New Internationalist

John ‘Bosco’ Nyombi: flight and detention

June 2010

In our June 2010 edition Deported! we recounted John ‘Bosco’ Nyombi’s story of removal from Britain to months of fear and persecution as a gay man in Uganda. Eventually, a British judge ruled his removal illegal and ordered that he be brought back. Here we reproduce a part of his interview where he recounts the journey back, which had its fair share of hairy moments, and offers his thoughts on what it is like to be gay in Uganda.

John 'Bosco' Nyombi.

In March 2009 my solicitor rang me to say that I had won my case. I was given the telephone number of the person to contact who was going to give me the proper document to travel back to the UK. So this guy flew from Nairobi, Kenya to Kampala, Uganda to give me the document. I went to meet him at the British high commission. He told me you have to make sure you are at the airport in the morning because the plane is leaving at 9.50 am. He gave me the travel document on 5 March and the flight was on 6 March.

He told me that when he gets back to Nairobi he is going to talk to somebody at the airport at Entebbe in Kampala, and then he would send me the name and telephone number of that person. So when I got to the airport I could contact that person. And then they would help me to get through. I waited for the text message; I didn’t get anything. In the morning I was still where I was staying, thinking: ‘What am I going to do? What is going to happen?’

Then he rang me to say: ‘You have to leave now and go to the airport because it is late. You just go there and you don’t have to queue up. Just walk in and show them your travel document. Nothing will happen.’

So I just left. They drove me from where I was staying to the airport. When I reached there, I saw that people were queuing up. How could I just walk in? So I stood in the queue. Then he rang back: ‘It is 9 o’clock. Where are you?’ I said: ‘I am in the queue.’ He said: ‘No, you don’t have to queue, just walk in front to the desk.’

The Ugandan immigration official shouted at me: ‘You have to talk to us. You think you know better. We can even now stop you from going. And you can be arrested, because we know what you are doing. It is illegal in this country’

I went and talked to a woman who was supervising the queue about what was happening. She said: ‘Where is your passport?’ And I said: ‘I don’t have a passport, I was given this travel document.’ Then they started querying about it and said: ‘Oh, you are John Bosco. Oh, now you have even changed yourself.’ Because the cut of my hair, it was like a skinhead, they were thinking I was trying to disguise myself.

She said: ‘Where is your air ticket?’ The ticket was ordered from the UK and it was a photocopy. So I gave them the copy. They gave me my ticket. Then they told me to go to the immigration desk where they also started to ask me questions and took a picture of me.

At 9.50 I was still there being questioned by immigration. Then the UK government officer who gave me the travel document rang me from Nairobi and said: ‘Where are you? Are you on the plane?’ The Ugandan immigration official shouted at me, saying: ‘I am talking to you and you are on the phone.’ I tried to explain but they pulled the phone from me and said: ‘You have to talk to us. You think you know better. We can even now stop you from going. And you can be arrested, because we know what you are doing. It is illegal in this country.’

It was confusion; you don’t know what to do. You want to do the right thing, so that people can understand, but they think I try to do wrong things. It was really hard to tell what I could do.

Bumpy landing

By 10 o’clock I was lucky, I was on the plane. I sent a text message to this UK official and said: ‘I’ve managed it, I’m on the plane.’ And then he said: ‘OK, I’m going to ring the UK immigration officer to inform them that you are on the plane and they will be expecting you at Heathrow.’ I talked to my solicitor. She said: ‘I’ve talked to the Home Office. They are not going to arrest you. Nothing is going to happen and your friend is going to pick you up at the airport.’ When I was in the air, I thought: ‘OK, I’ve made it now, hopefully this is the end of all the problems.’

We landed at 4 pm. I took my travel document to the passport control desk. The gentleman at the desk said: ‘What’s this?’ And I said: ‘It’s a travel document.’ He said: ‘Where is your passport?’ And I said: ‘I don’t have a passport, that’s why I was given this travel document.’ He asked me: ‘Why do you have this travel document?’ I tried to explain that I had been deported from the UK to Uganda and now I’ve been brought back. The man just shouted: ‘Why the hell on earth would we deport you to Uganda and then bring you back?’ I just said: ‘I don’t know, because I was told it and I was given this travel document. So if you don’t believe me, you have to check with immigration, because I was given it by the UK official in Nairobi.’ Then he told me ‘We don’t know anything about you, we don’t have any paperwork about you.’

My solicitor had warned me: ‘Make sure you don’t make any stupid mistakes by contacting family members, because you don’t know what will happen.’ Also, the people where I was staying, they didn’t want it to be known that they were keeping a person like me

He told me to sit down there. Four o’clock, five o’clock, six o’clock. Then 7 o’clock, they came to me and said: ‘We don’t have any paperwork. We are going to detain you.’ I was thinking: ‘OK, as long as I’m back in the UK. I didn’t forge this travel document. I was given it by a UK immigration official. I got the ticket from here. My solicitor knew about it, so it’s not like I’ve smuggled myself into the country.’

They took me to this group which controls the detainees. They call it G4S. ‘We have this gentleman. He was deported last year, and this is what has happened.’ They said: ‘No, we can’t take him now, because the picture you took when you were deporting him is different to the way he is. You have to take another picture.’

