Last week, I watched a dead man burn, and I didn’t feel sickened, or saddened, or scared. I didn’t have time to.
The weekend’s lethargy was slow to wear off that Monday morning. Shortly before noon, I still stood towelling my wet, washed hair on the balcony of our little apartment in Ntinda, a shambolic potholed suburb to the north-east of Kampala. Noise travels in Ntinda, which, like the rest of the city, is geographically defined by its hills, scattered with houses and shopping centres, and its valleys, carpeted in tin-roofed slums. When the wind blows my way, I can hear the tiny, tinny robot voice of the automated scales in front of the supermarket across the street offer to measure my height and weight.
Some sounds don’t need the wind’s help. Monday’s quotidian hum of back-to-work traffic and street-level chatter was rent by the unmistakable crack of gunfire. A stick-figure crowd gathered and craned and jostled for room on the balcony of the shopping centre across the main road, partway down the hill. Confirmation enough for me.
A volley of further shots beat an erratic rhythm to my scramble for flip flops, phone, paper, pen, my boyfriend’s Nikon point-and-shoot. I skipped stairs on my way down into the muddy, unpaved alley that slips from our building’s gate into the bustling main road.
A thick crowd of nervous people obscured my view of the action being played out twenty metres down the street. I squeezed between terse, torpid figures. An older gentleman grasped my arm and cautioned me: ‘The police have shot some thugs. The police are unpopular, so people are angry. But they were doing their job. I know,’ he said, ‘I’m a soldier.’
Crowds gather around the victim. Photo: Maya Prabhu
I pushed forward until I saw the three bodies. They cast improbable red shadows under the candid midday sun. Scattered across the road some three or four metres away, living people in living bodies with angry faces milled around them. I climbed up on a low wall with my camera and started shooting, too. As I shot pictures of the bodies and questions at the witnesses around me, a couple of young men moved towards one body. As they stepped away again, a dark quick smoke rose from the corpse. In an instant, his checkered shirt was alight.
The burning man had allegedly stolen a boda-boda, or motorcycle taxi, and had been beaten to death by the angry mob in punishment. The other dead men were bystanders, victims of a probably panicked young cop’s AK 47. The cop, identified as PC Njala by the District Police Commissioner James Ruhweza, was the only heavily armed policeman in the vicinity. He had fled after discharging the shots that had summoned me to the scene, afraid of the lynch-mob’s retribution. An hour or two later, William Kintu, Resident District Commissioner for the Ntinda-Nakawa area, told me that Njala had ‘used his gun unlawfully’ and claimed he would be apprehended and charged with murder. ‘The problem,’ he qualified, ‘is a lack of training.’ He was found at his barracks, and consequently taken into custody pending investigation of his actions.
I think that the mob would have killed Njala had he stuck around until his magazine was empty. When I arrived at the scene, there were no police officers present. A truck bearing riot police arrived, picked up one of the bodies and left again, sirens blaring. A little while later, a few officers arrived on foot, and were swiftly forced into retreat by a hailstorm of rocks and broken bits of asphalt. A warning shot sent a ripple of terror outwards from the centre of the crowd, and the periphery of the mob scattered. I edged forwards again minutes later, when the police officers had disappeared.
It was a savage spectacle, and not nearly uncommon enough to interest the major international news agencies.
Although Ugandans are no more violent than any other people, they have had the misfortune of a brutal political past. Institutional violence and volatility streak with heady momentum through the nation’s history, and today, corruption hobbles its development at each level. The result, as the old soldier explained to me, is distrust of government organs, including the police force. So justice, in its crudest guise, is meted out in the streets.
Monday’s lynch-mob may well have been spearheaded by boda-boda riders like my friend Baker, witness to the lynching, and his twin brother Richard. These motorcycle-taxi drivers are the social sinews of the city. They are typically young men, often self-employed, with a little expendable cash in their pockets. By definition, they are mobile, and, as a result, informed. There are thousands of them, and they have a striking allegiance to one another. Not infrequently, they agglomerate to form a powerful gang. So, as it was the police command that I questioned for an explanation of PC Njala’s behaviour, it was the boda drivers that I asked for justification of the mob killing.
Richard told me, ‘This man [a thief] can kill a boda-boda rider, and take his bike. The police catch him. Then, three days later, he is free again, and takes another bike.’ The reason for the early release? ‘Corruption!’ he exclaimed, palpably frustrated. I understand.
A witness holding a bullet. Photo: Maya Prabhu
Riot police – enough of them to still the mob’s exuberant rage – moved in when the crimson pools under the remaining two bodies had travelled into tapered, clotting streams on the tarmac. I stood with the toe of my flip flop in blood as I snapped close-up photographs of the charred corpse. His arms were raised in a skeletal mockery of self-defence. My nerves were on edge. I was alert, but unemotional. I was too busy for feelings, and, by evening, so was the rest of Ntinda. The mob had dissipated, the TV crews had driven out. Things trundled back into their normal rhythms on the busy thoroughfare.
The next morning, I sorted through my notes and photos. It gave me time to think, and, overwhelmingly, I felt regret. It’s such a pity that crime is handled like this. It’s a pity that it needs to be, in the absence of a reliable judicial system. It’s a pity that the everyday men and women on the street were turned into murderers, and a pity that PC Njala, probably no more sinister than any other frightened man with a gun, was too. Like the mob and the corpses on the roadside, he is the product of a broken system.
I’m not sickened, not scared, but I am sorry.