Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Uganda: Maybe it was worth £3,000 after all...

So I found out yesterday that I have been shortlisted for the Guardian Student Media Awards 2010 'Writer of the Year'.

Wowza - I think just about covers my reaction. Maybe I'm not so bad at this whole writing malarkey after all? (Though I appreciate the grammar could still do with a little work…)

(The judges shortlisting the entries for 'Writer of the Year - maybe that's my one she's marking? I mean, probably not, but maybe...)

651 apparently entered, and five were shortlisted for each of the six categories: Publication of the year, Reporter of the year, Writer of the year, Photographer of the year, Digital journalist of the year and Broadcast journalist of the year. So all in all, not too sheepish… (Though I have just re-read the entry rules and realised I did something wrong. GOD that is so like me, how embarrassing! Why don’t I ever read anything properly the first time round?!!)

Anyway, after the delightful bout of congratulations and supportive comments that have been flying my way after a wee Facebook update, I firstly wanted to say – cheers! And then thought heck, why not publish the pieces that may end up being responsible for nudging the old journo career into action (they did cost me about £3,000 to produce after all – about bloody time I got some return on my investment!) So if you happen to have a spare week, or a particular yearning to find out more about Uganda / Idi Amin / what the hell I do when I disappear off for months at a time, then read on. Oh, and do enjoy – I will be charging per word read.

Article 1

Henry Kyemba: The man who knew too much.

For decades Henry Kyemba has been a well-known political figure in his country, Uganda. Back in 1977 however, Kyemba’s fame was world-wide. As the then Ugandan Minister of Health under President Idi Amin, Kyemba made history as the first minister to defect from the country and, despite death threats, reveal globally the suffering of Uganda at the hands of the tyrannical African leader.
Today, thirty years since Idi Amin was overthrown, Kyemba talks about his extraordinary ordeal, and shows why you can never really know your friends

“It was a very good effort to portray Amin as he was” says Henry Kyemba, sombrely. “But my problem was that the situation was far more serious than it was portrayed...people actually died. People had died.”

If anyone would know whether the 2006 film, The Last King of Scotland, which sets out to create a realistic depiction of Idi Amin’s uprising in Uganda, was successful in its aim, it’s Kyemba. As Uganda’s Health Minister under Amin, the now 71-year-old agrees he was closer to the dictator during his turbulent reign than most, with the two men’s relationship going way back, and Kyemba professing that for a long time they were friends.

But, as with many friendships, the relationship eventually turned sour. Though, in the case of Kyemba and Amin, it could be said to have even decayed. As Amin’s brutality became more violent and erratic, costing even the life of Kyemba’s brother, Kyemba found himself more and more tangled in Amin’s web of terror. It wasn’t until 1977 that Kyemba sought his escape, and took flight. That day, he didn’t only pull the plug on the men’s last cord of friendship, but also on the President himself. Kyemba is the man who stood up to Amin. And survived:

“It was a very difficult time, the most difficult of my life,” Kyemba says, his eyes saddened as he reminisces. “I remember the number of times when I was over State House, when he would give someone a drink, say ‘give him a soda, give him a drink,’ then after that tell us that he has to go and give him the VIP treatment, and after that you never saw him again…It was terrifying.

“It gives me very bad memories of people who shouldn’t have suffered that. Which means I’ve cheated on them, that I am alive today here to talk to you, and they are not. At no fault of theirs.”

Sitting outside amongst the affluent surroundings of Kampala’s prestigious Speke Resort Munyonyo, there is a poignant silence as those who lost their lives at the hands of the cruel leader are remembered. However, the cheery twinkle comes back into the greying Kyemba’s eyes as we move on to talk about his youth. Hanging out after college in the shop his brother ran, he wasn’t the only one to be struck by the 6’4” giant that came in that day. It was the 1950s, Uganda was still under the power of its British colonial master and Idi Amin was already notorious in the region. As Uganda’s heavyweight boxing champion, and an infamously exceptional soldier in the King’s African Rifles, he was “a tremendous chap to have around” according to one British officer. Kyemba found him ‘charming’, and got to know him through his elder brother, who was then dating the sister of Amin’s girlfriend.

When Amin came to power in 1971, he awarded his old chum Kyemba the position of his private secretary, and later, promoted him to health minister. Through their roles, the men became close, and Amin grew to really trust his right hand man. As Kyemba says, “Amin fooled us all in the beginning.”

Throughout the rest of the world, there had been rumours. Journalist Russell Miller was working for the Sunday Times during the period: “All we knew about Idi Amin was that he was a monster, because then… he wasn’t really accessible to media,” he says. “Ugandans were aware of what was going on because people were disappearing, and people were being killed, and there were bodies floating down rivers…so they knew about it, but you know, this was a state of terror, and nobody dared say a word.”

