Light heavyweight boxer Joseph Lubega, alias Joe Vegas, spent 26 days in an unknown detention centre but he told the first responders who found him in the jungle Sunday morning that he had been held for a week. Don’t fault him. He couldn’t separate days from nights because the room where he was held since December 29, was dark 24/7. To get the food, inmates were guided by touching walls as there was no sliver of light.
You couldn’t tell your captors, your inmates or your location.
The 2002 Commonwealth Games silver medalist feels lucky to escape death because many of his fellow detainees did not.
The circumstances leading to his arrest suggest some betrayal but nothing is so clear.
“In the middle of December I received calls from a person who identified himself as a soldier suggesting that I should meet him for a discussion,” Lubega recalls the build-up to his ordeal.
“He called me often in a short while. He asked me to stop training Bobi Wine’s guards to start training state guards.”
But the calls became too much and “I got pissed off. He even called on Christmas. I told him off. And I promised to meet him after the festive days.”
But his family and promoter urged him to never give in himself.
“We were suspicious of their motive,” his wife Allen Kaggwa, who had just introduced him to her family, interjected.
December 21, Lubega’s colleague, whom he calls Commander, had been arrested by security operatives from Kisekka Market. (He is still missing).
Lubega never returned to Kisekka, where he sells auto spare parts.
Amid the incessant calls, he left his home to hide in a guest house. “Weebereremu,” his wife warned him to be careful.
But on the fateful Tuesday, December 29, Lubega received a call that Commander’s grandmother had died.
“I had no money on me, but how could I miss the burial of my colleague’s grannie?”
The caller, a female colleague at Kisekka promised to pay his transport fares. And another friend, who would win an LC 5 Councillor election, gave him Shs20,000 for upkeep.
Lubega and the female colleague boarded a taxi to Nakwaya, Hoima Road. On their way back, they entered another colleague’s car. But they ended up at the colleague’s country home.
What followed is a maze of unclear events, according to Lubega’s narration. “I started feeling dizzy, losing my senses,” a feeling that worsened whenever he got near his colleagues.
Then he heard them saying: “By 6pm it will done.”
He sensed danger. He fled, losing his mask and cellphone. He sought refuge in a bypassing tipper. But he fled it as well and jumped into a coaster, coming from the burial.
He last remembers running into a police station. It was now dark.
His colleagues told his wife on the phone that Lubega was had lost his mind and was at Busunju Police Station. But the following day, they told her they couldn’t find him there.
“I found it strange,” his wife says. And the search futile search started.
Was he betrayed by his colleagues, who had moreover contributed greatly to his introduction ceremony? He can’t tell. But he can’t rule it out.
What’s Bobi’s Plan B?
Lubega was close to the campaigns of Abubaker Kawalya, the Rubaga North MP-elect and Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, President Museveni’s main challenger in the recent elections.
“They asked me how much I knew about Kawalya, who funds his campaigns? They also grilled me over Bobi’s purported Plan B.”
Robert Mukasa, aka Soldier Man, who was arrested in the raid that killed Isaac Zebra Ssenyange, Lubega’s colleague Mudde Ntambi, who was arrested the following day, and Mityana MP Francis Zaake, among other Bobi aides, report being tortured about Plan B, which security operatives allege was training youths to “burn the city after elections.”
“I denied the allegations but they asked the same questions often.”
At the detention centre his captors told the minders: “That one is in our control…don’t mistreat him.
But they had already injured his back. “I don’t know what they used to hit me. I still feel sharp pains in the back, ribs and chest.” On Sunday, Lubega struggled to turn on the hospital bed.
“Sometimes I feel some paralysis in my whole body.”
In August, Lubega and Mudde Ntambi led a group of boxers to declare their open support to Kyagulanyi’s presidential bid.
He says Kawalya and Kyagulanyi are his friends since the late 90s and “I don’t regret supporting them.”
Dumped in the jungle
“‘Vegas, say your final prayer’ the men told me. My heart skipped.” Whoever is told those words, Lubega says, never returns to the detention centre.
“Please don’t kill me,” he pleaded. But in the vehicle no one said a word. He couldn’t even tell how many people were in the car.
“When they unfolded my eyes, in the dead of the night, one kicked me hard in the back and I fell in the bush.”
Injured, frightened, Lubega had to find his way out of this swamp in the dead of the night.
“I couldn’t stand. I only crawled in the mud in this place I couldn’t locate.
From a distance, he saw the red lights of his tormentors’ car disappearing into the dark.
“What if they feel I’m following them and they finish me off?’” he feared before turning into the opposite direction.
From the detention centre, Lubega says he was driven for about two hours, quite a long distance, but he used nearly the same time to rescue himself out of this swampy jungle in Kakerenge off Bombo Road.
“I saw some houses in the village but I feared going there as they could mistake me for a criminal.”
His beard was bushy, his pair of khakis and red chequered shirt dirty.
Lubega didn’t surrender the fight. He crept on until he heard voices from a distance. “I called them out but my voice was weak. I clapped and when I realised they had seen me, I fell.”
Lubega shared contacts of his wife, but she could not pick her phone. His elder brother Charles Ssemakalu’s couldn’t be reached at that moment. It was Lubega’s neighbour who answered and shared the good news to his wife.
But by the time the family reached the scene, he was unconscious. He heard whatever the villagers said: that the presidential elections were over, Bobi Wine under house arrest; boxers missing, Eddie Mutwe, Nubian Li and Mudde facing the Court Martial, etc.
But what broke him was the sad news that his long-time colleague Zebra Ssenyange was killed, moreover by state operatives.
He collapsed only to wake up on a hospital bed near his home in Kagoma, Nabweru, along Bombo Road.
When his brother confirmed Zebra’s death, Lubega sunk in teary emotion. “These guys are deadly, how could they kill my ‘brother’; why?”
Zebra was gunned down by security operatives near his home in Bwaise just hours after Lubega’s arrest. Yet Ssemakalu, the trainer was supposed to accompany Lubega, Ssenyange and Mudde to the flight event in Russia on January 23, the night Lubega was freed.
The nurse who attended to Lubega at Zam-Zam Medical Centre in Kagoma said the chest pain might be easier to treat, but he shall need an X-Ray to determine the extent of the damage to the back.
He is cautious about resuming work at Kisekka Market.
Division: Light heavyweight
l Silver at 2002 Commonwealth Games, Manchester
l WBC-International title
Detained: December 29,
Released: January 23