The sun pokes the lush green landscape on the shores of Bwondha Landing Site on Lake Victoria. The pale-blue waters of the lake appear calm and the tranquility in the area is only intercepted by the roaring sound of make-shift engine boats, which are the means of transport here.
Yet as we commence the journey to the far-flung Mwangoda, the lake belies the perils that lie ahead. Riding against choppy waters, there are moments when we feel that the boat is about to capsize. Yet for the story we are seeking to lift the lid off is perhaps worth the risk.
When the waves propelled by strong winds turn the journey perilous, we asked our obstinate skipper to reach for a nearby island and later resume the journey when there is calm.
I alongside my cameraman travel for two hours to these islands to investigate a lead about extrajudicial killings allegedly perpetrated by the army on the fishing community.
The economy of Mwagonda, a drab hamlet in Dolwe islands, depends on an unfettered life of fishing. An ancient treasure trove, these sedimentary rocks, dating back hundreds of years, dot the islands and are a source of folklore and myths.
From here, Kenya is about 20km across the lake on a rickety canoe, the common means of transport at this rustic setting. A melting pot of cultural identity, fishermen from Kenya and across the ethnic divide in eastern Uganda eke a living on these islands teeming with fish species.
To this community, largely consisting of poor and illiterate people, the lake is their economic lifeline. “The lake helps us to educate our children. It also supports the ordinary community for economic survival,” says Ms Maria Nantongo.
However, as a result of poor fishing methods and pollution, fish breeding grounds are rapidly depleted.
Stocks in the Ugandan waters of Lake Victoria, the second largest fresh water lake in the world, are declining. Nile perch catches declined by 46 per cent between 2011 and 2015, while tilapia catches were lower by 38 per cent during the same period, according to the National Fisheries Resources Research Institute catch assessment survey.
The annual catch for tilapia sharply declined from 29,415 metric tonnes in 2005 to 13,278 metric tonnes in 2015. While Uganda’s fish exports rose from $85 million in 2003 to $141 million in 2006, they have wavered over the past decade, declining to $118 million in 2015.
About 13 fish factories closed last year due to scarcity, resulting in the loss of 500 jobs.
Whereas some residents warmly embraced the army and were eager to stop some of their colleagues from illegal fishing practices, the terror unleashed has not spared them either.
“We support the army’s role in fighting illegal fishing methods but the UPDF marines has veered off this purpose. When they come to our areas, they beat with sticks. They don’t segregate whether you are a fisherman or not,” says Mr Frank Dhikusooka.
“What should be done is to target those who are using illegal fishing methods and those dealing in immature fish. But when they raid our villages, they don’t discriminate whether you work in a shop or ride a motorcycle. Even when you have nothing to do with fishing, you are beaten,” Mr Dhikusooka adds.
“Some of us are old, we fear to be beaten. We leaders fear to speak out because whether you are a leader or ordinary person, fisherman or not, you are targeted,” says Ms Nantongo.
Since February 25, 2017, when the army’s marine section imposed a ban on irregular fishing methods and began patrolling the lake, fear and trepidation have engulfed the islands.
This were words of Maj James Niwagaba, where he ominously warned fishermen: “The law gives us leverage to charge you as an economic terrorist. If you are caught, you will be treated like Kony.”
At this home, emotions run like a fickle stream. Their son, Fredrick Omondi, was in secondary school when he was killed. He died with his colleague Otieno, another student. At Omondi’s freshly-dug grave, his father, Mr Amos Ouma, cannot hold back his tears.
“He was killed and one of his eyes gouged out,” says Mr Ouma. “We remained three people on the boat. We were beaten on the boat and at the last minute, we were removed and taken to Golofa. One of us was weak. He is called Otieno. Every time we tried to get out of the boat, he would fall. Two of us were beaten, handcuffed and taken away,” reveals a man who was with Omondi.
Across Masaka, Bubinge and Namit landing sites in Mayuge District, Ssenyondo and Nabyewanga landing sites, and Lufu Islands in Buvuma District, deaths have been recorded as a result of the brutality.
We recorded about 10 deaths through interviews with relatives and friends. One of the deaths in Mpigi District involved a young man, John Kafeero.
“The army killed him and left him in the water. He even had gun-butt marks on his body,” says his uncle, MrCharles Busuulwa, who recently retired from the army.
The mother, Ms Teopista Nagaddya, says: “The soldiers told us that he jumped into the lake and died. I asked that if that was the case, how come his body was not swollen?”
Ms Nagaddya adds: “When the sibling of the deceased was asked by a soldier how he was, he responded that he would not be fine because his brother was buried in the grave. Those words prompted the army to come and cause the arrest of Seguya. I was warned that if I don’t caution my children, I would cry.”
At Nakaziba in Mpigi district, another death of a young man, Yosef Male, is reported. His body was reportedly tied to a stone and later plunged into the waters so that he could not be found.
