Arbitrary arrests, kidnappings and detentions in ungazetted places have become something of a tradition in the country right now and so are the victims’ gory tales of torture that have gripped public attention.
KAKWENZA RUKIRABASHAIJA, a novelist and human rights activist, has had several run-ins with state agents, rattled by his razor-sharp literary works that are highly critical of the ruling hierarchy. He has been arrested several times, transported in the infamous drone vans (Super Custom type road delivery vans) and brutalized in various detention facilities. Below is a second installment of his testimony of torture inside a CMI detention facility.
On Easter Monday, April 13, 2020, Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence operatives besieged my home, arrested, chained, handcuffed, blindfolded and drove me to CMI headquarters in Mbuya. When we reached, the agents instructed me to kneel on sharp stones and raise my arms straight and wait.
There were other people who had been brought in before me. I could feel their presence by their incessant sobbing and panting. Some cried because they had knelt for long stretches of time on the sharp stones and kept their arms raised – a herculean and inhuman punishment.
I wondered what kind of humans could treat someone’s offspring in such a manner. Little did I know what awaited me. It was worse! After about minutes or so of kneeling on the rough stones with my arms raised straight up, the pores in my skin were pouring out sweat, and my clothes were drenched.
The whole experience was already despicable and terrifying because whenever your body shook, however little, or if you showed you were tired or needed to rest, the standby officers would hit you with batons and clubs. Some of the sweat had been dripping from my temples and dropping on to the clean tiles.
One officer kicked me in the back and instructed me to lick the sweat off the tiles. No sooner had I licked one drop than another officer came and unchained my legs and instructed me to follow him. The officer led the way and we climbed the stairs.
I counted six stairs and three landings before we got back to the corridor. I was still blindfolded and handcuffed when we entered an office.
“Remove that thing from his head and the handcuffs,” a clear voice instructed.
The office looked spacious and huge for only one man to occupy. He was ensconced in his office chair and his eyes glued to his Apple laptop when I looked over from where I had been instructed to sit. I was seated opposite his table and there was some vacant space between us.
“Mr Kakwenza Rukira, I need to ask you some simple questions before it is too late because I have to go home,” he spoke as he rolled back his chair to create space to stand up and walk towards the vacant space.
“I cannot see well; I need my contact lenses,” I said. “I only need your ears, not eyes, Mr Kakwenza,” he said in a threatening voice. “Go and bring his lenses,” he instructed the messenger, who was still standing by. “Are you okay now?” he asked.
“Sir, I am thirsty and hungry. Your boys picked me up from bed and I have not had anything to drink or eat. Hold your questions and I first energise myself,” I angrily said in a strained voice.
My mouth was dry with dehydration from not eating for a whole day and kneeling on rough stones and stretching of the arms and sweating out all the water in my body. I was inaudible. The officer got up from his chair and walked to a box placed in a corner.
He pulled out a bottle of Rwenzori water and handed it to me. By the time he was done with calling his boys downstairs to bring me food, I had guzzled down the entire contents of the bottle and demanded more. The food was brought. It was packed in a small square stainless steel mess tin.
They gave me posho and beans cooked with cabbage. It was placed on the table in front of me and the man watched me from across his table as I ate the food with unwashed hands. It was the holy month of Ramadhan and the man who sat across from me looked like a Muslim.
He had a callus on his forehead, which I believe comes with persistently putting the forehead down while kneeling in prayer. On his head, too, was a Muslim cap. He was a short man with a dark complexion and appeared to have been trying to lose weight.
When he stood near me, he was visibly a third of my height and he would look at my face as if looking at a bird flying up in the sky.
“So, Mr Kakwenza, what do you mean by the words superannuated, kleptocracy and gerontocracy?” he asked, his eyes fixed on me as if he thought I was a Chwezi and would disappear into the walls. He had read my Facebook post where I had described Mr Museveni, the ruler of Uganda for thirty-four years, as superannuated and unable to steer the country in the right direction. I had, in the same post, branded his government as a kleptocratic gerontocracy.
“From the beginning you suggested that we speak English and you emphasized that you understand it very well. So, please, the words are written in English,” I shot back.
He looked at me for more than a minute and I reprimanded myself for answering back like that. However, when I recalled how I had been brought to the building, the way they had picked me up from my bed at home and how I had left my children and wife crying, I didn’t give a damn.
“Okay, Mr Kakwenza, who is The Greedy Barbarian you wrote in your novel?” he asked calmly.
“By the way, may I know the person I am talking to and your designation? And, may I use your phone to call my lawyer, because I have all the rights to access my lawyer, know why I am arrested as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda 1995, as amended,” I said.
The Hajj, if I may refer to him thus, lost his cool. He reached out for his table phone and called his boys downstairs to come and pick me up.
“Tomorrow you will talk whether you want or not,” he fumed.
As the summoned officer was blindfolding and handcuffing me again, I just stopped short of telling him that since he was fasting and visibly a follower of his religious beliefs, he needn’t trade his conscience for being subservient to the wiles of the devil by kowtowing to the rogue regime demands to stifle the freedom of expression.
