Inside the dark world of sniffing fuel

Tuesday January 23 2018
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Victims. Children sniff fuel and other substances. There are about 400 children sniffing chemicals in Muzaana in Kisenyi, Kampala. COURTESY PHOTO

My guide leads the steep climb in the sweltering afternoon heat. Three earlier attempts have been futile and this time, I have been advised to try and blend in.
A man wearing a red baseball cap, a T-shirt that was once white and now brownish and a pair of torn pants, staggers about. He turns unto a verandah and falls. “That is the worst case of the guys you are looking for,” my guide mutters.

We are in Muzana Zone, Kisenyi 1 Parish, one of Uganda’s drug havens where underground selling and trafficking of jet/aviation fuel, glue, marijuana, heroin, cocaine and other such substances, thrives.
I discover that the staggering man is George William Kizito. The building whose verandah he is leaning on one of the remaining few condemned structures that will soon give way to developments that are quickly engulfing what was once a major slum. Kizito seems epileptic and speaks inaudibly. He shakes feverishly. Uncontrolled saliva pops out of his mouth.

Condemned zone
On the opposite side of the road, on the stairs of an arcade, about 20 boys, the youngest about 10 years old or younger, lounge. Each has a sack and either a bottle or a rolled piece of cloth held to their mouth. All are sniffing on something, interrupted occasionally when one has to speak.

Kizito is a legend. No one can point to a time when he arrived in the area. He walks like a zombie, only that he doesn’t have much energy. The community awaits his death.
Last year, efforts were made to find his family and when that failed, he was brought back to the streets to live his last days. His wish, residents say, is to be buried in a public cemetery.

The communities tolerate, support or turn a blind eye on children sniffing fuel, glue and other substances in the open. The children, in fact, support a thriving business in scrap metal. For as low as Shs100, the boys—all are boys—(we were told some girls are involved too but we did not encounter any) clean, run errands, collect used plastic bottles and scrap metal.
A kilogramme of plastic bottles they collect costs Shs100. The aviation fuel, glue and other chemicals they use makes the boys lose a sense of dignity and they trudge through the filthiest of garbage in search of what to sell without fear or shame.

Many have deep cuts on their arms and legs sustained as a result of working without any protective gear. Money to buy food is not a big concern for many of the boys and men on the streets who sniff fuel and glue. Majority are mentally impaired and, therefore, have no problem eating leftovers from restaurants or to scavenge in dumpsites. Almost every penny they earn is used to buy more fuel and other substances for sniffing.


Fred Zziwa aka Wasswa aka Minister, arrived in Kisenyi in 2006. He says he was in Primary Five when a bitter fight with his nephew forced him away from the home of his brother, who was taking care of him. He is famous for his ability to clean and run errands.
Out of the Shs6,000 he earns per day, Zziwa says he buys ekikomando (chappati and beans), water for Shs200, and a cloth dipped in aviation fuel at Shs300 and marijuana (sada) for breakfast.
We ask why he needs the drugs as part of his breakfast.
“If I don’t take it, I feel abnormal and if I take it like I do and then stop for may be two days, when I resume, I feel sick until I consume enough to be high again,” he answers.

He dodges the question of the source of the fuel or the names of those who sell to him. The stories of a number of his colleagues we spoke to were similar.
There are about 400 children sniffing chemicals in Muzaana alone and the number in the area has gone down from more than 1,000 because of the developments that continue to push the boys away to neighbouring slums, says Muhamadi Magambo, a community mobiliser.

The source
But how do these substances, including highly controlled aviation fuel, make it to the open market? At Entebbe airport, two companies, Vivo Energy Uganda’s Vitol Aviation and Total Uganda, supply aircrafts with fuel.

Supply trucks deposit the fuel at the main storage tanks located at the side of the cargo terminal. Underneath, there are pipelines that transfer the fuel to the tarmac, where the aircrafts are refuelled. A knowledgeable source says it is virtually impossible to siphon fuel from the storage tanks because they are heavily guarded.

