Nightmare in Uganda – Brutally Beaten and Imprisoned for my Christian Faith

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 of 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.

Becky, my executive assistant and house manager, had prepared a wonderful breakfast – fuel for a day of hard preparation for a crucial presentation the following day to Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria officials. Hanging in the balance was a possible $20 million contract for software that could manage the Ministry of Health’s program for distributing antiretroviral drugs to Uganda’s HIV/AIDS population. I had spent the past four years living in an upscale suburb of Kampala, lobbying for various government contracts, and this was the biggest of them yet.

Me Standing on front porch of Kampala Home

More than two hours before that lustrous dawn (the last one I would see as a free man for the next 35 days), I had risen in the cool darkness, as was my habit, to read my Bible and pray for people and projects the world over that had touched my life or for whom I had concern. I have been very serious about Christianity, Christian persecution and global Christian martyrdom for nearly forty years. In fact, I was a nationally syndicated talk-show host on religious broadcasting stations for years in the eighties and founded an international faith-in-action organization called Cities of Faith. In addition, my Christian mission in Uganda was to visit evangelical Christian churches, pastors and Bible studies, of which there are many, all around the country, and speak about the precepts and principles that are in the Bible that are used for nation building.

 Not long before this fateful day, I had written what amounted to a short book on biblical guidelines for creating a just, prosperous, and godly government. I did this at the behest of several evangelical Christian men who represented the leadership of a large secession movement in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who had been introduced to me by two American Christian missionaries.

 I had also given Dido, the Congolese men’s leader, on the strength of his being a “brother in Christ,” permission to store some suitcases and other effects in an unused room on my property, and for him to host meetings there. (I found out later that this cell of Congolese had actually been retained by the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, Uganda’s equivalent of the CIA, to infiltrate back into the Congo and find and assassinate Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan rebel organization known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.)

In addition, Ugandan officials had solicited me for $86,000 in bribes over the course of my four years in the country – all of which I had resolutely rejected due to my personal ethical imperative against corruption and my client firm’s no-bribery policy. (But corruption hearings by a Ugandan government Commission of Inquiry – hearings that were forced by actions of the Geneva headquarters of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria – were set to begin the following 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 bribers, counseled me to keep the information to myself for the time being.)

Peter 2006 Before Uganda

Moreover, even though I had no connection with the U.S. government, as a prominent and privileged white American businessman, I had a front-row seat, as it were, on the controversial Ugandan presidential election, which was scheduled for Feb. 23. (It was controversial because President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1987, was standing for a third term as president. And, because Uganda’s constitution forbade three consecutive presidential terms, relations were raw between Kampala and Washington, which was publicly criticizing the “antidemocratic” Museveni and openly providing funds to the opposition party.) Finally, I was publisher of an occasional newsletter called The Africa Dispatch, which commented on various aspects of African political and economic life.

Little did I know that these disparate parts of my life in Uganda were inexorably aligning themselves to suggest to the Ugandan authorities that they portray me as a terrorist, CIA spy, and coup conspirator.

By the evening of Feb. 20, my executive assistant and I were worn out. But we had prepared well for next day’s presentation: We had meeting agenda sheets, presentation booklets, and a good speech ready to go. Then about 8:45 there was a peremptory hammering at the gate of my walled compound. I answered the insistent knocking, and opened the door to find a dozen policemen. They asked if they could search the premises, which I allowed them to do. More police arrived in a steady flow to help in the search. “What are you looking for?” I asked. “Guns,” the police leader replied to my surprise. The men thoroughly ransacked my house three times, without discovering any guns.

Finally, four plainclothesmen with hard, sinister faces arrived and began to question me, my assistant, and a badly beaten Congolese boy “witness” they had brought in who had told them there were guns in the house. They said they were from the Violent Crime Crack Unit (“VCCU”), a death squad, whose members are universally feared for their ruthlessness. One man questioned my assistant, repeatedly slapping her across the face with all his might. 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. A final blow caused me to pass out.

