Monday, Feb. 20, 2006, dawned placidly like any other day in tropical Uganda. The sun peeped over the palm trees and then spilled over the tiled rooftops and tin-roofed shacks of the capital city, Kampala. But little did I know that on this day my privileged existence in this capital of a poorly developed African country would come to a horrific end. Little did I know that I would end up being beaten, tortured, and sent to a prison in which, on a regular basis, men were reportedly buried alive or drowned in septic tanks in front of other accused inmates to extract confessions from them.
I had spent the previous four years lobbying for Ugandan government contracts for stateside clients, and lived in an upscale suburb of Kampala. A crucial meeting with officials from the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was coming up – with a possible $20 million contract hanging in the balance. That meeting was scheduled for the very next day, Feb. 21.
In connection with my business dealings, Ugandan officials had solicited me for $86,000 in bribes over the course of my years in the country – all of which I had resolutely rejected. (But corruption hearings by a Ugandan government Commission of Inquiry – hearings that were forced by the Geneva headquarters of the Global Fund, which had been apprised of apparently corrupt dealings in Uganda’s health sector – were set to begin the same day, Feb. 21. I was concerned that I might be called to testify, even though my Ugandan attorney to whom I had confided my knowledge of the Ministry of Health bribe-takers, counseled me to keep the information to myself for the time being.)
On top of all of this I preached on a regular basis to small and large congregations throughout east and central Africa and to hundreds, maybe thousands, of pastors. My message was simple – Christians are stewards of nations and Christian leaders are obligated to engage politicians and address policy that conflicted with the Word of God. It was our duty to be the “salt of the earth” as Jesus said in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel.
In the months leading up to my arrest, I encouraged pastors, all Christians, and university students to resist the president’s proposal to change the relatively new national constitution to accommodate his desire for more terms of office. The Ugandan president went so far as to pay thousands of dollars to parliament members to vote for a change to their national constitution. I told Christians across the nation that the corruption must stop. My message did not sit well with those at State House.
On the evening of Feb. 20, about 8:45, dozens of policemen and four members of the Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU), a death squad whose members are universally feared for their ruthlessness, showed up at my walled compound. They demanded to search my home for guns.
One of the VCCU men interrogated my assistant, repeatedly slapping her across the face with all his might as he asked his questions until she collapsed on the floor in a pool of blood. Her starched white blouse turned crimson red as the blood made its way down to her feet.
Another man began interrogating me. To assert his authority, he drew his 9mm pistol and slammed the flat side of it across the small of my back. I crumpled in pain. Then he did it again. And again. He began slapping me with the full force of his muscular arms. The plainclothesmen threatened to shoot me unless I confessed I was a CIA agent sent to Uganda to assassinate President Yoweri Museveni and foment a coup.
After a while, a VCCU man carrying two firearms announced they had “found the guns.” During this whole “search” process, the police looted much of my house’s contents. Then, with only a pair of green shorts on – no shirt and no shoes – I was hustled, stumbling, into a waiting police pickup truck, which roared off into the night.
I was taken to Kampala’s Central Police Station. An officer escorted me through a heavy steel door and down a flight of cement steps into what I call “the dungeon.” It was a series of interconnected, dimly lit rooms in the station’s bare concrete basement that held scores, maybe even a hundred or more, of petty criminals, and that stank of human waste.
I had to go to the toilet, and was directed to a latrine to the rear of the general prison area. My urine was dark with blood from the beating to my kidney area, and my body throbbed with pain. I couldn’t sleep.
Next morning, detectives took me to a harsh interrogation session. Though I was faint from lack of food, water, and sleep, I repeatedly denied knowing of any guns at my home or having any coup intention.
After a while, I was returned to the “dungeon” at the Central Police Station. As evening turned into night, I prayed and fell asleep on a lice-infested straw mat, my first rest in nearly 40 hours.
The next day, in a brief afternoon court appearance, I was charged with terrorism and illegal possession of firearms, and remanded to Kampala’s infamous Luzira Maximum Security Prison. It is one of the worst prisons in Africa, known for torture, overcrowding, sodomy, and violence. Some 2,200 criminals are housed there, including Uganda’s hardest.
A police pickup truck, sirens blaring and lights flashing, took me through the teeming Kampala streets to Luzira.
About 1,500 of Luzira’s prisoners are there “on remand.” Most are awaiting a trial that is unlikely ever to come. Many have been waiting at the filthy, lice-ridden site for 10-15 years for their day in court. I met more than one prisoner who had given up on ever going to trial, and accepted prison as his fate in life.
After undergoing a series of processing steps, I found myself guided by a guard to the East Wing. There, some friendly evangelical Christian inmates embraced me and guided me to my cell. Before long, I was lying on a 2-inch-thick foam pad on the floor of my 6-by-6-by-9-foot-high concrete cell that reeked of excrement, watching the light from my air hole near the ceiling slowly fade. Hope faded, too. What gradually gripped my mind and spirit was that I was a dead man and would inevitably die in this prison. From that evening, I embraced death, and the thought of it didn’t faze me.
The regime’s single-minded goal, it seemed, was to extract a “confession” from me for the media, which were in a feeding frenzy outside Luzira. Thus, almost every day at the prison, I was interrogated in one way or another. But I determined, with absolute resoluteness, that I would never, ever confess to terrorism and thus stain my children’s memory of me.
Day after day, I was questioned by streams of officials, who would subject me to hours of tag-team interrogation. Their aim was to force me say something to make the incessant harassment stop. But I wouldn’t do it, because, in my mind, I was already “dead.”
More terrible still were the stories told me by others in confinement of how men were buried alive or drowned in septic pits to “encourage” other prisoners to confess.
Finally, after 35 days in this purgatory, there came a morning when I was whisked away from Luzira, without explanation, to the Kampala courthouse. I found myself once again in the courtroom prisoner’s box, and was soon stunned to hear the glowering judge say the sweet, magic words: “All charges are dismissed.” I was to be deported to the United States. I was told the following morning I was being freed due to the direct intervention of President Bush, whom my then-wife and friends in high places for help.
Late the next day, I was on a Kenya Airlines flight headed for Nairobi – from where I would go to Dubai and then onto John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
As the airliner banked over Kampala, I looked wistfully at the scruffy city where I had lived for four years. It struck me how much I love Uganda, how much I love Africa. I felt my heart swell with this love till it well-nigh burst. And I wondered, “When will my beloved Africa stop hurting itself, stop abusing its friends? When will those in authority in Africa, at every level, start to use their authority to help others, not themselves?”
I still ask myself these questions daily, and I desperately hope the answer will be “soon.”
~ Peter E. Waldron