However, I reserved my comment since I had seen a pistol well tucked into the waist of his trousers and he was obviously sufficiently charged to put a bullet through my head. I was taken downstairs along the same route we had used to go upstairs.
When we reached the corridor where I had left other prisoners, I noticed they had been taken away. The beanie had been adjusted and now it covered my head only down to the nose, so through a tiny hole I could see.
The officer who led me reeked of tobacco. It was evident that when he was called, he had been smoking. Perhaps he had put out the cigarette and tucked it into his pocket. He took me to a small toilet and locked the door behind him.
For a minute or two I thought that perhaps he had brought me in to ease myself and that he would return and take me to sleep with the inmates I had found sobbing in the corridor. However, as my eyes darted about, I saw a steel plate and a plastic cup that had been placed on the floor.
There were also iron bars fixed into the two walls that appeared to be handles to help a handicapped person use the toilet. I proceeded to use the toilet in which I had been locked to crap. However, when the officer came back to serve me drinking water and found me relieving myself comfortably, he kicked me viciously, propelling me off the toilet seat.
I landed on the floor like a bag of potatoes. The officer had chained both my hands and legs; so, gathering myself up again was something of a herculean task.
“You idiot, this is not a toilet!” he fumed, and the whole room was pervaded by a cigarette-polluted breath from his malodorous mouth.
“But this is a toilet, sir,” I retorted. “Kumanyoko. Eat that shit now!” he commanded. I looked at him askance.
The beanie that had blindfolded me had fallen down amidst the altercation. All along he had been standing at the threshold. Now he walked into the small cell, grabbed me by the ears and thrust my head into the toilet bowl. My mouth almost kissed the mound of unflushed constipated shit that had been floating on the water inside the bowl.
It was a terrible night for me. I was very cold in the small toilet, and the pain from the tight handcuffs and tight chain around my legs was excruciating. I wondered what the following day would bring if an illiterate hired rascal who hardly spoke English, whose fingers and teeth were blackened by tobacco smoke, could treat me the way bulls being trucked from Kiruhura to Kampala for slaughter are treated.
The following day, a Tuesday, a medical doctor working in the barracks was the first person to open the toilet where I had spent the night standing, chained to the wall. He introduced himself as a medical doctor and that he was here to take any medical complaints.
I looked at him with resentful eyes and wondered which idiot would really see a man hung in the toilet, hands already swollen, and go ahead to ask whether I had a complaint? Why would the government, the one I pay my taxes to, the one I contracted for five years, to protect me and my property, pick me up from my comfortable home and bring me by force to a torture chamber and then pretend to care about my pain?
I wanted to spit on him but my mouth turned out to be dry. He banged the door behind him and sauntered away, perhaps to another toilet-cum-cell. The door opened again. This time, a pretty woman encased in tight, high-waist, faded blue denims and a green V-necked T-shirt, which gave her the appearance of a nightclub pole dancer or a model, entered and stared at me lustfully for a minute or two.
She reached for a cup that had been placed on the floor in the corner, switched off the light that had illuminated the small room for the night, and went out without saying a word. She closed the door and returned after five minutes with a cup of white porridge.
She placed it on the floor and unchained me from the wall bars and asked me to sit down and eat the porridge. It was very hot but I managed to slurp it down hungrily while she stood over me and watched.
“Why were you brought here?” she enquired.
When I looked up at her, I realised that she had been looking mercifully at me. “For writing a satirical book,” I answered.
“Ehh, you are the author of The Greedy Barbarian? Where are your specs? You look different when not bespectacled,” she remarked.
“Yes, it is me. Have you read the book?” I asked.
She squatted and, holding my chin, raised my face so I could look directly in her eyes and added, “You man, you outdid yourself with that novel. I knew you would be picked up. I read the first two chapters with my mouth open because every sentence is humorous and makes one laugh endlessly. Then when I got to the last chapter, I pitied you.”
A few minutes later, a beardless boy who appeared to be barely eighteen years old, opened the door to the toilet and rudely instructed me to cover my face with a beanie and follow him. While he handcuffed me, the malodorous smell emanating from him filled my nostrils.
He stank like he had spent a week without bathing, and when he spoke, his breath smelt like the water that flows in the Nakivubo channel. The youth led me to the interrogation room and forced me to kneel on rough stones and to raise my handcuffed arms straight up.
The room had many interrogators. Some were seated behind their computers typing in everything I answered while others stood behind me wielding clubs, batons, guns and canes. They would hit me on the back, ankles and the soles of the feet each time I gave an answer they considered unsatisfactory.
My legs were still chained and arms handcuffed and I would lose balance every time they hit me and would fall down in a heap. They would then kick me in the crotch and tummy until I gathered myself up, and knelt down on the stones again.
The questions would be coming from different angles, just like the beatings. I was blindfolded but I could feel that I was in the centre of a huge room and that they had strategically organised their desks to surround me. When the time for lunch arrived, the brutes instructed me to crawl out of the room like a lizard.
“Motherfucker, crawl out of here like a lizard,” the brute with a Rukiga accent commanded.
“But how do I crawl when my legs and arms are chained and my face blindfolded?” I foolishly asked.
