Friday, July 3, 2015

Kizza Besigye's Brutal Arrest

I woke up bright and early on Thursday 28 April 2011 but did not reach for my walking shoes because I was driving to Kasangati on Gayaza Road to deliver a message to Kizza Besigye from Olara Otunnu relating to organization of popular dissent during the walk-to-work protests. The day before, Kizza Besigye had walked from prison to Nakasongola court handcuffed to his co-accused and was granted bail on condition that he keeps the peace for seven months failing which they will be bound to pay Shs50 million to the state. Crowds came out to welcome Dr. Besigye from prison and the journey that had taken Olara Otunnu and I two hours on Monday lasted five hours as Kizza Besigye’s convoy tried to make its way to Kampala. The military set up roadblocks to check vehicles entering the city causing further delays. Tabu Butagira reported for the Monitor:
UPDATE 3:10 PM: Dr. Besigye has been granted bail.
UPDATE 5:20 PM: Crowds of frenzied supporters pour onto Kampala-Gulu highway to welcome Dr. Besigye from prison.
UPDATE 6:07 PM: Military police, riot police and regular troops have deployed in large numbers at the Northern Bypass.
UPDATE 6: 35 PM: Security personnel dressed in police uniforms have set up a roadblock at Matugga, between Bombo and Wobulenzi town, checking each and every car driving towards Kampala.
UPDATE 6:54 PM: Dr. Kizza Besigye’s convoy stretching back more than two football fields in length is passing through Kawempe-Kagoma-Kawanda.
UPDATE 7:40 PM: Dr. Besigye’s convoy has arrived in Kawempe without incident. It is almost five hours since he was set free on conditional bail.
UPDATE 8:09 PM: Dr. Besigye first escaped from the crowds in Kawempe, and then in Bwaise in an attempt to get home. Dr. Besigye is looking very exhausted but the crowds will simply not let him be.
UPDATE 8:45 PM: A very tired Dr. Besigye finally stepped out of his car and briefly addressed a huge crowd that had gathered outside his home in Kasangati…Composed and sounding unshaken by the six days of imprisonment, the FDC leader stood before the people who had deserted Kasangati town to come and receive him. This is what he told them: “ Tomorrow is a working day and we shall walk to work.”
So the reason I was driving out of my gate at Bugolobi at 5:30am in the morning was to try and catch Besigye to deliver a message before he was sent back to jail. I knew if KB said he was walking in spite of the conditions of his bail, he would be heading out early. I found him in his living room with his aides getting ready to leave, he struggled to put on his shoes with his right hand still in a cast from the injury where he was shot on Day two of the protest. One look at his face told me that perhaps this was not the right time for the conversation I had in mind but I had woken up early and arrived in time so I sat with him at the breakfast table and tried to get his attention. He cut me short before I started my second sentence calling for his aides to get up and move. Besigye is a listener. He allows everyone to talk before he gives an opinion but that morning his face looked like thunder, none of his studied patience, none of his usual jokes and chitchat today. The man was on a mission and seemed to know what was waiting once he stepped outside his gate. I knew it was wise to shut up and I did just that. I watched as he pulled together his walking gear and headed for the door and then I followed.
The plan was to drive past the riot-police - who had become a permanent fixture at his farm- drive on the short stretch to Kasangati town; and keep moving till we approached Kampala City. I jumped into my car with his late cousin Peggy and drove behind KB’s vehicle in a convoy of four to five cars. We negotiated our way past the police but they now followed him everywhere and we joked about him being the most protected man in Uganda after the president. When we reached Kalerwe he stopped to talk to the street vendors and the convoy was surrounded by police and civilian crowds excited by his presence. He got back in the car and stood through the open sunroof waving to the crowds. A man stopped the convoy to give KB a 5000/= note which he accepted, all smiles now that he was in his element with supporters. My eyes were on the policemen and I was not at ease in the crowd, Peggy said I was a coward.