I came to. One of the plainclothesmen stood over me, pulled a pistol from his belt, held the muzzle an inch or less from my face, a second man, also aimed at me an AK-47 that was slung over his shoulder, and said, “I’m going to kill you right now.”

I said faintly, “It’s okay now, I am at peace with God.” As I prepared to pass into heaven and be with Jesus, I asked God to forgive me my sins. But the officer didn’t squeeze the trigger.

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 – from fax machines, computers, external hard drives, and office furniture, to tableware, linens, cookware, and food – and even right down to office paper and pens. My hands were then twisted up behind my back and cuffed between my shoulder blades, so tightly the circulation was cut off. I had on only a pair of green shorts, no shirt and no shoes. We suspects were hustled, stumbling, into a waiting police pickup truck, which roared off into the night.

My assistant and gateman were dropped off at two separate locations, and then I was taken to Kampala’s Central Police Station. The handcuffs were finally removed. As circulation slowly returned to my arms, an officer booked me and then escorted me through a heavy steel door and down a flight of cement steps into what I called “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.

As a mzunga, or white man, I instantly became the center of attention – even at 2 in the morning. Men waited for the door to close behind me before they “bull-rushed” me up the steep stairs.  I pushed them to the side, slapping, and hitting each as he swung wildly at me. Finally, a man (referred to as “Chairman”) said, “Enough” at which the men backed down.  An hour or so later I descended the steps.  Once on the flat surface, men began to file by me in the dim light from a far-off bulb at the top of the concrete stairs that led to the door guarded by a policeman, staring at this unthinkable sight of a white man in an African jail, or asking commonplace questions like “How are you?” (to which I would reply “Excellent!”, even though I was far from it). 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 cranberry red blood from the beating to my kidney area, and my body throbbed with pain. With thoughts and fears churning in my mind as to my health and the reason for my arrest, I couldn’t sleep a wink all night.

Dawn of the next day was marked by dim light filtering through a row of dirty, barred windows high up the wall. The Muslims in the jail population got up to bow toward Mecca and pray. Afterward was a skimpy breakfast, the remains of which were scraped by the prisoners into a rough channel in the concrete floor that ran the entire length of the floor toward the latrine which was brimming with putrefying waste.

Next, some officials came down and conducted a roll call, followed by a “reading” of charges. During the latter, each person openly admitted what he had done – stolen a 20,000-Ugandan-shilling airtime card, walked away with 100,000 shillings (about $50) from his workplace, etc. – mostly petty larceny. But when my name was called, one of the police officials spoke up, saying, “Guns were found at his home.” Everyone turned his head to stare in shock at me.

I was asked to come upstairs with a pair of detectives, who handcuffed me and drove me to the Kabalagala Police Station. Here, I was taken to a tiny room crowded with 10 detectives sitting on chairs almost touching a large desk. Behind the desk sat my inquisitor, an imperious man who identified himself as “Col. George.” He questioned me for a half-hour or so, and I told him the whole story of my missionary connection to the Congolese men and that I knew nothing of guns at my home.

Col. George then issued an order that we all go to my house and continue the interrogation there. Once in the dirt-and-gravel parking lot, however, an SUV pulled up in a cloud of dust, and out stepped a thin, 6-foot white man in a suit and tie who asked authoritatively, “Who is in charge here?”

All of the detectives swiveled their heads toward Col. George. The stranger said, “My name is Nathan Flook, the attorney with the U.S. Embassy.”

Turning to look at me – disheveled, disoriented, shoeless, and wearing sweaty, blood-stained clothing – he got right into Col. George’s face and said, “I remind you of the Geneva Conventions, which require you to treat this man humanely.” He asked me, “Mr. Waldron, have you had anything to drink?” I replied no. “Anything to eat?” Again I replied no.

Flook looked the colonel squarely in the eye and demanded, “I want this man given some water. I want him fed. I want shoes for him, and I want him handcuffed with his hands in the front.”

Time seemed to stop as everyone waited for Col. George’s response. Finally, he replied, “OK, we will.”

Flook then said, “I want to see this American citizen for just a few minutes.”

