At Bery’s place, a shelter for sexually abused girls in the sleepy rhythms of Mwena Island, life was a routine. By 7am, all the girls were expected to have woken up; there was a timetable for house chores; cooking, cleaning the house and mowing the lawn.
The shelter, or Bery’s place as it was commonly referred to around Kalangala, always accommodated up to 30 girls. But in-between school and other intervals, at least 15 girls lived there.
When Stella Nabaggala was first brought to the shelter in 2006, only Bery, his wife Ingrid Dilen, a local house-help, and a few ‘volunteers’—visitors from America or Europe, who frequented the place, lived at the shelter located at Mwena Landing Site. It is part of Kalangala District, an archipelago of 64 habitable islands, and an allure for visitors because of its breath-taking beauty.
“I was living with my elderly grandmother and life was a daily struggle,” recalls Nabaggala, who left the shelter in 2014 after completing her vocational studies to create space for others but also to start her own adult life. “There is a certain gentleman I don’t remember who talked to the headmaster of the school where I was going, who later convinced my grandmother to let go of me.”
Like that, Nabaggala became the first girl/child at Bery’s place. According to numerous accounts, Bery first visited Kalangala as a tourist in 2005 and was fascinated by its nature. He decided to stay much longer than he had anticipated in this place.
After consultations with district authorities, in 2006, he was authorised to establish a psychosocial humanitarian centre in Mwena Village, Kalangala Town Council. The idea of the centre was to rehabilitate victims of child abuse.
The district social welfare officer, Mr Willy Nkumbi, tells Daily Monitor that as much as Bery ensured he acquired lawful custody for the girls from either the court or local authorities, the place was registered as a “community based organisation but not as a shelter.”
“We don’t have any shelter registered in Kalangala, so he operated it illegally,” Mr Nkumbi explains.
“There is doubt he was doing a good job here; we always told him to register his home as a shelter with the ministry of Gender in Kampala but he kept promising to do so from time to time,” he adds.
Victim of his own actions
Earlier on in February, police raided Bery’s place, ransacked it in search of exhibits, interrogated some girls and expelled others, according to people who witnessed the episode. Bery was not home at the time; he was arrested later when he presented himself to police in March.
On April 2, he was charged before the Masaka High Court on 27 counts of aggravated trafficking of children and defilement. The 71-year-old pleaded not guilty.
Before the court process kicked off in earnest, according to those close to him, the first accusation levelled against him is that he lived with the girls “illegally.” But much more grave allegations of defilement surfaced.
In the court of public opinion, Bery has been convicted as a paedophile. But there are conflicting accounts about what exactly transpired at the shelter.
Bery’s conduct came under the microscope five years ago. He was first arrested in December 2013 on similar charges and charged later in 2014 but the case collapsed due to lack of evidence.
Sometime in 2017, according to multiple accounts, Bery invited Asia Namusoke, who was doing charity work in Kalangala, with the view to a partnership and possibly the latter taking over from the aging sickly German. The two met on Facebook.
Ms Namusoke, who describes herself as an HIV-Aids counsellor and an advocate of girl child rights, is specifically accused of having plotted the downfall of Bery to take over his work, allegations she denies.
“He [Bery] invited me to go and work with him; he thought I was the best person to succeed him. When I reached at this place, there was a lot that was happening that I did not agree with; he was a social worker, mentor father, finance guy, and everything else,” Ms Namusoke says.
“Secondly, he was sleeping in the same house with 30 girls, and the same house was attracting all sorts of guests and the same girls were serving alcohol to the tourists and sleeping with them,” she adds. Asked why she would partner with Bery who was already faced with allegations of molesting and inserting birth control implants in girls as young as nine years, Ms Namusoke says: “I was also shocked that he picked me. Maybe he thought I had donors who would bring in money.”
“When I made a decision to go in [at Bery’s], I wanted to rescue the girls. I needed to design a strategy; the first thing I was supposed to do was to work closely with him. The other strategy was to empower the girls; it took the girls two years to open up to me: it was not easy for them to open up to me but I showed them how they could turn challenges into opportunities; I was already working with girls that are vulnerable,” she adds. Those against Ms Namusoke allege that her plan began to fall in place after she established a charity, People in Need Agency, to help victims of sexual abuse and those living with HIV/Aids from the islands.
However, she argues: “I don’t have any money; I work with people to mobilise the little they can to cause change.”
Last year, Ms Namusoke travelled with some of the girls from Bery’s place for an Aids conference in Netherlands, and later Belgium, where they talked about their experiences of growing in Kalangala’s deviant environment.
While they did not talk about being abused by Bery, their stories captivated the audiences, money trickled in and on return, the girls were looking at starting another life.
Officially, police say it closed Bery’s place but the place remains open as there are some girls living there.
A girl at the shelter, whose identity we cannot reveal because she is a minor, says there are now facing an uncertain future. She reveals that some of her colleagues have been contacted by some of the girls accusing Bery and are due to testify in court “to join their side” and will be rewarded.
