Fear and incarceration, from Kampala to Nagoya

Activist beats the odds to win refugee status after torture in Uganda, detention in Japan


“I was stopped by two men in a government-registered vehicle, blindfolded and dragged off the street. They took me away to a house in a place I did not know. I was forced into a room with blood all over the walls and floor, where two men lay. I couldn’t tell if they were dead or alive. They had been beaten so much their faces were unrecognizable,” recalls Moses Ssentamu.

” ‘Tell the truth,’ the men threatened, ‘or you’ll end up like them.’ I was taken to that ‘safe house,’ as such places are called in Uganda, in July 2003 and kept there for a month. They beat me with a gun butt on the back of my neck,” says the 38-year-old Ugandan, showing the scar.

Three years later, the father of four fled his homeland. Now in Nagoya, Ssentamu this month marks seven years since he swapped a life of fear in Uganda for one of hardship as a refugee in Japan.

After his “illegal” arrest, Ssentamu says he was accused of helping organize a rebellion against the government of President Yoweri Museveni, whose National Resistance Movement has held power in the country since 1986.

In the mid-80s, after decades of coups, dictatorship and bloodletting in Uganda, Museveni had promised a new start for a populace weary of violence. As a teenager Ssentamu volunteered to serve on one of the regime’s Resistance Councils, local government units whose activities included patrolling neighborhoods by night to protect people from crime.

Two years later Ssentamu joined Mchaka Mchaka, the government’s political education and military science program, whose stated aim was to empower local communities. In reality, says Ssentamu, it involved indoctrinating local youth into the party. “I was doing propaganda for the government at the grass-roots level,” he says. “It was very systematic.”

In its early years the NRM government was popular at home and garnered positive press overseas. “It had a good image into the early 1990s,” he says, “but after a while I became disillusioned and realized it was no better than the previous regime. There was a lot of corruption, embezzlement and censorship. They were not improving people’s lives. There were no jobs and not enough food.”

Upon coming to power, Museveni banned all opposition parties and political activity, a decision at first tolerated as a price worth paying to tamp down sectarianism. In 1995, the restrictions on parties were relaxed, but the ban on political activity remained.

As democratic reforms failed to live up to opposition demands, the arrests started, says Ssentamu. Uganda had become “a dictatorship and a kleptocracy, which, in a more extreme form, it remains today,” he says.

Ssentamu graduated from a Kampala tourism college in 1996 and started his own company. Uganda is a lush, green country that boasts wonders that tourists from all over the world will pay to see, such as close-up views of gorillas in the mountainous forests bordering Rwanda.

Towards the end of that year the young entrepreneur “officially joined the opposition and was active in it.” He became known to the authorities and says he was detained several times.

In February 2004 Ssentamu was arrested by police, charged with sedition and held for four months at Kampala’s maximum security Luzira Prison where, he says, “conditions were very bad. We were packed, 30 to a small cell, sleeping on the hard floor. Although the food was terrible, there was not enough of it.”

The charges were dropped, but the harassment continued, Ssentamu says. In February 2005 his house was ransacked by soldiers looking for guns and ammunition. “Then they took me to Kololo Summit View military barracks in Kampala and accused me of being a rebel recruiter. They pointed guns at me at close range and hit me with them. I was slapped, beaten and kicked every day for a week. The questioning went on for hours.

“Interrogation rooms are very scary, with no furniture, traces of blood on the walls and floor. Torture equipment was in there too: hammers, nails, cables, hot plates, ropes.”

He says he also had to do hard labor, such as digging trenches. “The soldiers would ask me, ‘Do you know what you’re digging?’ Then they’d say, ‘Make sure it’s big enough, because you’re going in it!’ ” Ssentamu chuckles at the memory. “I could have been treated worse,” he muses. “I think they hesitated to really brutalize or kill me because I had some family members prominent in the government.”

During his final session at the barracks, an AK-47 rifle lay on the desk between Ssentamu and the interrogator. “I was asked: ‘Do you want to live?’ Of course I answered ‘yes.’ Then I was told if I signed a paper, I would be taken away from that place. I was given to understand, without it actually being put into words, that I would then be a free man and would remain one, as long as I did not engage in any more political activities.

“I signed the paper, not knowing its contents. In fact, it was a supposed confession of mine, admitting to ‘concealment of treason,’ punishable by life imprisonment. I was then driven not to my freedom but to a police station and formally charged with aiding the rebel movement.”

