Through the haze of tear gas at lightning speed, Red Cross volunteer Michael Ssengendo saved the life of a three-week-old baby this week, and humbly shrugs it off as just another day on the job. “It’s my concern to work with the Red Cross, to assist other people,” he says matter-of-factly. The 30-year-old husband and father of twins has been a volunteer with the organisation for more than two decades – since he was nine years old.
It was in the 80s and his family was torn apart by the war. His father was a journalist who had been consistently tortured, and eventually sought haven in the US. After he was separated from his mother, his aunt took him away to a nearby parish where they sought refuge. “We had no food we were starving, we had no clothing – totally we had nothing at hand,” he recalls. “And I used to see the Red Cross vehicles come to the parish, bringing us some food and other (supplies)… those people gave us much help, they assisted us so much in many things.”
Ssengendo says his past suffering is what drove him to be a humanitarian – from the atrocities of the war up until today.“From there I started, when I joined the Red Cross I got some training – the first aid safety training, and then disaster preparedness and management – I have always been working with the community,” he says. Outside of his hours with the Red Cross, Ssengendo is still devoted to others. He is a community volunteer with Child Fund, the Gayaza Christian Caring Community and the chairman of Health for Buganda Youth.
On Monday, his eight-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, were even caught up in the tear gas – while he was at Mulago with the baby he saved. His fellow Red Cross volunteers took care of them. Catherine Ntabadde, assistant director of communications for the Uganda Red Cross Society (URCS), says Ssengendo is representative of what the entire group stands for. “What Ssengendo exhibited is what a true Red Cross staff, member and volunteer should do whenever called upon,” she says.
The URCS has been a stable and critical component of the country’s history for close to 50 years. Non-partisan, omnipresent through war or stability, today’s ranks number more than 200,000 volunteers – its lifeblood across 51 branches countrywide. “It is what it is because it is impartial,” says Ssengendo. “We are safe because we are impartial.”
The walk-to-work demonstrations that have centered around his Kasangati neighbourhood promise to continue, and he promises to be there. “And even if there is any need that arises, I am still willing, because I feel it’s my concern to cater for my fellow Ugandans,” he says. “Anywhere they can deploy me, I am ready to work.”
Personal account of the Kasangati riots where a three-weeks baby was rescued
It all happened in a flash.
We were waiting outside the Kasangati Police Station where opposition leader Kizza Besigye was being held for interrogation after being arrested a short distance from his home early Monday morning.
It had been hours of being crouched down behind buildings and cars, choking back tear gas with my colleagues, watching police indiscriminately deploy various degrees of intimidation and violence on Kasangati’s frustrated residents.
Hours of listening to the exploding tear gas canisters that had begun to sound normal.
Suddenly, from off in the distance, one of the Red Cross volunteers that we had watched treat casualties since morning came running at full speed towards us, cradling a baby in one arm – hotly pursued by three journalists who had followed tear-gassing police down the main road.
I scrambled to get out my camera, fumbling with the dials – I am the first to admit I am by no means a professional photographer. Running out into the road, I bent slightly, and with one incredibly lucky shot captured the story of one of the unsung heroes amidst the growing levels of violence across the country.
That photo means as much as it does for different reasons to everyone. The urgency of the moment, the dedication of the reporters, the beautiful story of a three-week-old life saved by the passion of one man. It humanises the protests that have overrun this country. For me, it was the true portrayal of how those most innocent are increasingly being caught up in violence beyond their control.
A pregnant woman has been shot in the stomach, schoolchildren and hospitals tear-gassed, and now, on Thursday, a two-year-old killed by a stray bullet after police tried to quell a riot in Masaka District. But I am hesitant to vilify police across the board, as it is all too easy to do. Though I won’t excuse blatant abuses of power, as Fred, a timber vendor in Kireka, told me - police are just hungry too. “How can they give someone a gun and they don’t have something to eat?” he asked me. I didn’t have an answer. The fact the rescued baby in that photo, three-week-old Emmanuel Osuje, is the son of a prison gate guard just down the road from Kasangati station is representative of how indiscriminate and reckless the use of force has become.
It also shows how the human side to these protests isn’t just in the heroic moments, too rarely given their due. At the same time, it is in the frustrated and hungry people venting their anger - on both sides of the shield.
Baby doing just fine
The infant rushed to Mulago Hospital by a Red Cross volunteer on Monday after suffocating from tear gas in Kasangati has fully recovered and been discharged. “The baby is now okay, it’s not like yesterday when he was in bad condition,” said his mother, Ruth Atim.
Ms Atim said her son Emmanuel Osuje is just three-weeks old. Her husband, a prison guard at the barracks gate, was working when security forces chasing onlookers and protestors away threw teargas canisters onto her doorway, she recounts. “We closed the door but inside the house we were suffocating. Due to that I ran outside and the Red Cross people helped me take the baby to the hospital,” Ms Atim said. The volunteer to run the baby to safety was Michael Ssengendo. “I feel happy for him, because he rescued my kid,” she said.