They had to bring me back to the control desk. I sat there until 9 o’clock. Then at 9 o’clock they got someone who could take my picture and I was taken to the detention room at the airport. They started asking me questions again, checking me. They told me they don’t have the place yet, but they will look until they can get somewhere where they can take me to sleep at night.

I was in that room from 9 o’clock until 1 o’clock in the morning. That’s when they told me: ‘We are taking you to Tinsley House detention centre, where you are going to stay until Monday, until they can sort out your case.’ Because it was a Friday evening there was no way to contact my solicitor. I was driven from the airport at 1 o’clock and got to the detention centre at 3 o’clock in the morning. There they started searching me. By the time they got me a room to sleep it was like five in the morning. I had not eaten anything at all, I had not had anything to drink.

‘You have been released’

I had to let my friends know what was happening as they were expecting me. But because it was a weekend, there was nothing they could do.

On Monday, I rang my solicitor. She said: ‘Don’t worry, we are going to sort this out. What they did was wrong. They were not supposed to detain you. It is a case of forced imprisonment. Because the judge had ordered you to be brought back. There is no point in arresting you again.’

Then an immigration officer came to me and said: ‘We are going to remove you from this detention centre, back to Haslar in Portsmouth.’ I said: ‘OK, yes, that’s fine.’ Because I was thinking, if they move me back to Haslar, because it was close to where I used to live, it would be easier for my friends to visit me.

As I was picking my bags to go to the van, another immigration officer walked in and said: ‘Can I see John Bosco?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I am here.’ He told me: ‘You have been released.’ The people at the detention centre said: ‘No, we can’t release him from here, because we have signed him out to go to Haslar. So he can go to Haslar and be released from there.’ But the immigration man said: ‘No, he has to be released from here.’

They had to put me back on the system as if I had just come back to the detention centre. And then I was released.

When I was released I was told I was not entitled to any benefits, I was not entitled to work and I had to sign at the police station every Wednesday. And they told me to stay at the address which was provided by my friend and my work colleague.

Friends helped me out. I slept on my work colleague’s floor for months. People from my church used to give me some money. Where I was staying was seven miles away from the police station; so they gave me money to get the bus ticket there. But I was not entitled to anything from the government. I won my case for refugee status in June.

When I won my case, I got my papers through to stay in the country and because my former boss had kept my job open, I was allowed to come back to work.

A curse in Uganda

My brother was killed when I first left the country in 2001. Because when I left the country, he went looking for me. He was arrested, beaten up, and then he died. I’ve not heard from my mum since 2001. When I was deported back to Uganda, I couldn’t contact her. Because, you know, in Uganda, they don’t accept gay people. They think it’s a curse.

And my solicitor had warned me: ‘Make sure you don’t make any stupid mistakes by contacting family members, because you don’t know what will happen.’ Also, the people where I was staying, they didn’t want it to be known that they were keeping a person like me. So I had to be careful with everything. And now, because of this new bill [which proposes very harsh penalties for homosexuality], I have to keep a distance and think of my family, because I don’t want to put them in danger. Because even if you contact them, and something happens, they have to report everything to the police.

This new bill is going to make the situation even harder. It’s terrible. So even if you are gay, you’ve been persecuted, you’ve been through a lot, you have to think of other people in the same community. It’s really, really hard for them. Even for friends with whom you don’t have a relationship.

It’s terrible, because nobody can understand, even if you explain. They don’t really understand. I wish sometimes I could just get a chance to talk to my mum and explain. And I think if I explain to my mum she would understand

Sometimes it makes me cry and I feel sorry for the people who are in Uganda. Sometimes I don’t feel safe even here, because some members of the black community can’t even accept those who are here. I had some friends who used to come to my house, I used to cook for them. But as soon as they knew that this gay Ugandan is going to be deported, they didn’t want to talk to me. Everybody disappeared. So you can imagine if in the UK people can be like that, how it is in Uganda or other African countries.

It’s terrible, because nobody can understand, even if you explain. They don’t really understand. I wish sometimes I could just get a chance to talk to my mum and explain. And I think if I explain to my mum she would understand.

It’s sad, because now I am in a world where I have friends but I don’t have relatives. So when people talk about their families, you just look blank. If they ask: ‘Have you heard from your mum?’, what can I say. Sometimes I say: ‘Yeah, yeah’, just in order to keep the conversation going.

It’s hard for me, but what about those who are still in Uganda? There is no freedom. There’s no freedom of speech, you can’t say anything. All the time, they say in Uganda that there are no gay people. If there are no gay people, who am I? Because nobody taught me, I didn’t go to a school where they teach people to be gay. Now they are saying: ‘They are recruiting people.’ Those are the words they are using. You can’t ‘recruit’ somebody to be gay. You can’t tell somebody, this is a group you can join. It is not a matter of joining. People really don’t understand.

In Uganda, they can arrest you as a gay person, but they will never accuse you of being gay. They will find something else. They will say that you are idle and disorderly. They can arrest you for that. They can say you are trespassing. They find a lot of things just to put you into prison. When the reason why they arrested you is because you are gay. And they don’t charge you with anything, they just put you in prison.

This feature was published in the June 2010 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Comments on John ‘Bosco’ Nyombi: flight and detention

Leave your comment