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The siphoning of the fuel, our source says, happens on the tarmac when the holes are being cleaned and through the trucks that transfer the fuel to the aircrafts.
“Also, the trucks that bring the aviation fuel to the tanks are not completely emptied and what remains is removed between Entebbe and Kampala or in major towns to Mombasa,” he adds.

We sought an explanation from both Total Uganda and Vivo Energy Uganda two weeks prior to the publication of this story.
Vivo Energy spokesperson Cerinah Tugume, in an email, said: “Jet [fuel] is not available as it is delivered directly to our aviation customers.”
On the other hand, Total Uganda’s Chris Mayende declined to comment on the issue and referred Sunday Monitor to a colleague, who we were unable to get by press time.

Away from the main airport, we were informed that the Entebbe Military Airbase is a major transit point for aviation fuel that makes it to the open market. Rogue army officers, we have established, in connivance with some criminal businessmen, steal the fuel and sell it to dealers.
We spoke to current and former workers at the airbase, who detailed how the operation works.
Some of the fuel meant for the army activities is, for example, openly sold by a businessman at Entebbe Taxi Park in Kitoro to taxi operators. The aviation fuel is usually transported to Kampala, where it is on high demand.

“It’s the officials themselves that sneak it out. First of all, some top officials are never checked at the check points. Those who take it in bulk are top guys. During servicing, the tanks have to be emptied. The process is not complicated, they just put in 20-litre jerrycans and take,” one said.

Others, we have established, connive with the guards.
A major purge was conducted, our source says, and many soldiers engaged in the practice were arrested. Those arrested in Entebbe were detained at the nearby airforce barracks in Katabi, while others were detained in places where their alleged crimes were committed.

Tackling the problem
In countries such as Australia and Russia where young people abuse aviation fuel, for example, there is an ongoing serious national conversation about the same. Not in Uganda.
In some areas in Australia, the issue has since been termed as an “unfolding public health emergency”.

A study by Australia’s Northern Territory Health Department last year targeting anyone thought to be sniffing aviation fuel found nine out of 10 young people tested with elevated levels of lead in their blood, with one young person clocking in at 17 times over the acceptable limit.
Commenting on the study in the ABC publication, NT Centre for Disease Control acting director Charles Douglas, observed that the effects of aviation fuel sniffing are long-term and some are irreversible. The fuel, he added, could lead to behavioural disorders, liver and kidney damage, and even death.

Dr David Basangwa, the executive director Butabika mental hospital, says users of aviation fuels and other such chemicals, find themselves unable to live or function without the said substances.
“Unfortunately, the organic solvents—these chemicals they sniff act for a short time— and they run out of the body. That is dangerous for the users because they have to repeatedly use them. It becomes very dangerous because sometimes they take in so much that they get organ damage,” Dr Basangwa says.

He says 30 per cent of the admissions at Butabika are due to abuse of substances such as Toluene and aviation fuel.
On average, Uganda spends Shs50,000 daily on an addiction patient in a public facility, says Dr Basangwa, and the cost is higher in private facilities. This caters for accommodation, meals and professional care.
The shortest time a patient can be handled and released from hospital is 60 days. A patient is consequently put on an outpatient programme.

The law
On April 9, 2015, President Museveni assented to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Act (NDPSA), but the law is yet to be fully operationalised. It has also been criticised for having a penal focus and not prioritising the welfare of persons who use drugs.
The Act, among other things, criminalises acts associated with narcotic drugs, ‘recruiting’ or ‘promoting’ the smoking, inhaling, sniffing or other use of such substances and owning, occupying or being ‘concerned in the management’ of any premises used for the cultivation, sale or manufacture of such substances.