In a minute or two, I had received like a hundred beatings from all directions and to all my body parts. My knees and joints hurt so badly that I could hardly help myself, including trying to crawl like they had instructed me to do. Still I tried because the more I delayed, the more beatings and kicks I received.
I did as they had commanded until I hit my head on a wall and one officer had the gumption to ask: “Don’t you see where you are going, idiot?” “But I am blindfolded,” I groaned.
“You deserve death for writing about the president,” he said while shoving me to the entrance by rolling me like a log. I sat in the corridor and ate the posho and beans for five minutes then I was picked again.
“Tell us about the greedy barbarian you wrote about in your novel.” This was the first question that hit my ears immediately I was returned to the interrogation room after lunch.
“I thought before my arrest you had read the novel, sirs?” I answered.
An uncountable number of gun butts descended on me for responding in such a brazen manner. It was as though they were pounding dry ears of maize in a sack to separate the kernels from the cobs. They instructed me to bend over an office chair by placing my crotch onto the top rail and then hands on the floor.
The backside was appropriately positioned for whipping.
“Okay, let me talk now,” I capitulated. I was losing my mind. The pain was humongous and my mouth was the taste of raw blood.
The officers instructed me to remove my pants and T-shirt and use them to clean the floor as it had been stained with sweat and drops of blood. The beanie had covered my face down to the nose. Still, I could see the officer’s shoes and denims when he came to remove the chains and handcuffs so that I could undress.
The chains and handcuffs were put back after I had undressed and I was made to lie prostrate as they whipped me. My whole body was beginning to swell, as I succinctly explained the contents of the novel from beginning to end. That evening, another officer, who also reeked of tobacco, picked me up from the interrogation room and led me to the stairs, where he instructed me to stand and wait.
I was only dressed in a vest and a pair of boxers. When he returned, precisely after a minute, he instructed me to stretch my hands to the upper rail of the stairs and he tied my hands there. Then he moved down and tied my legs to the lower rail. Thus my body stretched between the upper and the lower rails of the stairs.
“Sir, you have overstretched me. Please loosen a bit,” I begged.
“You are being punished for lying. I am doing exactly as they have instructed me,” he retorted.
“So you are a robot being controlled by remote?” I tried to crack a joke but the person at whose expense I was doing so seemed oblivious of my attempt.
He hung me up on the rails and I started thinking about how Jews had hung Jesus on the cross. Through the small hole in the beanie, I could see everyone who was walking out of the building because the stairs where I had been hung were near the entrance.
I could see men and women in uniform, some in casual wear, and others in suits, with their bags in the hands. They were sauntering out as they chatted away in groups. Though the vision was not very clear, I could at least see the blurred silhouettes of human robots hired by the government to dehumanize Ugandans.
I had given up on life when the excruciating pain became unbearable. I couldn’t even speak, so I couldn’t call out for help. My whole body had become numb. I couldn’t feel the chains much as I could see my bare legs and feet. I knew I was dying when I felt my eyes popping out of the sockets.
I called upon God. I asked him to forgive my tormentors and to revenge on my behalf. I asked him to bless my wife and children with knowledge, life, wealth, wisdom and power. I asked God to forgive me all the sins I had committed and to welcome me into his kingdom.
It was around midnight that I passed out. The cold, excruciating pain, desperation and misery were all forgotten. When I gained consciousness in the morning, I was lying in the corridor, prostrate but still chained. I didn’t feel anyone removing me from where I had been hung.
When I became conscious again, I saw, through the small hole in the beanie, the doctor who had visited my toilet-cum-cell gather up his things, which I couldn’t identify clearly, and walk away. My whole body was itchy but I couldn’t scratch it because my hands were handcuffed.
The doctor had finished administering injections, perhaps of anti-inflammatory drugs, to my body. I asked myself why the government would torture me to near-death and still care enough to administer medicine. I was pulled from the corridor by the chains up to the interrogating room.
I was hauled like a goat meant to be tethered or slaughtered. I was commanded to kneel down on the rough stones again and hold my arms straight up, but I collapsed upon trying to do so.
As usual, the kicks and beatings ensued. They asked me to do a hundred push-ups and sit-ups at gunpoint. I was so weak, dehydrated and hungry that I didn’t sweat a drop during the whole exercise. My body became numb as if I had suffered a stroke.
They commanded me to lie prostrate and the only sensitive parts of my body were the stomach, eyes, ears and mouth. The rest of the body felt like something dead. The last question I heard was the demand for a copy of the novel and a laptop charger.
I responded that they were available at home. A few next minutes later, they were pulling me through the corridor and pouring water on me and hitting my ankles and shoulders with gun butts while I crawled to and fro. I wasn’t feeling anything anymore.
The beatings were ineffectual and I realised that perhaps something was wrong. I was pulled again like a goat and pushed into a bathroom where I was given five minutes to bathe and dress up. The puller, or officer, removed the handcuffs and chains and went away with them.
I was driven back home in Iganga to pick the novel and laptop charger. The torture continued everyday up to Saturday when I was transferred to SIU in Kireka. On Monday at 6am, I was driven to court in Iganga and remanded to Busesa Prison.
The author is a novelist and human rights activist