The colonel bridled, retorting, “We’re in a hurry. We’re going to his house.”

“It will take 10 minutes at the most,” the attorney insisted, “but I must speak to him.”

We then were allowed to confer together in another office at the police station. Flook told me no one from the U.S. Embassy was able to represent me before the Ugandan justice system, but that he could check on my health and welfare, as well as notify any number of people about my situation. I asked him to contact the mother of my five children, Pamela; my client, Harvey Stewart, president of Rocky Mountain Technology Group; my Ugandan lawyer, Noah Mwesigwa; and a local pastor, Joshua Lwere. Flook also said he would get me some food and money.

I believe that his meeting with me put the Ugandan government on notice that their actions toward me were being watched, which perhaps saved my life.

After this, Col. George and his detectives took me to my house. He told me we were going to walk through it, room by room, and that I was to mention any items that were missing, and one of his men would make a list. As we moved from room to room, each of which looked like a tornado had hit it, the list lengthened. At the same time, the detectives used the opportunity to dig through a wealth of papers and files strewn about the floors for further “evidence.”

After this was done, I was returned to the “dungeon” at the Central Police Station. I got a visit from Flook and the embassy’s economic attaché, who brought me money, bottled water, and a bag of green apples. A while later, I got another visit, this time from Pastor Lwere. He brought a Bible, toothbrush, and toothpaste. Then it was back to the “dungeon,” where I prayed and fell asleep on a lice-infested straw mat, my first rest in nearly 40 hours.

The next day, about 1:30 in the afternoon, I was taken upstairs to a small office, where six handcuffed Congolese men soon joined me. Two of them were Dido and the beaten Congolese boy who had been brought to my house the night before last. We were herded out the back of the Central Police Station, to the adjacent courthouse. We soon found ourselves in a courtroom prisoner’s box. It was here that I first heard the charges that had been lodged against me.

I was asked to identify myself, which I did, and the judge called out, “Terrorism and illegal possession of firearms!” My attorney denied all charges on my behalf, and then the judge quickly ordered us seven defendants returned to confinement. I was stunned. The charge of terrorism had caught me completely by surprise.

But that was nothing compared to the next nasty surprises. After a few minutes, my attorney was allowed entrance, and he told me the charges against me were being brought under Uganda’s Terrorism Act, and carried a maximum penalty of death by hanging. Moreover, I and the Congolese men were being sent to Kampala’s infamous Luzira Maximum Security Prison, about which I had heard many dark, whispered tales. It was one of the worst prisons in Africa, well known for torture, overcrowding, sodomy, and violence. Some 2,200 of Uganda’s hardest criminals were housed there, and it was the site for all of the country’s official executions. About 300 men are on death row.

A police pickup truck, sirens blaring and lights flashing, took the seven of us through the teeming Kampala streets, then on a dusty road outside the city, to Luzira. The view along the way of sparkling Lake Victoria was breathtaking, but it was soon shut off by the prison’s thick masonry walls and multiple steel gates. The prison is built entirely of cement. Even its soccer field is built on a concrete foundation.

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 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. (There was one 28-year-old, for example, who had been at Luzira since he was 14, and a 30-year-old who had been there since he was 18.)

Some 70 percent of Luzira’s male population are incarcerated for “defilement” (sexual relations with a girl under 18). The vast majority of men are sent to the prison because they could not reach a “settlement” with the girl’s parents. It appears the teenage boys had consensual sex with their girlfriends but simply didn’t have the money to pay the girl’s parents the required bride price.

Boys as young as 12 are thrown into the prison’s general population. The boys are recruited by older prisoners as sexual partners. The seduction usually begins with a tablespoon of sugar (the currency of prison). About 60-70 percent of the inmates are engaged in homosexual relationships.

For prisoners who disobey the rules (against smuggling cigarettes, fighting, etc.), there are the punishment cells, which are found beneath ground level in the West Wing. The often nude male prisoner is thrown into a completely dark room, given an open plastic bucket for a toilet, made to sleep on a cement floor that is kept wet, given half rations, and physically beaten. The average length of stay in the punishment cells is 30 days.