Kyemba knew what was going on. As he found his governmental responsibilities dramatically changing from accompanying the President on trips; to supervising post-mortem write-ups reporting ‘accidental death’ for bullet-riddled bodies, he knew he could no longer trust his friend Amin. Furthermore, he knew he knew too much, and for that, Amin no longer trusted his friend Kyemba.

But Kyemba was also aware that to just walk away would not only be the end of the “friendship”; but of his life. For a long time, he was trapped:

“It was extremely difficult,” says Kyemba, “My ageing mother was the one who ordered me to go out, she said if you don’t go out they are going to get you – for nothing.”

It wasn’t until May 1977 that Kyemba found his opportunity for escape. With a scheduled appearance at the annual World Health Organisation meeting in Geneva, he forewarned the British government that things in Uganda had turned ‘critical’, and arranged safe passage for his first wife Theresa to meet him in England. Then, he prayed that all would go to plan:

“When I arrived in Nairobi, at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, I fully ran from the plane to the VIP lounge” recalls Kyemba. “I knew at that at that moment Amin could not order my return – which he could have done, he could have ordered the plane back if it was still in Ugandan airspace. That was the happiest moment of my life, when I knew at last that I was now in control of myself.

“The decision to talk out about it was even more difficult because my family were here (in Uganda)…But, I decided that in the best interest of the country I should speak out as it would be far easier for me, who had been around and close to Amin, to actually be taken with some authority.

“I had no gun, I couldn’t fire, but I knew I could use my pen to bring sense to this situation.”

The day Kyemba walked into the Sunday Times office ready to reveal all that he knew, was the day Miller was packing to go away. The journalist had scored possibly the most exclusive interview of the year. He was off to Uganda, to meet the notorious President Idi Amin Dada:

“It was all set up,” Miller explains. “I was due to leave for Kampala on a Thursday and everything was ready to go. But on the Wednesday Harry Evans, the (Sunday Times) editor telephoned me and said, ‘Russell, you can’t go…something’s happened that is going to make it completely impossible… if you go, then you’re going to be killed.’

“So I went into Harry’s office and there was Henry…and it all quickly transpired…that Henry had decided to defect and he wanted to tell his story…and that he was being pursued by Amin’s henchmen and there had already been an attempt to get him. It was a very, very big story.”

Kyemba’s defection had left Amin no longer in the mood to receive visitors.
“Amin’s reaction to my going was…fascinating,” says Kyemba, “He didn’t know how to respond. He wanted to persuade me to return – saying that I have nothing to be worried about; he had no problem with me. Yet, at the same time he was saying oh yes, I do after all, have something to answer for.”

Knowing that the President had sent men to “sort out” his health minister, Miller, and his editor Evans, secretly moved Kyemba to a safe location in the countryside overnight. Miller spent the subsequent three weeks intensively interviewing to find out everything Kyemba knew about Amin for the new Sunday Times exclusive. The minister had a lot to say:

“When I thought I had asked Henry every possible question I could think of asking him… I said ok Henry, that’s it. I think we’re done, thank you very much,” chuckles Miller, “And Henry said to me, ‘You haven’t asked me about Amin’s cannibalism.’ And I said...‘what?!’ Of course, it’s not the kind of question that you would routinely ask. And then he then told about, you know, Amin keeping body parts in the fridge, and that he believed that he sautéed them lightly and ate them…So then there was another session after that.”

Kyemba and his exposé became instant front page news all over Europe. His disclosures led to questions in the House of Lords about what to do with Amin, and facilitated the beginning of the end of international relationships with the dictator.

“It was quite tremendous courage to stand up,” praises Miller. “It was a police state run by this monster. You didn’t speak out because if you did…you were either killed or disappeared and you were then tortured and killed in a brutal fashion.
“The fact is that it was a considerable risk to Henry, and he took that risk… so full marks to him.”

Kyemba spent the following four years in exile, during which time he moved to America and completed his master’s. On returning to Uganda after Amin’s extradition in 1981, he was a recognised public hero, and quickly became re-involved with Uganda’s politics.

Today, it is evident from the excited chatter of the boda boda (motorbike taxi) driver upon telling him who I was scheduled to meet, the eager motion of the waiter as he waved me towards the suited figure he knew was the man I wanted, and the numerous well dressed associates that approached to shake hands whilst we were talking, that Kyemba’s status within his country is still a highly regarded one.
At the end of our interview, on being told that he would be treated to the drinks
, Kyemba stopped suddenly. “Do you know what Idi Amin would say?” he asks, earnestly. “He would say, ‘I’ll get my revenge!

