Saturday, September 12, 2009

I got the taste of it--state violence


Friday September 11th might just turn out to be one of those dramatic and significant days in this country’s history. It was the second day in which Kampala had become a battle field. Security agencies were fighting rioters who had taken to the streets protesting the government’s decision to block Kabaka Mutebi’s trip to Kayunga District.
From the first floor of our Namuwongo offices, we were getting all kinds of reports from the field. Corpses littering the suburbs, shops looted, a police post overrun by rioters, wanton shooting—and no signs of relenting from all sides. The news was coming in thick that at times you didn’t know exactly what to focus on.
Then, disappointed that our weekly Panel of Journalists show on Kfm had been called off for fear of state reprisal or possible closure, at about 7.30pm, a tip came in that UPDF soldiers had surrounded the Kabaka’s palace and placed him under house arrest. One of our editors immediately called the army spokesman, Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, who admitted that there was a deployment, but added “we are doing it for the Kabaka’s security”. We then placed a call to Gen. David Tinyefuza, the coordinator of intelligence agencies, who rubbished the claims.
There was no way we were going to run such an explosive story without our own verification. That is when we decided to go to the palace. As chief sub editor, I rarely go to the field—in fact never go to the field. I am an in-house operations guy, waiting for copy and ensuring it is processed well. But this was a big story and above all among the editors who were still in the newsroom, I seemed the only one with a good geographical grounding of the area—Kyambogo, Banda and Kireka.
We hit the trail, our political editor Charles Mwanguhya, senior reporter Tabu Butagira and myself. We left the car at one of my relative’s house in Kyambogo University and walked to the Banda palace. But we saw no activity there—apart from some laughter emerging from servants’ quarters. As we left to go to the other palace at Kireka—10 minutes away—we got a call from one of Buganda’s ministers, telling us the Kabaka was calling off his trip to Kayunga. We took the statement off the phone.
Locating the Kireka palace was not going to be easy because whereas I know the hill, I didn’t exactly know where the palace is found. I then called a friend, Dalton, to help guide us—he stays just below the hill. He joined us and led us to the palace—only that he too didn’t exactly know how its structured. That is how we found ourselves exactly at the palace’s main gate without even knowing we were there.
“Ninyi nani (who are you)?” was the welcome call we got as an array of soldiers ran from inside the gate to our car—about 20 metres away—as they cocked the guns. “Toka kwa gari,” one of them shouted, with the others surrounding us. We got out, our hands raised. “Ka chini (sit down),” a burly one near me retorted. As I moved to kneel, I saw a heavy boot land on my right shoulder, sending a chilling, sharp pain through my body. I tumbled, in the process hitting the same hand on the now ajar car door. With my balance lost, I fell. But as I struggled to kneel, a second thud came, this time sending me sprawling on the tarmack.
At this point I heard someone, probably their commander, ask them to stop and direct the others who had cocked not to fire. I was then ordered to remove my shoes (what is the purpose of this shoe-removing ritual whenever there is an arrest?)
We were then asked to identify ourselves—which we did, with our identity cards. Asked about our mission, we were candid, telling them we wanted to ascertain if indeed the army had besieged the Kabaka. Their commander, a dark, medium height fellow, and looking the youngest among them—then asked who exactly our “leader” was. I told him to speak to Mr Mwanguhya, since I was visibly angry—fuming to be exact.
But one incident struck me. The moment we said we were journalists from Daily Monitor, one of the soldiers had become excited, telling the others in Swahili, a language I speak, read and write, that they were expecting us. “Wacha hawo, afande ametwambia (Leave them, boss has told us about them).” Apart from their leaders, the rest, nine including three women, looked very drunk—and with no alcohol smell, we could only guess what they were high on.
Apparently, Lt. Col. Kulayigye, after receiving our call, knew we would make an attempt to get to the palace. From what they asked us, it was clear that he instructed them to compel us to tell them who had given us the deployment tip. Basically expecting us to break the oldest covenant of our trade: Never disclose your source.
One of the female soldiers moved close to me, this time all of us seated in the car—with only Mwanguhya out—and inquired if Daily Monitor was part of Bukedde, the Luganda publication of our competitor, Vision Group. I thought it unwise to respond to such ignorance and kept quiet.
Another asked if we spoke Luganda, or were Baganda. I told him we could “gamble” some Luganda. He them said: “Benyini babyeletedde (they have brought this upon themselves)”. This could have meant that the Baganda had courted trouble themselves. Realizing the implication of this statement in front of journalists, he quickly qualified it: “We love both the Kabaka and the President.”
Making no headway in the amateurish interrogation, the commander let Mwanguhya join us. He then came to my window—and apologised for any “embarrassment” we may have suffered. He asked us to report what we had observed and wished us a safe journey.
In the car, Lt. Col. Kulayigye called Mwanguhya trying to inquire about what we had seen. It is obvious that we had seen was a choreographed scene. Colleagues had been calling me earlier, saying NTV was running footage of the Kabaka’s palace being calm and their reporter, hoodwinked, was reporting that all was well. The army knew journalists would go to the palace and must have re-organised their deployment. At least the 10 we saw were clearly soldiers. When some of the royal guards came out to see what was going on, they were quickly ordered back.
Back in office, typing away the story on the page proved difficult as the pain in my shoulder kept increasing. My boss, Daniel Kalinaki, asked our sports editor, Mark Namanya, to come and help as the driver took me to AAR.
Later, as I lay on my bed, I thought myself lucky. I had throughout the day seen photos of corpses, people killed by bullets. I had come face to face with some of these trigger-happy soldiers, but gotten away with a sprained shoulder. Maybe it could have been worse, like it was with Kalundi Sserumaga, the host of a political talk show, Spectrum, on Radio One. After appearing on a show on WBS TV that reviews events of the week, he was bundled into an unmarked car and until this blog was posted, no one had an idea where he was or whether he’s alive.
These, we were told, were common occurrences in the Amin regime. So, have we come full circle?

4 comments:

JJACKMAN said...

I hope Uganda has not come full circle. Glad you are ok. I may be visiting Uganda sometime between May and August of 2010. Hope to see you if it happens.

Anonymous said...

Gwe genda olye enkokoyo (Go eat your chicken) These guys are not only boot-happy but trigger happy. Does anyone in the world belive there was need to shoot to kill people? All that was necessary was professional policing not creating a war with unarmed civillians who are angry about everything and now see an afront on their hero!

Don said...

Surely, if not annihilated by the trigger-happy soldiers, you will find me in one piece--Jackman.
@Anonymous--and you must have heard yesterday the President re-emphasise that they would continue shooting rioters--we are doomed!

JJACKMAN said...

Don,

I love and respect your absalute dedication to truth even while putting yourself in harmsway. On that note, please try to balance it with some safety. I would like to visit you in one piece :)