Tears rolled down his cheeks as he spoke. He appeared to be in great agony.
“A man took me to another room filled with water up to my waist and took off my shirt. The man instructed me: ‘When I ask a question, please answer.” The first question was what my relationship was with Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, the popular Afrobeat musician-turned-politician known by his stage name Bobi Wine. I had only one answer for him: ‘I know Kyagulanyi as a citizen of Uganda’.”
The answer did not please Yasin Busulwa’s interrogator, so the man stabbed him in the ribs. Busulwa was in agony, but he reiterated his answer: He only knew Kyagulanyi as a Ugandan citizen. The man stabbed him again and kept asking the same question, insisting that he was lying. X-ray images would later show that Busulwa’s heart was lying just above one of the wounds the knife blade had left. He had no energy and could no longer stand upright, even when his interrogator tried to hold him up. He was dragged into another room and the men left.
He was later taken to a hospital for his wounds to be stitched. But his ordeal was not yet over. He was held for two more weeks during which he was made to drink his friend’s blood.
Busulwa, a matoke (plantain) trader, knows that he is one of the lucky ones to escape the torture alive. But his relief is tempered by the heavy burden his torturers left him to bear.
“What hurts me the most is that the young man whose throat was slit and whose blood I was forced to drink was HIV-positive, and so I also contracted the virus,” he said.
He was recounting the ordeal he suffered during the troubles of November 18 and 19, 2020, as police in Uganda seemed to go berserk, beating and killing people. He was speaking during the Uganda Human Rights Accountability Conference held at Ufungamano House, Nairobi, Kenya, to commemorate the second anniversary of the two days when madness engulfed the streets of Uganda.
He remembers that fateful day as though it was yesterday. It was a normal working day for him until about 7.30pm, when a man accosted him from behind, holding him firmly by the arm. Another man took hold of his other arm. They said they had been looking for him.
“They were dressed in civilian clothes and led me to the other side of the road. When my business partner saw these men forcing me to cross the road. He rushed over to find out what was happening and he too was rounded up,” he explained.
The men had parked their vehicle, commonly known in Uganda as a “drone”, at a nearby petrol station. “Drones” have no seats and security personnel use them to abduct and torture people.
“They put us into the vehicle and at around 8.30pm I lost consciousness after being hit on the head.” When he came to, he found himself in a cell at a location he did not recognise with about 12 other young men.
A man he recognised as a senior security officer in Kampala came into the room at about 3am. “He walked slowly around the room, examining each one of us with his eyes. Then he left.”
The detainees were later separated and put in different cells. His business partner made a fatal mistake, trying to resist. One police officer did not hesitate. He stabbed him viciously, killing him on the spot. His body was left to decompose in the cell for two days, after which it was picked up in the early morning hours.
As for Busulwa, he was promised freedom if he correctly answered a few questions. Two men wearing dark shades came for him in the wee hours to take him to the room full of water.
For some of the victims, that frightful period is immortalised for them in their broken limbs.
Richard Sebuganda is a medical student at Makerere University whose dreams of becoming an orthopedic surgeon were shuttered on that frightful day. He was resting in his room at the university when he heard a loud sound.
“I looked up and saw something flying towards my chest.” It was a tear gas canister launched by a police officer. He tried to catch it and it exploded, shattering his right hand. After nine surgeries, he ended up losing three fingers and still needs more operations to repair the damage.
“I am medical student who is unable to button up my own shirt. At times I give up hope of ever completing my studies. Nothing scares me anymore.”
Zubeda Ishmael lost her right leg. “They shot me two times. I had my business at the time, but now I have no money to pay school fees and feed my children. My husband and father spent all their savings on the hospital bill.”
“I was working with my son in the garage at Kiseka market when police officers dressed in black fatigues cordoned off the area and started arresting people. I just ran out, not knowing that my son had been left behind. ‘Your son has been shot. Come back,’ a woman called out to me. In disbelief, I responded: ‘It can’t be my son who has been shot,’” Fredrick Nsubuga, another survivor, told the participants.
His son was running away when police opened fire, raining a hailstorm of bullets on fleeing citizens. He fell into a trench and that’s where Nsubuga found his body. With the help of his friends, he was able to retrieve his son’s body and take him to the mortuary. He still feels distraught, desperate, and frustrated.
Participants in the two-day conference listened to several other similar heart-rending stories from survivors who had travelled more than 600 kilometres to Kenya. Tears flowed.
“Many women who were raped and men who were sodomised cannot speak about it at home. We are demanding rights as human beings and to be treated as such,” said Kyagulanyi.
The politician added that they can no longer meet in Uganda, “but the situation could get even worse if we just sit and do nothing. We are living under a dictatorship and we cannot carry out our political party activities in Uganda.”
He said people can’t mourn their dead or meet to talk about the victims of torture perpetrated by the regime of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.
Martin Mavenjina, Senior Programme Adviser – Transitional Justice at KHRC told Journalists For Justice that his organisation is working with national and international human rights groups in Uganda to provide assistance to the survivors and human rights defenders.
“We intend to work with the East African Law Society and the Uganda Law Society to provide pro-bono legal services if the participants, victims, and survivors are unlawfully arrested by the Ugandan authorities.”
Violence broke out in Uganda during the election campaign that began in November 2020, two months ahead of Uganda’s general election as Museveni sought a sixth term in office after 35 years in power. On November 18 and 19, 2020, the Ugandan security forces clamped down on people protesting against the arrest of the opposition leader, Kyagulanyi. According to Human Rights Watch, widespread protests erupted for two days in Kampala and other parts of the country. Authorities responded with teargas, beating protesters and using live bullets. They killed at least 54 people and injured numerous bystanders and market traders who had nothing to do with the protesters.
According to reports, Museveni said his government would compensate only the families of 22 people who died, saying the other 32 were “rioters”.
Uganda’s constitution protects the right to peaceful assembly and association. The government is also obligated under international law not to use force as well as to ensure effective investigations that lead to accountability for unlawful killings and injuries and provide access to effective remedies for victims.
Two years later, victims of the November 18-20 killings in Uganda have never received justice.
The government of President Museveni has failed to provide accountability for the ongoing human rights violations in the country.
Speaking during the conference, Dr Kizza Besigye, a long-time critic of Museveni’s brutal regime, said Uganda has experienced successive waves of abuses since its independence. In most of its 60 years of independence, leaders have entered and exited leadership through the use of arms.
“The attention of the whole world must be drawn here and we must start demanding action and accountability for the torture. The weight of human rights abuses that have taken place in Uganda dating from the 1970s must be accounted for,” said Dr Besigye.
He added that Museveni’s administration was targeting supporters of Kyagulanyi’s National Unity Platform political party, whose members were the majority among those who were killed, kidnapped, and injured.
He called on the international community to stand with the people of Uganda against their oppressors and supported human rights defenders’ demands for accountability for violations by the regime in Uganda.