On getting home, Queen, 5, did not leave her mother’s side during this interview. It had been a whole 11 months of separation and only interacting during random visits, when permitted by officials at the Naguru Reception Centre.
Queen was on the afternoon of August 14, 2019, forcibly taken away from her mother, Carolyn Adongo, along with 14 other children.
The children had been taken by a group of officials from Nsangi Police Post, of Kyengera Town Council and the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development who raided their home in Katale-Bukwenda, Kyengera Town Council in Wakiso District.
The children, aged between five and 15, belong to four sisters: Josephine Zziwa (five girls), Adongo (two girls), Roselyn Asinde (four boys) and Shakira Wandera (two girls and two boys) were detained at Naguru Reception Centre and Willow International reportedly located in Muyenga until Thursday July 23.
In April, Sunday Monitor ran a story highlighting the plight of these mothers and the draining attempts at getting back their children.
The story prompted State Minister for Youth and Children Affairs, Ms Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi, to order the immediate release of the children once the lockdown was lifted.
But the mothers told this newspaper that the journey to getting back their children has been traumatising, devoid of any help from the minister despite unending efforts to reach out to her.
The mothers accuse Minister Nakiwala of being out of touch with what is happening under her docket as officials in her ministry played games with the lives and welfare of their children.
“Each day without my children, I shed tears. What is the State minister doing in that office? They have tortured us and our children. It is hard to bear the pain that the ministry of Gender has put us through,” a tearful Ms Zziwa said. Ms Zziwa lost her husband in 2012.
Ms Wandera, one of the mothers’, narrated that they were offered a place to stay in Katale by a family friend in 2015, following a series of misfortunes.
“My husband abandoned me with our children and my sister (Zziwa) offered to help me. After her husband’s demise, we were thrown out of the house,” Ms Wandera said.
She added: “We spent three days sleeping on verandas because we could not afford rent. That’s when a family friend offered us this. Our other sister lost her rentals to the bank and also moved here. She continued working and providing while we also cultivated food.”
The single mothers said some of the neighbours who want to fraudulently grab the 50x100 plot of land have been trying to get rid of them since 2015.
They accuse their neighbours of conniving with officials from the Ministry of Gender and masterminding the detention of the children to force them off the land.
“The only way they could make us leave the place is accuse us of trafficking those children, so that they can accomplish their mission,” Ms Wandera said.
She added: “It is very easy to defraud one of land in Nalumunye. As long as it is vacant, conmen will fence it off.
They brought surveyors to fence off the plot, and we were the stumbling block. They destroyed our banana plantation claiming our septic tank was in the middle of the road.”
The land under contention belongs to a one Irene Namubiru who lives in Norway.
The mothers say a group of about 20 police officers from Bukwenda, Kikajjo and Nsangi, and officials from Kyengera Town Council and the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development raided their home on August 14, 2019.
They narrate that the group forced their way into the house, dragged out the children and hurled them into a vehicle belonging to the Ministry of Gender, before whisking them away to an unknown place.
According to Ms Wandera, the then Nsangi Police district commander, Ms Susan Ikuku, Mr Ronnie Mukiibi, a probation officer at Kyengera Town Council, and Mr Samuel Lubega, a former officer-in-charge at Nsangi, were part of the team.
Others were Jean Hope Kayeni, the Nsangi division criminal investigation department officer, Ms Joan Mukalazi, the community development officer at Kyengera Town Council, and Mr Zacchaeus Nyote from the Ministry of Gender.
Three police officers only identified as Ms Aguti, Ms Apio and Ms Akol are mentioned prominently in the accusations of manhandling the children.
Before the raid, the mothers said Mr Mukiibi had visited their home in 2016 claiming that the four were care mothers and asked to see the children. They weren’t alarmed at the time.
“It was a battle, when the police came. We asked them to identify themselves but they refused. We tried to resist but they forced their way in,” Ms Wandera said.
She added: “They roughed up our children, dragging them through the rugged stones and dumping them into a vehicle belonging to the Ministry of Gender.”
Ms Zziwa, also a mother, said she was arrested together with her two sisters (Asinde and Adongo), before being detained at Nsangi Police Station for two days.
She said district police commander of Nsangi, Ms Susan Ikuku, informed them that they were being charged with child trafficking.
“Mr Lubega, (former OC at Nsangi) tortured us at the police station. We spent two days without being offered facilities to ease ourselves and were forced to use the very room where we were locked up, inhaling that bad air,” Ms Zziwa said.
The mothers were released on August 16 and Zziwa returned home with Kayeni, the investigating officer who inspected the home.
“She asked us where the children sleep, she asked me to show her beddings, cups, plates, charcoal stove, everything. She also wanted to know which schools they go to, ” Ms Wandera said.
Relatives reportedly visited the police station and proved to the police that the children in question belonged to the four sisters.
It is then that the charges were changed to child torture and neglect.
“Kayeni told us the case was now child neglect; ‘you don’t have bed sheets, beddings or where the children to sleep! You don’t provide the children with necessities.”
Search for children
All this while, the mothers remained in the dark about the whereabouts of their children.
They had no clue about the tedious journey that lay ahead and that victory would elude them for all this time.
For four months, the whereabouts of their children remained unknown.
According to the children, after getting to Naguru Reception Centre they were separated, eight of the girls were taken to a different location.
They would later learn that they had been taken to Willow International Home in Muyenga, Kampala.
Neither the mothers nor this newspaper have been to the home, which according to the commissioner of Gender, is not under the ministry.
Having engaged Kayeni and officers at Nsangi Police Station in vain, the mothers took the matter to the police headquarters in Naguru.
At the headquarters, Kayeni was tasked to produce the details of the file.
