It was nothing short of a magnificent night as the Mr and Miss Pride Pageant took place at the roof top of a local pub in the heart of Kampala. As Uganda’s LGBTI community gathered and partied the night away, there were sudden rushed movements as people tried to quickly exit the space. In a few minutes, it was obvious there was Police in our midst and all exits had been blocked. Activists Frank Mugisha, Shawn Mugisha and Pepe Onziema were the first to be bundled up and led out of the premises and straight to the police docks. Later it was established that close to twenty people were arrested during the chaos.
The confused, scared and upset group of about 400 people was swiftly instructed to gather in a small space and everybody ordered to get on the ground. Unfortunately, during the disarray a few people attempted to jump off the balcony and a yet to be indentified young gay man escaped death by a whisker and is currently hospitalized from the severe injuries attained from the fall.
The Police who were in the company of plain clothed officers started pin pointing at whichever two men they saw together and also picked out the transgender individuals. It was a heartbreaking sight as they searched and sexually assaulted transgender persons by touching their genitals and breasts all in an attempt to determine whether they were male or female. Many transwomen threw their wigs away and plucked out their braids to avoid being identified and harassed.
A young transgenderman walking with a white companion were singled out and questioned on whether they were gay; the policeman questioning them shamelessly pointed a gun at them and it took the intervention of a top activist to let the two rejoin the kneeling crowd.
Soon, they started confiscating people’s cameras and phones claiming they did not want people to spread the news on Facebook! The Officer in Charge, a rather arrogant man in demeanor, addressed the now extremely perplexed crowd and informed us were being held for conducting a gay wedding even though the laws of the land were very clear on homosexuality. Our faces fell! It seemed like our ordeal had just began and on bad note. Efforts to correct this information were futile as he shut down everyone who attempted to pass on the right information of what was actually happening.
A short while later, the same officer said he was retaining us for holding an unlawful gathering under the Public Order Management Act. The organizers still tried to inform him that they had attained permission from the Police prior but all their pleas fell on deaf ears.
Clare Byarugaba, a persistent and fearless activist stood up to the intimidation and attempted to talk to the police officers on more than five occasions. Angered by her relentlessness, a female officer led her away and she was put under arrest.
The beatings then started as the officers kicked and whipped people. Media was called and pictures of the attendees taken; all this while with the police forcing them (the attendees) to look into the cameras. The officer once again addressed us and said he would not tolerate this kind of ‘nonsense’ in his division.
After staying in the cold bundled up like criminals for over one and a half hours, we were released with caution that next time would be fatal.
News of the incident was spread through social media as the detainees gave live updates to the world through social media especially twitter and facebook. There has since been an outpouring of solidarity messages from across the globe as partners, allies, and world leaders condemned the horrendous acts of the Uganda Police Force.
The US ambassador to Uganda twitted, I stand with @PrideUganda2016 to uphold basic rights of all individuals. No one should face discrimination because of who they are. #UGPride16
Museveni who is currently serving his fifth term as President signed the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill in February 2014. The law called for LGBTI persons to be sentenced to 14 years in prison and to make it a criminal offence not to report someone for being gay.
The constitutional court however annulled the law after finding that the speaker of parliament acted illegally by moving ahead with a vote on the law despite at least three lawmakers objecting to a lack of quorum. Despite this, it still remains illegal to be gay in Uganda.
The local LGBTI community has been left shaken but not broken; many have expressed their disappointment and frustration towards the draconian system but it is clear they will not be intimidated.
Below we republish some of the last night’s incident as written by those who were detained
Message from an ally who is in the country to support Pride
MESSAGE TO EVERYONE – I AM SAFE!
Uganda Pride was raided by the Police tonight and I was right in the middle of it. In fact I nearly got arrested. We were at the Mr & Miss Uganda Pride competition that the fantastic trans activist Bad Black organised. I have known and worked with her for a year and know how much this event means to her. She had on a platinum blonde wig and red velvet dress, and spoke to us just before she went out on stage. One minute she received standing ovations for her speech about how its important to not give up, the next minute she disappeared. Suddenly panic ensued. The police had stormed the venue with machine guns and arrested her right off the stage. They then proceeded to chase the crowd of about a hundred people – of which I was one.
Screams of fear went through the room as everyone tried to escape. Someone jumped out of the building and ended up in hospital. We were then all held hostage by Policemen with machine guns, who took photos of people. Apparently tomorrow these photos might appear in the newspapers, outing the individuals to the public. The officers then ordered us all down on the floor. I looked into a man’s eyes and it was the saddest pair of eyes I’ve ever met. Someone was crying loudly. Right in the middle of it, I recognised one of the girls I met at my DJ gig the night before, at the first ever lesbian club night in Kampala. She told me how she really enjoyed the music I had played. We hugged and agreed on how important it is that we keep on dancing. “That’s our weapon” she said and smiled.
Finally the Police ordered us into the main room where the rainbow flags had been torn down. They took over the microphone in the DJ booth and proclaimed that this raid was not about sexual orientation but that the party was an unlawful assembly, although I have been informed the organisers had received the necessary permit. The Police basically hid behind some formality. I was told they had taken some of the trans women I work with to the Police station and beat them badly. They also arrested the activists who organised the events, who have since been set free. The Police will of course not be able to prosecute anyone on the suspicion of ‘being gay’ as they have no proof of any “buggery,” so they’ll have to let them go. This is something the Police knows, but they basically wanted to intimidate and terrorize the community and ultimately close the event down. They succeeded. But its not over yet.
The members of our crew of friends and activists in Uganda are a very organised bunch who are dedicating their lives to solidarity and fighting for equality. The community spirit that I have seen is unbelievable. The admiration and love I have for my brave friends in Uganda is immense. In times of hardship they have shown the most powerful resiliance which will inspire me for the rest of my life.
I leave you with a picture of some of the wonderful contestants I met at the Mr and Miss Uganda Pride competition this evening. The category they competed in was ‘cultural attire’ and in contrast to the widespread notion that being LGBT is a western corrupt influence and “un-African”, they entered the stage celebrating their African heritage. Moments later the Police stormed the building and arrested them. These are the heroes the world needs to celebrate.
I’ve been busy with two very opposed Pride festivals in the last two weeks. First it was Stockholm Pride, with hundreds of thousands of people supporting the parade going through town, including the Swedish Police force represented by their own section of the parade. That was less than a week ago but couldn’t feel further away from this evening in Kampala. Spare a thought for our persecuted Ugandan brothers and sisters who deserve happiness like everyone else. The struggle for equality is far from over.