Piecing life together after 23 years in prison

Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Justine Nankya ended up taking the fall for her cousin. She, however, somehow survived the death sentence and is now working on forgiving and forgetting, trying to make sense of the life ahead.

Saturday February 6 2016

Justine Nankya is looking to the preaching and craft-making

Justine Nankya is looking to the preaching and craft-making skills she learnt in prison to make ends meet. Photo by Alex Esagala. 

By Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi

In 1992, Justine Nankya’s retail shop business was struggling. She had spent a lot of money tending to her brother who eventually died of HIV/Aids the same year.

The brother’s wife had died earlier and their eight-month-old son, Remegio Njuki, remained in Nankya’s care.

To revamp her business, a friend, Julie, swayed her into passion fruit trade. It seemed promising. You would buy a sack at Shs20,000 and sell it at Shs60,000.

In December 1992, they went to Kasese, bought many sacks of passion fruit and loaded them onto a pickup truck. Nankya wanted to reach Kampala fast because she had left her little nephew with a maid, so they boarded a taxi in which she coincidentally met Joseph, her cousin, a soldier (Lieutenant).

“I did not realise it at the time but it seemed like Joseph kept trying to get me off the taxi along the way. He, for instance, suggested dropping off to see our relatives’ at Kyabakuza,” Nankya recalls. “I, however, wanted to get to my children first so I insisted on staying aboard the taxi.”
If only she had known better.

Hell breaks loose
“As we approached Namagoma, on Masaka Road, a man at the back said he had arrived at his destination so we made to give him way. In the same instant, my cousin and his friend reached for their pistols, and put the driver at gun point before ordering all of us out of the car,” Nankya recounts in low tone.

The old man from the back of the taxi took the driver’s seat and drove off, leaving all passengers stranded on the roadside. But a few metres away, the taxi reversed to pick Nankya and her friend Julie.
“I think my cousin feared I would spill his secrets if he left me behind so they took us along. It was around 8pm, they drove like maniacs. They said they would drop us off near Kyengera, but before we got there, they veered the taxi off the highway into the bush and left us there, battling to stop the bleeding on Julie’s arm, which she had injured while trying to escape earlier.”

They also left behind everything else except two metallic boxes, which belonged to two men, whom these thugs had followed from Bwera. We later learnt the boxes were full of dollars.”
Meanwhile, an Anti-Smuggling Unit vehicle was following the runaway taxi and found Nankya and Julie stranded. They were innocent and had no reason to run.

“The other passengers had told them we weren’t part of the deal but police insisted we had to record statements,” Nankya narrates. “As soon as we reached Nateete Police Station, the other passengers came in. They reiterated our innocence but still I was detained.”

Julie was taken to hospital for treatment and that was the last the two friends saw each other. It also became the day Nankya lost her freedom. She was first moved from one police cell to another, until she ended up at Luzira Upper Prison for 23 years.

At Kibuye Police Post, friends advised her to bribe the authorities. Her relatives sold off her property and gave Shs500,000 to the authorities but it couldn’t buy her freedom.
At Wandegeya Police Station where she was held, the inmates were very ill-mannered, they wanted to rape women. She rioted. Threatening to leak her plight to the media, she was transferred to Central Police Station (CPS) until she was taken to court.

Paying for a relative’s sins
No one implicated her in any way but she was charged with armed robbery, a capital offense that would send her to the gallows on conviction. Her uncle Sserwanga, a lawyer, intervened but court insisted she could be released only when her cousin was captured.

After a year and two months, Nankya was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995. “There were inmates winning cases and being released during my trial so I never believed I would be condemned to death,” she recounts.

Her appeal in the Supreme Court flopped when one female judge insisted Nankya should be imprisoned until her cousin was arrested.

“It took me a long time but I finally forgave my cousin. I worried about my nephew though who was still very young,” Nankya says.

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