When you ask Ronald Ssenyonga, a 21-year-old Ugandan, to tell you about his arrest, he asks: “Which one?” Like many gay people struggling to survive in a country that has used Covid-19 as an excuse to clamp down on human rights, Ssenyonga is used to arrests and raids.
Even before the pandemic Uganda was labelled the worst place to be gay after its parliament proposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts. The constitutional court annulled the law in 2014, but security agencies continue to hound gay people – relying on information from community vigilantes to attack and smoke them out of places they thought were safe.
Ssenyonga has just returned from his second spell in prison in three months. He and his neighbour, Tevin Haris Kifuba, were accused of stealing a television. A misunderstanding, they say, compared to the state-instigated case hanging over their heads – they are among 20 people accused of carrying out “negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease” after security agencies raided their hostel.
It all began on a lazy Sunday morning at the shelter run by a non-profit, Children of the Sun, Ssenyonga says, as he sits on his bunk bed in a tiny room. He wrings his hands, still wet and pale from washing the clothes he has just hung on the drying line. He has washed out all the prison dirt. But memories are not as easily expunged.
The first sign of danger, he says, was seeing green boots through a gap under the gate.
Some people were still in bed at the shelter, which has given Ugandan gay people a home during lockdown. Some were on the veranda washing their faces with water splashed from colourful plastic cups. Others had their toothbrushes in their hands as the men in green boots kicked the gate open. Everyone started running. But there was nowhere to go. The police gathered them all together, and ordered them to sit down and face journalists who had been brought along on the raid.
They tied us like slaves and marched us through a trading centre full of homophobic peopleRonald Ssenyonga
“After the ‘photoshoot’, they tied us like slaves and marched us through a trading centre full of homophobic people. Some people slapped us. Others hit us with stones or whatever they could find. They shouted and condemned us.”
A video of the raid went round on social media. In it, Haji Abdul Kiyimba, mayor of the town council where the shelter is located, demands the young men tell him their parents’ phone numbers while whipping them.
The men were then taken to prison where, they say, they spent a month being taunted and tortured. They were stopped from seeing their lawyers, an action Ugandan courts ruled was a violation of their right to a fair hearing. Their legal aid provider, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, has also sued the government over the torture the men say they underwent while in prison.
“They thought we were nobody, and we had no one on our side. They burned us with firewood and forced us to confess that we are gay. They used abnormal size sticks and iron bars [to beat us], and they turned other prisoners against us,” Ssenyonga says. At the time of his arrest he was waiting for his A-level results and looking forward to university.
“But after they showed my face in the video, everyone knows I am gay. I am too ashamed to show my face at school. So I do not know what the future holds when I cannot even go out to pick up my results.”
Kifuba used to edit videos at a small media shop. When he got out of jail, he heard that his boss “mobilised people to push the video”. He could not return to his job or his parents’ house.
“I had to accept that I was gay because it is who I am. It broke my mother’s heart. The village was spitting fire. Before, I could at least return home. But I had to leave the village, and now I have nowhere to go.”
Severus Hama-Owamparo is executive director of the Taala Foundation, which has been providing mental health support to people under arrest. The foundation and Children of the Sun are providing food, rent money and other basics for six months to people like Kifuba and Ssenyonga who cannot return to their lives after being arrested and outed.
“When the government put the lockdown rules, it did not think of people who have no homes. Everybody was expected to go back to a loving home, and people who are unable are punished,” Owamparo said.
Human Rights Watch says Uganda is using the cover of coronavirus to marginalise and target gay people. “At the root of the arrests is homophobia.”
Raj Juuko, one of those helped by Children of the Sun and Taala to rent a house, says he might not always have money for food or other necessities, but he is relieved he does not have to go home.
When you are gay in Uganda, you are not considered a personRaj Juuko
“When you are gay in Uganda, you are not considered a person. When Covid-19 happens and your video leaks out, you have to know you are on your own.”
Before the raid, Juuko was a waiter at a major restaurant chain.
“After I returned from jail, my boss told me: ‘We are Muslims, and we cannot tolerate gay people.’ Before Covid-19, I could afford rent and take care of myself. Then I had to go back to zero, just like that.”
Juuko’s housemate, Oketch Edward, says their biggest worry is that their rent will only last to January. After that, they will have nowhere to go.