“We are blood sisters and brothers. We want to talk to them,” business owner Miria Akankwasa said as she sat in her house in Kabale town in Western Uganda, an area surrounded by thick forests and mountains blanketed in mist. “Let them open the border so people are free to move.”
Akankwasa owns a small wholesale shop in the border town of Katuna, a 30-minute drive from her home. Like thousands of others whose livelihoods hinge on the free flow of goods, services and people across the Uganda-Rwanda border, Akankwasa arrived at her shop on February 27 to discover that the local border crossing had been closed.
“I didn’t know what closing the border meant,” she said. “Rwanda said we cannot take goods or services there, and no Rwandans should come here.”
The financial pain inflicted by the closure has only intensified since February. And Akankwasa not alone. Hundreds of women are caught in the crossfire of a dispute between Uganda and Rwanda that is compromising tens of millions of dollars in trade and has even triggered a lawsuit on behalf of women like Akankwasa, who are demanding that both governments reopen the border.
Ongoing diplomatic row
Uganda and Rwanda are embroiled in an ongoing diplomatic row that has seen both countries’ presidents accuse each other of espionage, political killings and attacking trade.
Hopes for improved relations were raised on August 21, when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his Rwandan counterpart, President Paul Kagame, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) aimed at ending months of tensions.
September brought more progress after Uganda released 32 incarcerated Rwandans. But relief is still pending for cross-border traders, with the issue of free movement across the border not scheduled to be discussed between the two countries until at least mid-October.
There is a lot at stake for Uganda. According to the country’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives, Uganda exported nearly a $250m worth of goods and services to Rwanda in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018 – only to see exports fall to just shy of $174m during the following fiscal year, which included four months of border closures.
Both Uganda and Rwanda have said the borders are not closed. But two heavily trafficked crossings at Katuna and Cyanika have not been open since February, according to the nonprofit Eastern African Sub-regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women (EASSI).
Affiliated border crossings in Buhita and Kamwezi have also been impacted by the closures.
When the Katuna border was shut, trucks were diverted to the still-open Mirama Hills-Kagitumba crossing, according to Ugandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Sam Kutesa.
Trucks with goods in transit to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are allowed to cross into Rwanda, according to a May statement by Uganda’s foreign ministry. Ugandan citizens can also cross, as long as they are not trading or carrying commercial goods.
“To the small traders we are working with, all the three borders are literally closed off for business,” Sheila Kawamara-Mishambi, the executive director of EASSI, told Al Jazeera.
In June, three civil society organisations including EASSI filed a lawsuit on behalf of women traders against the Rwandan and Ugandan governments, alleging that the closures infringe on multiple provisions in the 1999 Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community – including violating the economic rights of women to engage in trade.
The lawsuit demands that both countries reopen the border immediately and compensate women traders for losses stemming from the closures.
When asked to comment on the case, Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda’s minister of state for foreign affairs, told Al Jazeera that “this is an issue for the court”.
Uganda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred Al Jazeera to the MOU.
Akankwasa, who chairs a 200-member strong women traders’ cooperative that is represented in the suit, said that its members have suffered a dramatic loss of income due to the border closures, and as a result, many cannot pay back some 14 million Ugandan shillings (about $3,800) in business loans issued by the cooperative.
“I spend sleepless nights thinking of the loans, and I get dizzy spells”. OLIVIA TUMWEBAZE, UGANDAN CROSS-BORDER TRADER
An overnight change
For generations, people living in communities around the border have crossed it by foot to conduct business, visit family members and access hospitals and schools.
“They are the same people, divided by a line that was drawn by the colonialists,” Kawamara-Mishambi said. “Communities on the ground don’t see these borders as dividing lines.”
For Akankwasa, the divide thrown up by the border closure has destroyed business relationships she had built up over years.
She told Al Jazeera she had given mattresses to some of her Rwandan retail clients on credit with a verbal agreement that the clients would pay her back after the mattresses had been sold, just as they have always done.
“I called and they said, ‘We don’t have any way to pass the border.’ Now, some of them don’t pick up their phones,” she said.
Akankwasa estimates she has lost about nine million Ugandan shillings (nearly $2,500) on the mattresses alone.
No longer able to afford petrol, she journeys by motorbike taxi and then public taxi to her shop in Katuna every day.
Inside Akankwasa’s shop, cardboard boxes full of expired juice cartons line the walls. Outside, shuttered businesses are padlocked, the doors caked in dust and cobwebs.
When she spoke with Al Jazeera in August, Akankwasa tied on a pink apron and sat in a plastic chair outside her store, waiting to serve customers in case any happened to stop by.
“This used to be a busy place,” she said. “We used to have Katuna international market, where Rwandans and Ugandans would meet.”
That market has not been held in six months, she said.
Olivia Tumwebaze is another trader struggling with the border closure. She borrowed $3,800 to grow potatoes to sell in Rwanda – loans she is now unable to pay back.
Selling her potatoes in Kabale, a 30-minute drive away, will not make up her losses, either. The market for potatoes on the Ugandan side of the border has become so saturated that they now sell for around half of what they used to.
“I spend sleepless nights thinking of the loans, and I get dizzy spells,” Tumwebaze told Al Jazeera.
Stuck and fearing for their safety
Women make up over half of the business people in Katuna, according to EASSI. Many are the primary breadwinners for their families.
The businesswomen in Katuna with whom Al Jazeera spoke said that other traders have either moved to the Mirama Hills border crossing, which has remained open, or back to their home villages.
But many women in Katuna are tied to the area for personal and financial reasons.
Penlope Kyasiimire once worked as a clearing agent in Katuna, processing paperwork for exports. Her office shut when the border did.
“Now I just stay at home with my three kids. They are young, so it’s hard for me to move,” she told Al Jazeera.
Ongoing tensions between Uganda and Rwanda have also led to an increased military presence along the border, the EASSI report noted, introducing yet another layer of uncertainty and fear.
“I worry a lot about safety,” said Kyasiimire. “Some of us have even packed some things so that if you hear something, you just rush. We keep alert.”
In March, a pregnant woman from Rwanda reportedly collapsed and died at a border crossing with Uganda. Press accounts allege she was being chased by border security. In May, Rwandan security forces reportedly shot two men dead at the border in circumstances that were disputed.
“People are very scared,” EASSI’s Kawamara-Mishambi said. “They think ‘If someone says their citizens cannot come to our country, what will they do to us when we go there?'”