As we approached the roundabout in Kawempe with roads leading to Mulago Hospital and Makerere University our crowd was swelling and we were now joined by chanting students from the University. The police was ready and they fired bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd. The tension was building but we remained in our cars as policemen approached and directed us to take the route via Mulago Hospital leading into Kitante Road. We held our ground saying we wanted to drive through Wandegeya but the police would not let us. We stayed there long enough for a number of us to cross the road and visit the restrooms at the petrol station. When we returned to the convoy, KB had agreed to drive via the Mulago route so I jumped back behind the wheel and we snaked our way up the road. The crowd that had dispersed returned. I watched from my car as police constables beat men with thick batons. They would fall to the ground and then get up and rejoin the crowd walking alongside the convoy.
At Mulago roundabout the road was blocked by riot police under the command of Grace Turyagumanawe. He stopped KB’s vehicle and directed him to follow Kitante Road. KB refused. I remember a conversation with us saying we wanted to visit a bank in Wandegeya. The morning traffic was building up with commuters heading to work. The size of the crowd around the vehicle, chanting loudly seemed to grow by the minute. I looked around and wondered where all these people had come from. I seem to remember Harold Kaija seated in my car and thinking I had seen him in KBs car earlier, then I noticed Peggy who had called me a coward minutes ago melting in the crowd and disappearing. I had not even noticed her leaving the car. The air was thick with tear gas and we kept our windows closed. KB was arguing with the police while civilians kept walking up to him to hand him bank notes of 1,000/=, 5,000/=, 10,000/=.
Grace Turyagumanawe became exasperated with KB and walked over to my car. He spoke to me in Runyankore, pleading with me to tell KB to follow police orders or there would be trouble because there was no way we were going through Wandegeya town. I told him if the man wanted to go to his bank in Wandegeya he had every right to use the road leading to his bank. Grace shook his head and went back to talking on his cell phone. My experienced eye had learnt to pick out plain-clothes security personnel and there were three that the guys in my car were now pointing out. I discreetly took their pictures with my Blackberry. One of them was wearing a beige colored hoodie.
In front of us more plain-clothes security men had surrounded KB’s car. He had sat back down in the back seat and closed the windows and sunroof, refusing to move and so they attacked him. The crowds were chased away again with bullets and tear gas and the security personnel went about trying to get KB out of the car. When he would not budge the man with the hoodie moved like lightning from the right side of my car and in an instant I saw him using a sledgehammer to break the window on the left hand side of vehicle directly next to where KB was seated. Meantime the man I later learnt was Gilbert Arinaitwe pulled out his pistol and me fearing the worst now started screaming, sure he was going to pull the trigger and kill KB right there as I watched. Instead he turned it round and used the butt to break the backseat window on the right hand side of the car. Then I understood what they were doing when their colleagues pulled out canisters of tear gas and pepper spray and started spraying into the car. All the five doors of the Land cruiser flew open the occupants of the car scurried out like rats fleeing a burning house; directly into the waiting brutality of the security operatives. I watched as they brought down their batons with furious force, as though they were killing snakes. They kicked them with their shoes and pounded them with batons. Jethro was bleeding from the head, Fred, the driver was being kicked on the ground, I thought he could never get up. Kizza Besigye was dragged out of the car last and he seemed to disappear in a fog of tear gas. Francis Mwijukye was being kicked around while he tried to wipe his eyes.
My mind was numb with fear and everything was hazy. I did not even see where they had taken them. I was sitting there screaming when a security man entered KB’s vehicle and moved it away. I was now the one in the middle of a roundabout blocking traffic and my mind was frozen. The guys in the car kept telling me not to panic, to just drive away, the police was approaching when I finally remembered where I was. I started the vehicle and drove towards Kitante Road trying to look for the car that had Kizza Besigye but saw nothing. I was in shock and someone was directing me to drive to the nearest police station to start the search for KB. I complied.
At 50 I have “…learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear" - Nelson Mandela
 feeling scared

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Nakasongola Prison

25th April 2011 was a Monday and should have been a day to walk-to-work but since it was Easter Monday, a public holiday; that would not make sense. Instead I hitched a ride with UPC president, Olara Otunnu to Nakasongola prison to visit IPC leaders Kizza Besigye and Nobert Mao who were on remand for offences related to their participation in the protests. Ken Lukyamuzi leader of the Conservative Party had been to visit his colleagues at Nakasongola the day before so we anticipated no problem with accessing the jailed leaders.
