'I realised my body was burning': police brutality in Uganda lockdown

Sally Hayden in Gulu, Uganda

In her small home in Gulu, northern Uganda, Alanyo Joyce dabs at her bare breasts. In some areas, pink and oozing, the skin has been burnt off. It hurts, deeply, from the bone, she says. She is also grappling with her new appearance – the burns extend across her face, arms and legs, as well as her chest.

On Wednesday, 8 April, the softly-spoken 31-year-old was cooking chips and chicken at her usual spot in the city when she realised it was approaching 7pm. A nationwide curfew had been in place for just a week, as part of Uganda’s coronavirus lockdown.

The next moment, security forces arrived. “They said you pack your things and go. I told them I’m packing, I want to leave,” she says. At that point, Joyce says, a local government enforcement officer walked over and kicked her saucepan, which was filled with boiling oil. “He came and kicked it without saying anything. I realised my body was burning,” she says. “That day I had put on a white dress and the whole thing was brown.”

Joyce’s account fits a pattern of security forces using excessive force during Uganda’s lockdown, which began on 30 March. Days before the incident, dozens of women and men were allegedly tortured in Elegu, two hours drive from Gulu. The soldiers and police said to be responsible were only arrested after images of the victims went viral on social media.

“Police brutality is always prohibited, pandemic or no pandemic,” says Oryem Nyeko, the Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch. The New York-headquartered organisation say security forces in Uganda have arbitrarily arrested, beaten and shot civilians, including journalists, vendors and LGBT people, since coronavirus restrictions began. It is one of many African countries where there have been complaints about harsh lockdown enforcement, yet little social protection for citizens who fear they will starve if they can’t continue working.

Ugandan activists have been detained while protesting against the lack of food distributions for people in need, while opposition politician Francis Zaake was arrested for handing out food without going through government channels, and says he was tortured in police custody.

Uganda has been criticised for its harsh lockdown enforcement. Photograph: Badru Katumba/AFP

On patrol with the Ugandan military in Gulu after curfew, the Guardian witnessed one soldier slapping and then kicking a man in the head. In interviews conducted separately, several victims of brutality by security forces have described abuse they went through and displayed their injuries.

“When I was beaten there was no medicine, I couldn’t get treatment until the next day,” says one man, pointing to a round wound on the crown of his head. He asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. He he had been walking home close to the curfew time when he was hit in the head from behind, he says. “Now I still feel the pain and it keeps itching.”

You know what you did, you did it purposefully

Alanyo Joyce

Joyce was in hospital for five days. Her landlady’s children brought her food – the only assistance she got, she says.

After months making between 20,000 and 30,000 Ugandan shillings (£4–£6) profit a day while she was working, Joyce had no savings.

Her alleged attacker was arrested, but later released on police bail. She worries that if charges against him go ahead, and he is imprisoned, she won’t receive any compensation. “At least if we can negotiate, [maybe] he can [give] me something little which can earn me a living for the meantime,” she says.

The day after the attack, the man allegedly responsible called to ask for forgiveness, saying he didn’t mean to do it, she says.

“You know what you did, you did it purposefully,” she remembers telling him, saying she was “full of anger”.

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“I’m a human being like you,” she said.

As she spoke, her five-year-old boy peered from outside, through a curtained door.

In a phone interview with the Guardian, Gulu’s resident district commissioner and chairman of the coronavirus task force, Maj Santos Okot Lapolo, said the enforcement officer had been excessive in his actions. “When this issue of curfew and what have you was taking place some people were extra vigilant,” he said.

He added that further questions of aid or compensation for Joyce cannot be discussed while the coronavirus lockdown is ongoing. “We cannot do anything right now when we are still in the crisis mood,” he said. “We’ll cross the bridge when we [assess] what is our stability. In the future we will get something to support her.”

Joyce is taking antibiotics to prevent infection, as well as painkillers, but she’s struggling.

“My blood pressure shot up that day,” she says. “Now I don’t know what will come tomorrow and I have no ways of getting money for my living. And very soon they may open school. I haven’t paid my boy’s school fees. All those things need money. Rent. Feeding. Just like that.”