The food at Luzira is horrific: generally dry, crusty cornbread and over cooked beans (porsho). The kitchen conditions are filthy. Lice are in the blankets and sleeping mats. There is no clean drinking water. And the stench of human waste permeates the cellblocks.

The guards are underpaid and very corrupt. Many exchange sexual favors with the wives or girlfriends of the prisoners for the “right” to visit their men. The guards offer privileges to prisoners in exchange for money, sugar, or other items – such as one’s wife, daughter, sister, or girlfriend.

Arrival TPA Home March'06Executions at Luzira are by hanging. The gallows is built on the grounds.  Because hanging is not a perfect method of execution, a man with a 20-pound sledgehammer stands by the trapdoor to crush the condemned’s head if he doesn’t die by strangulation or a broken neck in the required 30 minutes.

After undergoing a series of processing steps, I found myself guided by a guard to the East Wing. In a courtyard surrounded by 20-foot-high concrete walls, I was met by a heavyset, smiling man named George, who introduced himself as the “chairman” of this section, a title for a prisoner put in charge of other inmates. George and several other men shook my hand, and we settled into a warm conversation. I discovered this group were all supporters of Museveni’s main political opponent, and had been arrested about a year and a half before. And they were all evangelical Christians.

George took me to the vacant cell the authorities had assigned me. It was down a dimly lit hallway with cells on either side. When the cell door was opened, both of us gagged on the nauseating smell of human excrement. A bit of light filtered into the cell through a rectangular air hole cut into the wall about eight feet up. We found that the floor and much of the walls were covered in old human waste that had three or four inches of newspaper layered on top of it.

The chairman asked a youthful inmate to get some help and thoroughly clean the cell with detergent and water. Before too long, it was livable, though the strong odor of feces continued to hang in the air.

My new friends familiarized me with the daily routine, and before long, I was lying on a 2-inch-thick foam pad on the floor watching the light from an air hole 8’-9’ above the floor slowly fade. I read my Bible, and took comfort in its words, but 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 only regret I had was that I wouldn’t be able to see my children as they grew up.

Suddenly, I was startled by the stirring sound of a large men’s choir practicing hymns for the Sunday worship service. I later found there were 107 voices in the choir. But as the light faded away, and my cell became utterly black, little did I know that this sound of heaven was to precede the worst hell I could ever imagine.

In the world outside Luzira, there was a media feeding frenzy going on. Every news organization in Uganda, and many outside it, wanted to report juicy details on the American terrorist just arrested by the Museveni regime. Journalists shifted their attention somewhat from the regime’s suspicious prosecution of opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye on terrorism and rape charges. But the government was hard-pressed to feed the media sharks. So what it wanted most was a “confession” from me. 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 so let that stain my children’s memory of me.

One day, I might be questioned by a stream of officials, who would subject me to hours of tag-team interrogation. They would come at me with details of my wife, children, friends, finances, and such, and twist things to inflict maximum mental anguish. Their aim was to break me, to force me say something to make the harassment stop. But I wouldn’t do it, because, in my mind, I was already “dead.”

More terrible still, I was the stories told my others in confinement.  They told of men who would be taken to an underground room where several pits had been dug in the earth. A prisoner would be told to jump down into the center of a pit. Other prisoners would then begin to fill the holes with earth, demanding all the while that the prisoners “confess.” One screaming man would often be buried alive, to put the ultimate pressure on the others.

Another torture was the sewage pit. Though I never experienced it firsthand, it was described to me by inmates who had been subjected to it. A prisoner bound hand and foot is dropped into a pit brimming with sewage. He is allowed to nearly drown, and then is revived and questioned. Or, in a variation of this torture, inmates are forced to watch as another is held under the sludge repeatedly until he drowns. Then they are asked to “confess.”

But the burial torture, and the threat of the sewage torture, had no effect on me, because I had embraced death, and was committed to my chosen path.