Nakasongola is just over 110 kilometers from Kampala and the drive took us approximately two hours. On the road we discussed the on-going crisis and I listened to Olara’s ideas about building a structure that was more inclusive and drew in the participation of NGOs, eminent persons, religious organizations and other member of civil society. He had definitely given it some thought and it was refreshing to talk to someone who was thinking in a structured manner when everyone else was on an emotional high. He had even figured out a leadership structure for this loose alliance which would be all-inclusive and remove focus and attention from a single opposition leader. Olara Otunnu was Uganda's Permanent Representative to the UN, served as Foreign Minister in Okello Lutwa’s short-lived regime, he once presided over the International Peace Academy and was Under Secretary-General at the United Nations before returning home to join politics and the struggle for change. In that context everything he was saying and his structured approach made sense but I knew that he was talking of something that would happen in the distant future because in the present context there was not the slightest possibility that the government would give us the space to formalize our dissent. In fact the government was determined to frustrate every effort.
The attempt to block every possible channel of communication and association amongst activists had recently extended to the media and journalists had become targets of police repression and brutality. On 19 April 2011 the Tuesday after Day three of the protests, Edward Echwalu, a photojournalist with the Weekly Observer was a guest blogger on the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and he wrote:
‘Freedom of the press in Uganda hit a new low late last week when the government, in response to a decision by opposition figures to demonstrate against the escalating price of food and fuel by walking to work, banned live coverage of the protests and issued a directive to Internet providers to block two popular social websites for 24 hours.
The ban on live coverage came after television stations showed horrific images of the police force's high-handedness in arresting opposition politicians on the first day of the demonstrations. Footage of the police firing teargas canisters into homes, schools and hospitals, was also shown.
Security forces prevented journalists reporting from the scene from approaching some opposition figures who had been arrested, and several reporters were roughed up. At least eight reporters were injured during the demonstrations: Ali Mabule and Dismus Buregyeya of the daily New Vision, Francis Mukasa of WBS TV, Ronald Muyinda of Radio One, Michael Kakumirizi and Stuart Iga of The Red Pepper, Yunusu Ntale of CBS Radio FM, and Isa Aliga of Nation TV.
As the police battled peaceful demonstrators, and the army intervened in what was one of the most brutal crackdowns on peaceful protests the country has seen, the state-run Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) blocked Facebook and Twitter for several hours. The UCC first denied knowledge of Facebook and Twitter being blocked. However, a letter confirming UCC's directive was later leaked to the public. "We have received a request from the security agencies that there is a need to minimize the use of media that may escalate violence to the public in respect of the ongoing situation due to the demonstration relating to 'walk to work,' mainly by opposition in the country," read an April 14 letter signed by Quinto Ojok acting executive director of the UCC.
"As a stakeholder that has communication infrastructures that host media such as Facebook and Tweeter, the commission wishes to request for your indulgence in this matter," the letter went on. "You are therefore instructed to block the use of Facebook and Tweeter for 24 hours as of now that is; 14th April, 2011 at 3.30 p.m. to eliminate the connection and sharing of information that incites the public." Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in relaying news of this year's February general elections. Millions accessed updates regarding violence, vote counts, winners/losers throughout the country, and reporters continue to use these social websites.’
So, Olara’s grand plan against this backdrop of increased clamp down on opposition activities did not sound like a plan for the present. As if to confirm my thoughts when we arrived at Nakasongola Prison, the officers at the quarter guard, who had been reinforced by the police and the military in recognition of their eminent residents; refused to let us in. We had travelled two hours to see the inmates so when they told us to turn around and leave we refused and staged a small protest, demanding to talk to the Officer in Charge of the prison. After hours of arguing or quietly defying the orders to leave the highest-ranking prison official on duty came outside to talk to us. We were told to go back to Kampala and get a letter from their Commissioner General in order to be granted access to the imprisoned leaders because we had visited on a public holiday. It was easy to tell that the official was getting ‘orders from above’ because for every question we asked him he would pause, step away to make a call on the phone and then return to explain himself. He appeared to be under a lot of pressure and unable to make any decision without referring to a higher authority who was obviously not at the prison. After three hours we turned round and started the two-hour journey back to Kampala without seeing the inmates.
