Wednesday, February 17, was like any other normal day in a life of a journalist. Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu of the National Unity Platform had indicated that he was going to take a petition to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, complaining about what he called violations of human rights of many of his supporters.
He claims that up to 3,000 of them have been arrested and detained in a space of about six months. Of these, the whereabouts of 243 are not known. They were picked from their homes in different parts of the country using the now infamous Toyota Hiace vans baptized ‘drones’ and they have never been seen again.
Kyagulanyi had indicated that he would set off from his Kamwokya-based office to head to Kololo, Prince Charles Drive, where the UN office is. The day before, he had called on Ugandans to join him as he presented his petition, but in a statement by Patrick Onyango, the spokesperson of Kampala Metropolitan Police, the UN was only ready to receive a delegation of three.
“We want to urge the public not to participate in any illegal activities; anybody who involves himself/herself in any illegal activities will be arrested and prosecuted…” Onyango’s statement read in part.
Kyagulanyi’s supporters have come to understand this language. On February 17, Kampala woke up to a heightened security presence. Military and police personnel armed to the teeth were deployed to all roads leading to and out of Kampala.
At Kamwokya, Kyagulanyi’s base, his loyal lieutenants turned up like they do every time he makes a public appearance. But when time came to leave for Kololo, these loyal supporters were also getting ready to escort their principal, but through an aide, Kyagulanyi discouraged them from following him.
“Rasta says stay here, don’t follow him, because you will be arrested,” I heard the aide telling supporters who had started jumping on boda bodas.
Meanwhile, the police and military had moved to a roadblock near Kobil petrol station at Kamwokya. Kyagulanyi’s car, driven by David Lewis Rubongoya the NUP secretary general, also had two of his deputies, Dr Lina Zedriga and Jolly Mugisha Kyomugasho.
Then there were seven cars carrying journalists, and five other cars of mostly NUP MP-elects. When this convoy arrived at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, only Kyagulanyi’s car was allowed access by the police. MP-elect for Makindye East Derrick Nyeko tried to access the premises, but it did not end well.
The military commanded by Lt Col Namanya Napoleon Kyabihende, had no patience for explanations. They immediately hit his car with batons shattering all the screens save for the hind one. They also tried to hit him but he drove away before it could become bloody. The restriction extended to journalists too.
We were pushed about 300 meters away from the UN office, towards the Ethiopian embassy. Police sealed off the road, restricting access to only diplomatic vehicles. A plea to allow us at least near the gate of the UN was ignored. We accepted our fate and most of us huddled in small groups to talk as we waited for Kyagulanyi to exit the UN offices.
ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE
Two military trucks pulled up. They hung around for about two minutes and then took the direction of the UN offices. It did not cross our minds that maybe these vehicles were on a scouting mission.
We continued to wait, engrossed in conversations in groups of two to five journalists. About 20 minutes later, the same military trucks with about 10 soldiers with red berets or helmets returned. Their bespectacled commanding officer Napoleon Kyabihende was holding what looked like a foldable stick.
He jumped out of the truck and thundered: “Everyone get out of here…” but before he could finish the sentence, his lieutenants had already descended on us beating indiscriminately whoever they found in their path.
I was seated further away from the rest of the group, having become tired of the endless standing as we waited for Kyagulanyi. Not being part of the big group was both advantageous and dangerous. It was advantageous because when the beating started, it started with the main group and, therefore, I dodged the first assault.
But it was risky because when escaping, I was running behind the military personnel raining canes on my colleagues. If that chase suddenly stopped and they turned, I was sure they word turn their wrath on me. Normally, when confronted with danger, the brain works much faster than it does in normal times.
So, I stopped running from the main road, taking to the rugged, uneven gardens on the roadside. The risk of missing a step or twisting an ankle was high. As I ran, I saw the military clobbering everybody irrespective of whether they had any identification or not.
The running and beating went on for about five minutes and we had run for almost 300 meters. I must have been sprinting at about 100km/hr. Not even Usain Bolt would have caught me. But I must admit, had the chasing continued for another five minutes, my legs would have buckled under me.
Because the speed at which I was running was too much; I had started losing stability. When the chasing ended, I could have spat out my heart because of the speed at which it was beating. I struggled to keep my spectacles on my face without dropping the rucksack that had my work equipment, all while in a dead sprint!
But the thought of that baton connecting with my body after many years of not being beaten was enough adrenalin to pump my legs. When the chasing finally stopped, I sat under a tree to catch my breath. But seven minutes later, the military goons came back.
This time my legs could not carry me any longer. I tried to jump into a moving van but it was already overflowing with fleeing journalists. Thirsty and trying to breathe through a mask, I was convinced I was now finished.
As luck would have it, a boda boda rider that was moving in the direction of the military also developed chicken feet and turned around. It was him who saved the day. I jumped on the bike without even haggling for the price.
“Why were they chasing you?” he kept asking. But I was breathing too hard to answer him until minutes when I was almost at The Observer offices.
“I really don’t know,” I told him. And that was the truth.
Shame upon you men and women in uniform, who think your job is to suppress us from doing ours.