Kayeni claimed to have taken the report to the ministry.
The mothers were then advised to write to the permanent secretary (PS).
According to a letter seen by Sunday Monitor, the mothers wrote to the permanent secretary on October 1, 2019.
“The PS referred us to the commissioner, Mr Fred Ngabirano, who knew nothing of our case. He assured us that the ministry does not separate children from their parents,” Ms Wandera said.
Mr Ngabirano is the commissioner of Youth and Child Affairs.
Mr Nyote, who was part of the group that picked the children, had left his number under the pseudonym Martin.
In a heated exchange with the commissioner, Nyote, revealed the whereabouts of the children.
The mothers saw their children for the first time on December 20, four months after the raid.
Battling Ministry of Gender officials
It would take another seven months of foot treks to the ministry and endless meetings before having the children were released.
The mothers accuse the ministry officials; Ms Stella Ogwang, Mr Nyote, and Mr John Mugisha, together with Doris and Esther of Naguru Reception Centre of frustrating the process.
The accused allegedly kept the case under wraps and top officials didn’t know of it.
“We would ask around and many people at the ministry did not know about the children,” Ms Wandera said.
Ms Zziwa said: “Ministry of Gender was hell to us. We tried so hard to get to minister Nakiwala in vain. She has not been of any help to us. She instead kept a deaf ear as far as our case is concerned. Her police officers always chased us away when we tried to access her office.”
The mothers said Ms Ogwang, the principal probation welfare officer at the ministry, to whom the case was transferred, was the main hurdle.
They said they held many fruitless meetings with Ms Ogwang who just made one demand after another.
“She told us to vacate the place if we wanted our children back. She said the ministry of Gender sets the standard for each family, and ours was that we cannot live here. I spent nights on verandas with my children, where was Gender then to get me a house?” Ms Zziwa asked.
When their brother offered to take in the children, Ms Ogwang reportedly asked to inspect his place first and asked for Shs250,000 for fuel.
The children’s grandmother too was denied permission to look after them.
Following a series of frustration, the mothers then reported the matter to Uganda Human Rights Commission, where one Aida Namaganda reportedly tried to help them in vain.
When she offered the fuel [Shs250, 000], Ogwang reportedly demanded allowances for her drivers.
The mothers also accuse the ministry of breaking into their house on December 23, and stealing their documents while they had been invited for a meeting. A case of burglary was filed at Nalumunye Police Post.
“They stole the documents that Mr Ngabirano had given us to hinder the case from progressing, they also took my sister’s (Carolyn) passport and two bags with the children documents,” Ms Wandera said.
Having explored a number of options, the mothers decided to seek legal redress.
On June 12, Lukwago and Company advocates issued a letter of intention to sue is to minister Nakiwala, copied to the ministry’s permanent secretary, the Attorney General and Ms Ogwang.
The ministry received the letter on June 16.
In a June 29 response, which Lukwago and Company advocates received on July 3, the permanent secretary, Mr James Ebintu, said they had received a call from the community regarding the poor state of the children.
Mr Ebintu, however, promised their release.
Ms Adongo told Sunday Monitor that they received a call to go and pick their children on Tuesday, July 21.
The mothers wonder why their children were taken away to live in conditions than they were accustomed to.
“The girls had long hair but it was forcibly cut off. Whenever they asked for their mothers, they would be beaten and tortured. The boys have wounds and cuts. Our children were doing well, we may not be so well off but we do our best to take care of them,” Ms Wandera said.
The mothers also claim they were denied visitation rights due to what the officials termed as stubbornness. Some of the staff accused the mothers of causing chaos whenever they visited the place.
“We had not seen them since the lockdown because Ogwang chased us away,” said.
“Naguru is the worst, I wouldn’t wish any child to live there. Government needs to come to the rescue of those children. The place is very unhygienic with human waste all over the place. We were termed stubborn for pointing out these issues,” Ms Zziwa said.
Grace Namukisa, the eldest child, told Sunday Monitor that she stayed at the reception centre to take care of her cousin who is a special needs child, along with the rest of the young boys.
At the centre, Namukisa said they were subjected to ridicule and rebuke from the care takers, besides the living conditions being bad.
“The beddings were dirty, all children shared clothes and toothbrushes. I used to cry, asking God why I’m not with my brothers. I am so happy to be united with my family,” Namukisa said. With allegations of child neglect and torture, no explanation was given on how the continued detention has transformed this household to warrant the release of the children.
The mothers were, however, asked to put in writing where and with whom the children would live and study as a condition for their release.
They say they were forced to sign release forms but denied a copy, had all the photos they had taken deleted and denied transport back home because of ‘being stubborn.’
Journalists were also denied entry into the facility.
Present at the release was Esther and Doris, and a few officials from Willow International.
It is not clear if anyone from the Ministry of Gender was present.
Journey back home
The mothers narrated that the journey back home was filled with mixed emotions.
A neighbour waved joyfully, like she was welcoming soldiers who had returned from the battlefield.
And as they disembarked from the vehicle, Ms Asinde carried her special needs son.
The family revealed that by the time of separating from his mother, her son could ably walk and speak but now cannot say a word or even hold his cup to eat his millet porridge.
“He is a special needs child, he used to see a special doctor routinely but now for all this time, he hasn’t,” Ms Asinde said.
She added: “His father beseeched Ms Ogwang to at least release him but she refused. We were told that if we were to bring supplies for our children, we had to bring for all the children at the centre.”
“I queried about the safety of the children in such a precarious situation, life would certainly not continue as it were. But what option is there?”
On finding an alternative place to reside, Ms Zziwa said: “Time will come and we get a better place to live in but for now we don’t have it. It is so strange, how can one get a child of four years and disappear with them?”