When Olara dropped me off at home in Bugolobi I promised him that I would talk to KB upon his release about the proposal on organizing structured dissent. That is exactly what took me to KB’s house early in the morning on 28 April 2011, Day 5 of the protests; giving me a front seat view of the most violent arrest of Kizza Besigye by Ugandan security led by the infamous Gilbert Arinaitwe.
At 50 I know that in a struggle for freedom it takes all sorts to move the scales of justice in the right direction, however there is a time that calls for diplomats and a time for street activists and walk-to-work was not a time for round table discussions.

feeling pissed off

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Walk to Work - Day 4

On Day four of the walk-to-work protests, 21 April 2011, I did not walk because I woke up to a series of crises that kept me glued to the Internet seeking help for activists and innocent citizens who had become ‘collateral damage’ during the protests. In between walking days, I teamed up with Ingrid Turinawe, Maj. John Kazoora and other activists to visit activists who were in jail and hospital - to take them food, find them lawyers or buy them drugs and supplies to treat the injuries they incurred during the street battles that followed each attempt to arrest Kizza Besigye and other opposition leaders in Kampala. I looked at the emails that I sent out back then to refresh my mind of what an activist did on the days when they did not walk-to-work.
My first email on the morning of Day four was to a Human Rights Organization seeking help for a missing activist:
‘Dear Maria,
Activist Robert Mayanja who usually walks with me to work was taken from his home at around 3am by about 30 armed men. They told his wife that he would be at Jinja Road Police Station and would later be charged with treason. Abdu Katuntu a lawyer with FDC is trying to trace him and so far he has been unsuccessful. Can you help us in anyway? Robert is an opposition activist. He is unemployed.
Anne Mugisha’
The day before I had been to Mulago Hospital to visit Brenda, a pregnant woman who had been shot in the scuffle to arrest Kizza Besigye on Day two of walk-to-work. The newspapers published a very disturbing picture of the woman being lifted onto a police pick-up truck with half her intestines hanging out of a hole in her belly. I posted a message to the Africa Democracy Forum internet group where I had become a member during my days as a Reagan-Fascell Fellow.
‘Keep an eye on Uganda.
Look out for democracy activists in Uganda who are peacefully protesting escalated food and fuel prices in the face of police brutality. I met Brenda (see attached photo if you dare;) on Sunday at the national referral hospital in Mulago. She was an innocent bystander who got caught up in the violence that police meted out on peaceful protestors. The police shot her in the stomach. When she fell they hauled her onto a police truck (no ambulances for the poor in Uganda) and rushed her to Mulago. Her stomach was cut open to insert her intestines back where they were supposed to be. She was in terrible pain when we visited her in Ward 6A Mulago. She had been moved to a private ward by the Police following the negative publicity (resulting from the ghastly picture which was published in the papers.) Yet when we got there the nurse attending to her asked us for help. They were using regular gauze dressing on her stomach wound and it hurt terribly to remove it for cleaning. The nurse asked if we could get Vaseline gauze for Brenda and then said she was also out of antibiotics and plaster to hold the gauze! That is Mulago private ward for you - no basic supplies for dressing wounds! We purchased what she needed in Wandegeya and took it to her. Brenda was in so much pain, I felt terrible for crying in front of her. The baby in her womb survived the bullet, but figure this: the baby is growing and will be stretching her abdomen where she is wounded. It will be turning and kicking against that wound. Only a woman can (barely) imagine her nightmare.
Remember Uganda!