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, together with the six Congolese. None of us knew what to expect. Were further charges being brought? Was a trial date going to be set, miraculously? The judge looked us up and down with a stern glower. But then he said the sweet, magic words we all wanted to hear: “All charges are dismissed.” My companions began to laugh and celebrate, but it took many minutes for the news to sink in to my fear-and mistrust-addled mind.

We spent the night at the adjacent Central Police Station. We were to be deported to our native countries. (I found out later that the Ugandan government’s Commission of Inquiry hearings on Ministry of Health corruption had been adjourned the day before my deportation.) But the Congolese were given the option, for a bribe of 10 million Ugandan shillings, of being dropped off at the Uganda-Congo border, instead of being sent to Kinshasa, which would have been a sure death sentence. I still don’t know if they were able to raise the money and save themselves.

The next morning at 8:30, a Criminal Investigation Division plainclothesman named “Joe” fetched me from “the dungeon” and drove me to the Kololo suburb of Kampala. As we approached the suburb, I grew increasingly nervous. I had heard stories about a “safe house” or torture chamber near the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Kololo to which prisoners are brought to be subjected to truly infernal tortures. Despite the supposed dropping of charges, I was sure that was our destination. But instead, we turned into a compound with a sign on the gate clearly marked “Interpol.”

The CID man led me to a large sitting room furnished with comfortable sofas and armchairs. Lounging on one was a man wearing a blue uniform, and on another sat a woman in a dark blue suit.

The man looked me up and down. “Where are his shoes?” he asked Joe.

“There was no one who had a key to the storage area at the CPS,” the CID man replied.

“Get them! And his other things!” the uniformed man ordered. Turning to me, he said, without rising, “I am Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, inspector general of police.” The woman identified herself as Elizabeth Kutesa, director of the CID.

Kayihura told me he had ordered breakfast for us, and asked me to shower, shave, brush my teeth, etc. in a nearby bathroom. After we settled down to our meal, the police general told me I was being released due to the direct intervention of President Bush with Museveni. I learned later that my children’s mother had intensively lobbied the White House to help an evangelical Christian man, such as myself, who had been a consultant on a number of Republican House, Senate, and presidential campaigns over the years.

Kayihura apologized for the looting of my home, and assured me I would be compensated (which never happened). I asked for my laptop, external hard drive, and U.S. and Ugandan mobile phones. He directed Kutesa to arrange for “these things to be returned to him immediately.” She spent the next two hours making cell phone calls to try to find my personal items.

In the half-hour or so before the general had to leave for another appointment, he also said, “We don’t like to see investors leave. In a few weeks or a month, you can come back. Don’t spoil any of your plans, or dismiss any of your staff. We want you here to help Uganda.”

“How about my friends and staff I leave behind?” I asked. “What will happen to them?”

“That really depends on you and what you say when you return to the United States,” he replied darkly. This cut me deeply, because it struck me as a thinly veiled threat. To this day, the thought of the VCCU paying a visit to my pastor, my assistant, or any of those who worked with me sends shivers down my spine. What I write or say publicly carries an extraordinary weight that prevents me from discussing everything, everyone or every detail that happened at Luzira.  I trust that the reader understands.

Finally, an officer came in with two cell phones, one of which was my Ugandan device. But the other items never arrived. Another officer, however, brought in my shoes, cane, and belt from the CPS.

My assistant soon entered with a clean change of clothes for my flight home. I requested a trip to my bank to arrange my finances, which was provided.

Despite Kutesa’s best efforts, my laptop, external hard drive, and U.S. cell phone could not be found. She assured me these would be returned once they were located (which never happened).

The time came for us to go to the airport. We got into the same Mitsubishi police pickup truck that had taken me earlier in the day from the CPS to Interpol headquarters. Joe, who was to accompany me on the flight to New York, rode in the front seat. I was in the backseat together with a guard armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. Before long, Joe and I were on a Kenya Airlines flight headed for Nairobi then to Dubai – from where we would go to 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 devouring its own children, as it were; 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, desperately hope the answer will be “soon.”

~ Peter E. Waldron