Johannesburg - On the 24th floor of the Michelangelo Towers, David Batenga sat in a chair in the corner of a room and fidgeted.
Just outside, in the hot living quarters of suite 2402, mourners wearing purple scarves lined up in groups of 10, waiting to be ushered downstairs to room 905, where Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former intelligence chief, was found dead on New Year’s Day.
Batenga didn’t join them.
“I didn’t want to come here today,” said Karegeya’s nephew. “I have so many faces of him in my head. I sat in that restaurant downstairs with him and Appollo. I need to go see the Hawks after this.”
Batenga was one of the first people to see Karegeya’s body on Wednesday. The former spy master was last seen at the Sandton hotel on January 31 with Appollo Kiririsi Gafaranga, a Rwandan businessman and apparently a close friend.
Karegeya had booked room 905 for Gafaranga, who was visiting the country.
The next day, he was found dead in room 905 – apparently strangled, a bloodied towel and rope in the room. Speculation has swirled that the murder was politically motivated, but Rwanda’s high commissioner to South Africa, Vincent Karega, has denied his government had arranged Karegeya’s murder.
On Sunday, Hawks spokesman Paul Ramaloko said no arrests had been made.
The last time Batenga spoke to his uncle was via BBM on New Year’s Eve, at 7.47pm.
Then, silence – all three phones off and no answer at home.
“It was very unusual,” said Batenga. “He had three mobile lines, and a landline. His phone was never off for more than two or three minutes. I never sent a message to him without a response almost immediately.”
By lunchtime on January 1, Batenga “couldn’t take it anymore”. He went to Karegeya’s home, but apart from his car not being there, nothing seemed unusual.
Batenga then went to the hotel. His uncle’s Audi was in the parking lot.
At reception, hotel staff got no answer when they called room 905.
A porter went upstairs and, ignoring the “Do not disturb” sign, knocked. There was no answer.
Waiting in the restaurant downstairs, Batenga wasn’t suspicious. Not yet.
“I thought my uncle and Appollo were either walking through the mall, or that they drove somewhere in somebody’s else’s car.”
But he wouldn’t leave.
“I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere – I need to know what’s happening’.”
The receptionist and a security guard opened the room with a master key. From the living area, they could see the corner of the bed and somebody’s legs on it.
The receptionist called the security manager: “I don’t think this person is sleeping. Call the police,” he said.
In the restaurant, Batenga had been waiting about 40 minutes when the receptionist walked up and touched his shoulder.
“I remember saying, ‘Oh, are the police finally here?’ and she said, ‘Yes, but wait. Your guest is dead’.”
Batenga was taken upstairs. He remembers about five policemen being there. A man was lying on his back. His hands were on either side of his head.
A sheet had been pulled across to cover him, from neck to knees. The man’s face had blackened and his eyelids and mouth were swollen, but Batenga recognised him. It was Karegeya.
On Sunday, the room was a different scene. Mourners shuffled around the bed and placed flowers in front of a large portrait of Karegeya. Ushers pointed out where the victim was found, how he lay, what he looked like.
A man in a camouflage cap and T-shirt placed a bouquet on the bed and saluted.
The smell of antiseptic hung in the air.
“I have a very bad feeling about this place,” former Rwandan lieutenant-general Kayumba Nyamwasa said on Sunday from room 905 at the Michelangelo Towers. “When I entered the room today I could see (Patrick Karegeya) and I remembered the state in which we found him.”
Nyamwasa was one of several people called to the room on New Year’s Day when Karegeya’s body was found.
But he said that while he had many bad memories about the Michelangelo, Karegeya’s death wasn’t the hotel’s fault.
“Very many nationalities have slept in this hotel with nobody dying. This was just because of the nature of the (Rwandan) regime.”
Nyamwasa himself had two attempts against his life, and has pointed fingers at Rwanda’s government for both.
In June 2010 he was shot in the abdomen outside his home in Melrose, Joburg.
A second plot was allegedly hatched to kill him in hospital. Ten men of various nationalities were arrested, but Rwandan businessman Pascal Kanyandekwe was fingered as the brains behind the operation.
The case will continue this month.
Nyamwasa said he knew Appollo Kiririsi Gafaranga.
“I was introduced to him by Patrick. When we met, I didn’t ask about his political connections.”