“ - So the next time, I’ll buy the drinks - ok?’”

Let’s face it, if anyone is going to know what Idi Amin would have said, its Henry Kyemba.

Article 2:

Imprisoned in time…

Over thirty years ago, under the violent rule of Idi Amin, Uganda experienced the complete breakdown of its judicial and law systems, instead, becoming governed by a chaotic policy of terror and corruption directed by the desires, hates and whims of the brutal dictator. Today Uganda still faces similar problems. Though terror has gone, corruption is still rife; with human rights and the question of guilt often secondary to how much can be paid. Prison conditions are fetid, and the country is one of the few that still regularly executes the death penalty.

Welcome to Ugandan prisons, one of the countries least developed areas of the last thirty years.

Semi-naked men sleep packed on top of each other on the grimy concrete floor of the overcrowded cells, their clammy bodies sticking tightly together with sweat. The temperature is stifling, and the stench of human excrement rife in the dense air. There could be anything up to a hundred prisoners in the inadequately sized rooms, many of whom are malnourished or suffering diseases like malaria or dysentery. The overflowing ‘toilet’ buckets in the corners show proof of their serious ailments, whilst those who weren’t quick enough to secure a spot in the middle of the room have no other option than to lie in the waste. There are no beds – in case they are used to aid escape, and shirts and blankets are banned at night – in case they are used for suicide attempts.

During the day, the prisoners must work. Those too weak may be excused from the hard labour, though usually also forfeit the meagre daily ration of beans and chapatti which no-one will bring to them. The lack of variety in the food causes most to suffer vitamin deficiencies, and many will struggle with the gruelling labour in their starved condition, ensuing a beating. If they are lucky, they might get assigned to a less arduous task like making coffins for the death row convicts next door. If they are less lucky, they are one of the death row convicts from next door, and know the harrowing sound of the saws and hammers means that there is soon to be one more vacancy in their cell, perhaps their own.

These are the conditions for the poorest of Uganda’s detainees, which accounts for over 90% of the people incarcerated in Uganda. In a country where innocence can be bought, and guilt a convenient allegation for those with power, regulation of the judiciary and prison systems, according to both aid agencies and citizens, has become barely existent. People can be imprisoned for years on as little as an accusation, and, irrelevant of the alleged crime, get out in a few hours for the right price.

“So yea, things are pretty bad here,” says Kerry Akers, a legal project manager for the African Prisons Project (APP), with an exhausted sigh that suggests she’s been through these appalling accounts many times before. “Overcrowding is just getting worse and worse and the administration system is a shambles, peoples files are getting lost constantly and lawyers’ aren’t interested, so, in a sense, people are just lingering.”

At the end of 2007, it was calculated that Uganda had capacity within its prisons for 9428 inmates. Today, there are over 25,000 people behind bars across the country. Countless of these will have to wait months – sometimes even years - to go to court to plead for crimes often as trivial as being caught loitering. With prisons notoriously being a neglected area across Africa, because, as Akers says, pledging governmental money towards improving them “doesn’t get you votes does it?”, the APP is one of few groups that work towards creating ‘humane’ conditions in Ugandan prisons, including new infrastructure to combat overcrowding problems, and access to medical care, legal aid, and learning facilities. Through the organisation, Akers has been working directly with inmates for almost two years. She continues:

“What is worse is that there are a lot of prisoners who probably are innocent. The judiciary are the second most corrupt institution in Uganda after the police service…It’s nothing new though, things have been like this for years. But yes, there are a lot of innocent people in there.”

Kampala resident, Robert Bwanika, agrees that in Uganda, imprisonment is not necessarily an indication of guilt, but says instead, it is often an indication of low social status:

“The problem we have here… is corruption,” he says. “If you don’t have money, you suffer, for no reason… Until you have money, you are going to prison. And until you have money, you are not coming out.”

Bwanika,32, who used to be a chapatti seller earning about 3,000 USH (around 95p) a day, is one of many who know first-hand the increased problems being below the poverty line can cause when dealing with the law in Uganda. He has just spent two and a half months in prison for, as he says, “being poor”. Evidently still affected by the memory, he slowly recounts his ordeal: “I bought a mobile… and I paid. I paid what we agreed and thought no more. But three months later, police come to me and say, you stole that phone, your friend said you stole it from him… They didn’t even ask me what happened; they just took my phone and told me ‘Pay 300,000 USH!’ (About £97) ‘If you don’t have it, you are going to prison’, and because I didn’t have it, they locked me up.”