“But the corpse later washed up on the lake shores at Golo Landing Site in Mpigi District,” says Mr Joseph Ssali, Male’s father.
“I found his body stuck in so many nets, which had been tied with stones. So I wondered why his body had so many stones,” Mr Ssali adds.
Living in hiding
The locals reveal that those who speak out are targeted. One of them is the brother of the late Kafeero, who has been living in hiding.
“The army is hunting for me. They are in the village, and in my house no one sleeps there. They don’t want this story to appear in the news,” he says without revealing his name.
“There is a friend of mine called Mukalazi. The army has even placed a bounty on him and want him arrested. For us we are not fishermen any longer. We left the lake. Our brother was killed. He left us with three widows and five children. We have no help to educate and provide medicare to the orphans,” he adds.
Ms Irene Nakazibwe says soldiers have been hunting for her husband for speaking out against these injustices. “He is hurt because of his friend who left behind orphans. Does that mean he should be hunted?” says Nakazibwe.
Those who have survived death bear the scars of torture. Muhammad Mwasolo, who is shackled to his bed, suffered a stroke after he was allegedly beaten by the army. His boats were also destroyed.
Many in this community have borne the brunt of the army’s tough crackdown against illegal fishing.
A day before our visit, the army had raided Buvuma islands at dawn. The victims had been taken to Jinja hospital. We witness some of the scars of the lash, including deep wounds.
“It was at 5am at dawn. I was in church while the rest were in their houses. Gunshots rang out. All of sudden, soldiers surrounded us. They started beating me, saying I had reported them and that they were working on the President’s orders,” says Mr Geoffrey Musasizi.
“I said should we have left the people to die in prison? They told me that I would be beaten because of gossiping. They beat the entire village. For instance, my wife had just given birth. She was kicked by a soldier and rushed to Mulago hospital in critical condition,” Mr Musasizi adds.
Jamada Lukooya says: “Captain Alituha Stephen and his four soldiers came to the Masjid and ordered us out. When I mentioned my name, they released the others and held me. I was beaten and taken to the shores. I was ordered to enter the lake and run back to the shores as the beating continued. They had bundles of canes. They told me I was lucky because the President had ordered that I be shot dead. That the lashes I was subjected to was a lighter sentence.”
Not even women are spared. “They told me to search the house. When they found nothing, they started beating me. They even tried to strangle me, saying the President gave them guns to kill me,” says Zakia Naigaga.
However, the head of operations at the army marine unit, Maj James Niwagaba, says their tough stance is premised on the criminality of some locals engaged in illegal fishing.
“If one brings an axe to hit me, I will use skills to dislodge him. Some of them take alcohol, if you are not careful they can cut off your head. As a responsible UPDF officer, how can I allow a person without a national ID to cut me? Reasonable force cannot apply when a person is armed with a panga,” says Maj Niwagaba.
Army speak out
He also reveals that many of the victims have drowned. “When we go after them, they try to flee and drown in the lake,” he adds.
As Maj Niwagaba notes, some of the fishermen are involved in overfishing and catching immature fish, a practice that compelled government to intensify operations to end illegal fishing. A number of people have, in the past few years, been arrested and prosecuted on suspicion of taking part in the illegal activity.
And the UPDF operations have yielded positive results, with recent reports indicating an increase in fish stock on Lake Victoria.
But law enforcement by UPDF must be within the rule of law to ensure no lives are lost in the process of curbing illegal fishing.
Residents claim that when soldiers raid landing sites or islands, they do not discriminate when inflicting torture. Even those who are not involved in the fishing business are targeted indiscriminately.
Enforcement officers under the guise of ridding the lake of bad fishing practices have also been accused of forming cartels and joining the lucrative trade.
“There is a mafia on the lake which relies on the army to chase their colleagues. This might bring chaos because there are many people who depend on the lake for livelihood,” says Swaib Juma.
A total of 14 lawmakers who represent the fishing community met with the President on December 10 at his Kisozi home and asked him to prevail over the operatives to use reasonable force and court to try suspects.
“We also requested the President to ensure that he gets us relief in terms of food, iron sheets and mattresses for the people who were displaced by the army officers to ensure that they are resettled,” says Ms Aida Nabayega, the Kalangala Woman MP.
Asking if police is complicit to the human rights abuses, the spokesperson, Mr Emilian Kayima, says: “Torture is unlawful, there is no justification whatsoever that would allow me as a public officer in my public capacity or private capacity to torture anyone, let alone to kill. Now if anybody lost a loved one because of this, let us have this on record. When we have this on record, we shall hold those who were mandated to do this work and they didn’t do it accountable.”
Barely any action has been taken against those who perpetrate these crimes as jitters continue to envelope the fishing community.
Many, including those who are not fishermen, fear that the soldiers will soon return to sow mayhem.