Anne Mugisha’
At Kasangati on Gayaza Road it was Dr. Kizza Besigye’s fourth attempt to participate in the walk-to-work campaign but this time he had left his home driving. His vehicle ‘ran out of fuel’ at Kubiiri near Mulago. He opened the door and resorted to walking for the rest of the journey. When supporters surrounded him and started walking with him towards town, police swung into action and a mini scuffle ensued as supporters tried to stop the police from arresting KB. Police fired bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd, loaded him into a police van and took him to Wandegeya police before heading to Nabweru court where he, Aaron Kaija, Jethro Nuwagaba and Francis Mwijukye were charged with holding unlawful assembly. This time he was denied bail and remanded to Nakasongola prison until April 27 2011. Democratic Party president Nobert Mao and six other party members, who had been remanded in Luzira Prison on Day three of the protests, were also transferred to Nakasongola Prison following threats by DP youth to storm Luzira Prison to demonstrate against the incarceration of their party leaders. I wrote an email to a rights group in London about the incident:
‘Activists for Change (A4C) is a pressure group formed post election to protest the high inflation rate which has made the cost of living very high. More people are walking because they cannot afford taxi fares; more families have only one meal a day because increase in fuel prices has led to increase in food prices. A4C called on middle class Ugandans to show solidarity with the common man by walking to work and asked political leaders to join the effort.
Kizza Besigye and other opposition political leaders answered the call. KB has been arrested three times as he attempted to walk-to-work. The first time he was charged with inciting violence and obstructing traffic. The second time he was arrested for causing riots. This time he has been charged with unlawful assembly and remanded to a jail half way across the country in Nakasongola. His bail hearing has been set for on Wed. 27th April after the Easter break.
The country is very tense. All violence is coming from the police as they try to stop opposition politicians from walking to work because they believe we may cause a ‘Tahrir Square’ or ‘Tunisia’ effect. So far at least half a dozen people have been killed in the battles sparked by police brutality against unarmed/peaceful walkers. Arresting KB has only raised the tension and we can expect more violence
Anne Mugisha’
Later that afternoon on Day four of the protest in Masaka Town, Julian Nalwanga, a two-and-a-half year old baby girl, was killed by a stray bullet as the Police battled boda boda cyclists and mechanics during the walk-to-work protests. I wrote to the Kenyan President about this:
Subject: Uganda - Human Rights
Date: Fri, 22 Apr 2011 16:18:03 -0400
'Mr. President,
As you think about attending the swearing-in ceremony of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda next month, I ask you to consider the short life of Juliana and base the decision of your attendance on this as well as other factors:
Baby Juliana Nalwanga became the fifth victim to lose her life to reckless brutal police brutality during what should have been a peaceful walk-to-work protest over the rising cost of living in Uganda. She was killed by a policeman's stray bullet on April 21st, 2011. The grisly picture of the bleeding body of a baby fondly known as 'Gift' has been cruelly etched on our minds and conscience forever. It was difficult to look directly at Gift's little body, her head and chest shattered by a trigger happy policeman who probably returned to his own children at the end of his work day; leaving behind the lifeless, broken body of a two-year old baby.
Juliana must not become a statistic. She must remain front and center of Uganda's struggle for the right to assemble and to protest peacefully. What started as a peaceful protest to underline the suffering of ordinary Ugandans faced with sky rocketing food and fuel prices, due to double-digit inflation; has turned into a bitter struggle to defend our basic freedoms and rights. The struggle is now about moving freely to find work and to earn a living, a struggle to express ourselves freely, to associate freely and to protest peacefully. These freedoms are guaranteed by our Constitution but they are denied us in the most inhumane way by a brutal, law breaking police force.
The unnecessary suffering and loss of life that has followed our determination to assert our rights and freedoms is unprecedented. The brutality has only made our resolve to assert those rights and freedoms stronger. We shall walk and walk until our government understands that their duty is to safeguard and not to violate our rights and freedoms; until the government does its job and responds meaningfully to our demands.
In future when we look back to this sad chapter in our country's life, the picture that will forever be imprinted on our minds is that of the little, broken and bleeding body of two year old Juliana Nalwanga - (Gift.) We will remember the friends who supported our struggle and we will also remember those who looked on with indifference.
God rest her little soul in eternal peace.
Anne Mugisha'
At 50 I know that in the tumultuous events surrounding protests of this scale it was easy to lose sight of individual victims of police brutality but for those who are scarred and those with a grave to remind them the dark days of April 2011 will never be forgotten.

— feeling sad.