During his time in prison, which he describes as “the worst suffering” he has ever experienced, Bwanika visited court a few times. However, rather than receiving a formal trial, Bwanika claims he would be repeatedly asked for money by officers, and then rapidly returned to his squalid prison cell because he couldn’t afford the bribes.

“I would say to them; ‘How do you expect me to get you some money for you now, if I didn’t have money before?’” he recalls angrily, “I was often really hungry and thirsty in prison - so much that there was pain…but I was too weak with malaria to do anything. So I would just lie…on the (cell) floor. My family and friends couldn’t afford the travel to come and help me, come visit me and bring me food, so I was left alone… suffering.”

The most recent African public opinion review, the 2008 Afrobarometer, which surveyed 1,200 randomly selected Ugandan citizens, showed that 92% of respondents believed police were involved in corruption. 80% further thought judges and magistrates conducted dishonest practice, and that high level officials were significantly less likely to be held accountable for crimes than ordinary members of public. Alicia Quinones, a Peruvian national and daughter of a UN pilot, agrees with these findings:

“I’ve been stopped five, maybe six times by police since I moved to Uganda two years ago,” she shrugs, “but I always know it’s never going to be a big problem, they just want money.

“It has always been for traffic offences, a few speeding, which to be honest - I was! Once for making a U-turn which apparently was illegal, and the best one was when this policeman accused me of trying to run him down which obviously wasn’t true! Every time they told me I was going to prison, but I just ‘made amends’ by paying them – normally about 10 – 20,000 USH (between £3 - 6) and then everything was fine. It’s really more annoying than worrying!”

Of course, few Ugandan residents could ever afford the luxury of paying such ‘amends’ that often equates to over a week’s earnings, with the inability to pay usually resulting in imprisonment. Sara Biyimzika, 42, who works as a maid in the capital, says she knows “very many” people who have been put in prison, easily counting off more than 50 names:

“It’s common to know someone who’s been in prison,” she explains. “If you’re poor, the rich people will try and handle you just because they have money and want more money. There is nothing we can do. It is corruption.”

Biyimzika is an indirect victim of Uganda’s law system. In 2006, her husband, Andrew Mulongo, was arrested, accused by a wealthier member of their village of stealing his land - despite documents proving legitimate purchase. “It is common. The rich say such things to the police. They know it will get them their land back, even after they have sold it,” she says. Though Biyimzika’s husband was only in prison for a week, to this day, the since separated couple, who already struggle to pay for the education and upkeep of their four children, must also pay 50,000 USH a month to the authorities, or endure further imprisonment.

Despite in 2008, the Ugandan government, under the Prisons Act 2006, establishing a new prisons authority in an attempt to improve prison conditions and fight against accusations of corruption, there seems to have been little improvement. The lack of any professional support for those indicted further intensifies problems. Statutory free legal aid is only available for those charged with capital crimes, and even then, according to Akers, 98% of inmates are unhappy with their lawyers, having barely any contact with them before the trial or in some cases none at all until their court date.

“The (government) lawyers are not being paid for it, so a lot of them are very indifferent,” she says. “What’s worse is that many are very much in favour of the death penalties so don’t put much effort into the case they’re meant to be fighting…I mean, you’ve got crimes in the condemned from as little as people who have robbed a loaf of bread armed with a penknife and that’s armed robbery, no questions asked. You know, it doesn’t matter that they had a family to feed and no way of getting food for them – they’re just given the death penalty.

“There is (legal) aid for capital crimes, but it is inadequate, and none for others – unless provided by a charity, so people are left to defend themselves.”

As Uganda gradually acknowledges its poor reputation on law and order, signs up to more declarations improving their human rights culture, and partakes in international schemes like the Britain-to-Uganda Prisoner Transfer Agreement which has provided funding towards improving the conditions of Ugandan prisons, there is hope for significant development in its prison and justice systems. Yet, at this point, rehabilitation schemes and post-prison support still seem inconceivable, for currently, even once released; it is rarely the end of prisoners’ torment.

Though grateful to the mystery benefactor who funded his release, Bwanika knows there is still a long way to go before he will be back to the steady livelihood he once enjoyed:

“When I went to prison, I had to leave all my things, all the stuff I needed for my work, to make chapatti,” he says. “My brother took them, but he didn’t have any money, he had to leave our home and sell everything. Now, I don’t know where he is. I don’t have a phone, I have no money for transport, I have no way of contact, so I just have to keep asking and praying.

“I am happy to be free, away from the suffering of prison, yet I have no money, no-where to live. What do I do now? Sometimes I wonder which situation was worse, at least in prison I had shelter, however bad, and knew I’d get some food, even if it wasn’t much.”