The girl reveals that one of the girls, who is Bery’s accuser, is the link between her and her American sponsor through which money is channeled, so she fears that if she is not complicit, she might not receive her tuition.
Nineteen-year-old Winnie Nansamba, one of Bery’s accusers, claims she was sold into marriage at the age of 11 by a paternal uncle to a fisherman who relocated her from Sembabule District to Lambu Village, one of the islands in Kalangala.
After months of sexual abuse by her husband, who she claims often kept her locked inside the house, she escaped—wandered until police rescued her and placed her into Bery’s custody.
Nansamba claims on arrival at Bery’s shelter, he personally examined her for sexually transmitted diseases, and “would insert cleansing tablets” into her private parts.
“After this treatment, I was allowed to integrate with other girls but to my dismay I found a policy; Bery had cancer and diabetes, so girls were sharing a room with him, for which I thought at first was to assist him immediately whenever he needed his medicine given his old age,” Nansamba recalls.
“We were doing this in shifts, and then came my turn.”
“At first I thought I was going to sleep on the mattress below his bed but he told me to lie with him on the bed. Deep in the night, he started kissing me and pressing my breasts; I started screaming but he held my lips; he told me If I did not comply, I did not have a future at his home.”
Nansamba claims Bery started abusing her when she was in Primary Five. She claims she did not speak out as this was her only ticket to attaining an education up to university.
However, two other girls, who lived at the shelter with Nansamba, dispute the claims.
Angella Nakalanzi says when Nansamba was brought to the shelter, they were warned to stay away from her after she was diagnosed with numerous sexually transmitted diseases, and it was one of the female-house helps, Ziadah Namiiro, who treated her not Bery.
“Winnie is lying. When she came here, they told us she has been picked up from marriage and she had many diseases. They told us not share anything until she was well; in fact Bery never touched her, it was always Namiiro,” Nakalanzi says.
“For all the years we lived together at Bery’s, there was nothing those girls are claiming ever took place.” Namiiro described the claims by Ms Namusoke’s group as “absolute lies” and claimed that Bery confided in her before his arrest that money was the genesis of his fallout with Ms Namusoke.
“When Bery was first arrested in 2013, it was Winnie [and Anita, another girl we talked to] who defended him. It is now surprising they are the ones accusing him,” a teary Namiiro narrates.
Ms Prossy Nalubega, a resident who handed her two daughters to Bery to help take care of them and frequented the home, says there is a likelihood that those girls, who never got his affection, are the ones who turned against him.
“When Bery was first arrested, I sat down my children and pressed them to confess anything they knew but they even cried, saying the claims were false. When the claims re-emerged, they said the same except this time they said they heard they was a fallout over money with some lady Bery had invited over to work with,” Ms Nalubega says.
Anita Namubiru, 23, claims Bery took away her innocence during her Primary Seven vacation and she is appalled that some people are finding it hard to believe their stories.
“I served the longest in that man’s bedroom, can anyone imagine what we went through; that man would make you do things but on the outside, he would manipulate everyone that he is the good person,” Namubiru says as she sobs. Like Nansamba, Namubiru says she ran away from Bery’s place shortly after joining university but she visited him often, usually spending three days at the shelter.
Namubiru’s account is, however, disputed by Nabaggala, the first girl to live at Bery’s place.
“I was studying with Anita in the same class and we were good friends. She first visited for a day but later arrangements were made with her father for her to come over. For the time we lived here, we shared everything and confided in each other but that Bery always abused her is something I cannot believe,” Nabaggala says.
“Even if Bery had attempted, trust me we would have known; Anita and those girls are lying. They must have been motivated by something because when Bery was first arrested they defended him,” she adds.
After police raided Bery’s place, some of the girls were moved to Entebbe and are supported by several NGOs, including Namusoke’s PINA and Willow International.
Weeks later, an online campaign, GoFundMe, was created on March 19 with plans of raising $30,000 (about Shs110m), of which $12,032 (Shs44m) has been secured so far.
The money, according to the campaign titled ‘Safety & Healing for Kalangala Survivors’, is to help rent a home that will house up to 20 girls that “were victims of Bernhard Glaser’s sexual abuse and trafficking.”
During our month long investigation, Daily Monitor established that money is an integral part in the ongoing scheme; there are several donors from America and Europe who bankrolled Bery’s activities but in the aftermath of his troubles, have since refocused their efforts.
According to multiple interviews, it is alleged that Bery and Namusoke fell out as a result of accountability related issues, which the latter denies.
Denial. Namusoke’s claim that Bery inserted birth control implants in all the girls even young ones as nine year was denied by officials at both Kalangala Health Centre IV where she said the girls were routinely abused to, and Marie Stopes, which provides contraception and safe abortion services.
“A nine-year-old girl cannot even come for family planning services,” said Dr Milton Awudo, the director of technical services at Marie Stopes. “That said, implants, like other family planning services are not forced on anyone; the work is that we go in the villages creating awareness: those who feel like they need the services look for them, but no one is forced.