Yet again Mulago Hospital this week provided a saddening reminder of how fragile our earthly life is and death in droves exposed officialdom’s inability to treat our dead with dignity and bereaved relatives with respect.
On Sunday, July 11, Margaret Nabankema was out with her husband, watching the World Cup final at Kyadondo Rugby Club in Lugogo. The next minute the bombs had gone off and hit her badly. She was taken to Nsambya Hospital and later Mulago but she did not make it. Her body would end up in a pile of human flesh and blood at the KCC mortuary, located just outside the Mulago Hospital fence.
On Monday morning, as I walked towards the lower corner of Mulago Hospital where hundreds of anxious relatives and friends waited to confirm that their loved ones were dead or to identify bodies, the first people that caught my attention were Nabankema’s relatives.
One old woman, her voice lost from hours of crying, repeatedly whimpered two phrases: “My child, my child. Teacher Meg! Teacher Meg.” Nabankema, in her early 50s, was the director of Wisdom Nursery Day and Boarding Primary School, Lugala, Rubaga Division. She was buried on Tuesday in Katikamu.
“She was a lovely child,” said her father, Light College Katikamu Director George William Kiberu. “We fled together to Kenya in the 1980s and she remained focussed on education until she started that school. She was a very good-hearted person.”
In these early Monday hours, the raw pain among wailing relatives and friends made it virtually impossible to connect with them. I found myself staring at Hanifah Nassolo, as she stared blankly into space; a worried and angry stare. Her brother, Moses Ssevume, who sold tomatoes at Nakasero Market, was missing. He had told his workmates he was going to watch the World Cup Final and had not returned home. Nassolo and her brothers and sisters feared the worst, but like many other people here, their biggest problem was frustration. Frustration that they could not enter the casualty ward or the mortuary to confirm whether or not their loved ones were injured or dead.
“He is not on the list of those they say they have admitted and they have refused us to enter the ward to check until the President has visited,” one of Ssevume’s brothers was heard telling someone on phone.
There was also anger here that President Museveni had chosen to first visit the sites of the bomb blasts, rather than the hospital; while he was out there looking at charred furniture and broken glass, relatives were forced to wait longer for information about their loved ones.
Museveni left the casualty ward without going down to greet those who feared their loved ones were dead and their bodies could be in the mortuary.
Attention on the KCC mortuary was now undivided. It was 2pm and the little red-brick, red-tiled building was out of bounds. But once in a while police allowed in a white or Asian person, attracting a chorus of murmurs from the majority of black Ugandans.
Then, a plain-clothed security operative announced that another bomb had just gone off on Rubaga Road (this turned out to be false). He warned them against being in large groups because the terrorists could strike again. Some people started walking away, in twos, threes or fours. Others simply ignored him.
“If God decided that I am to die today, I will die no matter what I do,” one woman said to no one in particular.
Nearby, Timothy Otim had just started crying afresh, after a neighbour recognised him and asked what the matter was. He told her that Smith had been killed in the blasts. Smith was his best friend. They had been friends from senior one and now they were in second year at university. “We had hopes together; we had plans together. Smith was like a brother to me; he always encouraged me…,” Otim said.
As people waited for medics to organise the bodies and body parts dumped on the floor of the mortuary, the gravity of the tragedy continued to sink in. Every now and then someone exclaimed in surprise on finding that a relative or friend was also here, which meant another member of their circle had probably died. Others felt their loss was not as bad as other stories they’d heard.
Hanifah Nassolo, for instance, told of how she stopped crying when she heard a man telling someone on phone to buy two coffins because “both children left the [university] campus and were killed by the bombs”. Another mother lost four children.
It was after 4pm when the mortuary gate was opened. This is when the ugliness set in. Earlier, a man next to me had wondered why Mulago Hospital was not regularly briefing these people.
“If we were in a serious country, the hospital would have set up a desk here, provided a tent and some chairs and kept updating us on what was happening. But look at us now,” he said, shaking his head in resignation.
He must have shaken his head even more after the mortuary gate opened. As uniformed police struggled to hold off tired, anxious people, one man in an orange T-shirt charged at them and aimed a baton at them. This drew loud protests and insults from the crowd. Three plain-clothed men led the man – who had a kibooko-squad kind of roughness about him – away, whispered some things to him and left him to resume his duties.
The security personnel soon found it both impossible and senseless to confine so many people to the small gate area when there was a lot of space inside. By dusk, many were still queuing up to identify bodies and make arrangements to take them away. For those who walked out of the mortuary, what they saw was a traumatising testimony to the ugliness of terrorism.
“I did not know that I would ever see what I have seen inside there,” said Martin Okia, after identifying the body of his brother Stephen Okiria. “This is so terrible. This is so inhuman. I did not know that life could degenerate to that level.”