such as fish, fruits and vegetables to cross, but noted that it was a one-off gesture.
The border closures come at a time of heightened political tensions between Rwanda and Uganda, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame earlier told The EastAfrican that the two countries’ relations were not improving because of a reluctance to solve their differences.