“Overall, the NDPSA conflates support for people who use and inject drugs (PWUIDs) with the criminal law and even the limited health services provided under such a framework are rendered meaningless and effectively inaccessible…the essence of the Act is to treat PWUIDs as criminals who need to be locked up instead of viewing them as human in need of assistance,” notes Edward Muhwezi, a counsellor at Uganda Harm Reduction Network.
At our spot in Kisenyi, Kizito is fast asleep by the time we leave. It is, however, a matter of years, months or even days before the younger boys addicted to the substance get to his level.

The market network
In Kisenyi, Kampala, a man only identified by our sources as Musiramu is the wholesaler, who distributes to a network of mainly women, who sell directly to the street children and other users.
With the exception of those who run their operations in their retail shops, the other dealers operate on the street and off verandas of buildings. They have bottles of less than 10 litres and when they run out, they go back for more.

Accounts from the people we spoke to suggest a symbiotic relationship between local authorities, the police and the dealers. Every weekend, the dealers in fuels, heroin and cocaine, pay a stipend to the area local police and other local leaders in a system called “reporting”.
“Even if there is serious operation ordered from the police headquarters or other top government officials, the dealers are tipped off beforehand,” our source said.

Local police and the other authorities, our sources add, are also used to intimidate and punish those who attempt to disrupt the trade.
“The LC1 chairperson and police get paid and even if some officers are transferred, the practice remains because an entire force is not moved. Those who remain inculcate the new officers, especially the OC [Officer in Charge] into the system,” an area resident, who requests not to be named for fear of repercussions, says.

The concoctions

Aviation fuel is the most sought after, but it is expensive and its supply is unreliable. Interactions with users and community workers revealed that some dealers have since introduced new chemicals or mix the aviation fuel with other chemicals for maximum profit and to satisfy the never ending demand.

We obtained samples of the most widely sniffed and sold chemical in the area and submitted it for testing and analysis.
Two scientists, Joram Patrick Mugisha and Thomas Okoth from Uganda Industrial Research Institute helped to analyse the sample we bought from Kisenyi.
Findings contained in their January 10 report submitted to Sunday Monitor indicate that the substance, now widely sniffed on the streets, is no longer aviation fuel but Toluene.

Toluene (methylbenzene, toluol, phenylmethane) is an aromatic hydrocarbon commonly used as an industrial solvent for the manufacturing of paints, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and rubber.
It is found as an ingredient in gasoline, acrylic paints, varnishes, lacquers, paint thinners, adhesives, glues, rubber cement, airplane glue, and shoe polish. At room temperature, toluene is colourless, sweet smelling, and volatile liquid.

“The chemical is poisonous when its fumes are unintentionally or deliberately inhaled, ingested. It is also poisonous when applied through transdermal absorption [through the unbroken skin],” Mr Mugisha says.
Dealing in Toluene is lucrative given that its purchase is not as restricted as that of the most sought after aviation fuel.
We contacted Desbro Uganda Ltd, a chemical and allied products company and one which, according to our sources, is the leading importer of industrial-grade toluene, but they had run out of the product.
We were informed a new consignment would be in the country in two weeks’ time.

Available literature suggests that Toluene intoxication due to intentional inhalation can lead to death. Daily abuse for several years may cause significant problems in mobility, brain, lung, eye, and liver injuries can occur in users. Some physical damage may improve if exposure to toluene stops, although brain damage may be permanent.
After getting results of toluene, we submitted fuel samples obtained from Vivo Uganda to the Uganda Research Institute Lab for comparison.
Findings indicate that Kerosene and Jet A1 are of the same chemical composition. AV GAS contains toluene (the suspected sniffing agent). Literature findings show that AV GAS comprises of (5-25 %) of toluene as an octane rating enhancer.

“The abuse of AV gas could be attributed to the presence of toluene and similar derivatives which impart the sweet aroma. The abuse of Toluene on its own may potentially present a more lethal effect to the users,” Mr Mugisha noted in the second report.
A brain of a 12-year old, for example, can resemble that of an 85-year-old if the former has been sniffing Toluene for at least 3 years.

The reporting was supported by the African Centre for Media Excellence