The police then took Ssentamu back to Luzira Prison. Because of the terrible conditions, “I lost a lot of weight and developed a fever and a bad cough,” he says. “Forced labor worsened my health. If anyone went to see the doctor at that prison, they would just be given aspirins for any complaint.”

After six months in Luzira, he decided to try faking an illness in a bid to get home. “I wanted to look seriously sick. As I was ill anyway, that wasn’t too difficult. However, if I had a condition that needed surgery, I could leave prison on medical grounds.

“So, I bribed the doctors and jail officials to give me a diagnosis for a serious hernia. I also bribed the court. The judge and all the various court officials needed paying off. The bribes totaled 5 million shillings [about $2,500 at the time]. So, I was able to get bail. While pretending I was organizing payment for my pending operation, I had to report to the court monthly, which I did twice.”

On his release Ssentamu resumed his activism in the opposition, and in November 2005 he was beaten up by the police and arrested for taking part in a demonstration at Kampala’s High Court. The protest was sparked by the return from exile and arrest on treason charges of Kizza Besigye, a disaffected former minister under Museveni and at that time head of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change party. Ssentamu says he sustained a serious head injury during the riot, in which “scores of FDC supporters were roughed up, tear-gassed . . . and detained on fabricated charges.”

Ssentamu was accused of being one of the ringleaders, held for three days in Kampala’s Central Police Station and charged with sedition, a capital offense. While he waited for the charge to be heard, he had to report regularly to the police, which he did until fleeing the country.

Besigye, acquitted and released from prison, challenged Museveni in the February 2006 general election. Ssentamu was asked to be an election supervisor for the FDC.

“We did very well in my area but after the election there was trouble. My wife and I received anonymous threatening phone calls. The voices told me I would be arrested again and this time I would never get out. I was watched at home and at work. Sometimes I met [the government spies] face to face, and they’d say, ‘Your man didn’t win the election. Do you think you can get away with this?’ ”

“I sensed danger. So I asked a friend, a prominent businessman who used to supply cars for my tour business, if he could get me a visa for travel abroad, to England, America, anywhere. He looked into it and told me that British and American visas were uncertain but he could arrange one to Japan at short notice. He used to do business in Japan and had connections here. He gave me the name of a Ugandan contact in Nagoya. I was nervous about going to Japan, a non-English-speaking country, but it was too dangerous to stay in Uganda.”

Ssentamu’s passport had been confiscated to stop him leaving the country, and getting a new one legitimately was not an option. However, one of Ssentamu’s friends in the opposition said he had good connections in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. A payment of 200,000 shillings bought him a fake passport, delivered to him in two weeks by the supporter.

Ssentamu and his friends decided that the best way around the next peril — possible re-arrest at Entebbe airport — was to arrive as late as possible before boarding, then hand the customs officer the false passport, together with another 200,000 shillings. The bribe worked and he was waved through the gate without fuss.

The Ugandan arrived in Tokyo on a three-month tourist visa in May 2006. “I checked into a hotel and decided I would try to make it in Tokyo on my own, rather than immediately use my Nagoya contact. I had brought all my savings from Uganda, over $18,000, but the hotel I was staying in cost nearly $100 a night and I stayed there almost three weeks. I didn’t want to spend any more until I had figured out a way to get an income.” Ssentamu decided to go and see the Ugandan contact.

“When I met him in Nagoya, he thought I was rich [and] he took me to a hotel costing the same as I’d been paying in Tokyo. He also asked me for money. When he understood the situation, he drove me to Kanayama Station and dumped me there,” he explains.

The Nagoya contact advised him to try his luck at an African craft shop by the station. Short on options, Ssentamu went inside. “After a while a Nigerian came in and I got chatting to him. He was friendly and interested and I opened up to him. He worked in a car yard owned by a Pakistani. He took me there and let me sleep in one of the cars.”

Ssentamu’s Nigerian friend warned him to leave the yard early next morning to avoid trouble with the Pakistani. He came back that night and for the next three weeks slept in cars waiting to be shipped to Africa, Dubai and Pakistan.

Ssentamu had another Ugandan friend, a U.S. resident, who used to come to Japan on business. This friend brought clothes for Ssentamu to sell, which he did, making ¥30,000 to ¥60,000 a month. Car back seats were swapped for chairs in Internet cafes. The Ugandan slept in these for most of the next year but, he says, “sometimes I met girls in bars and went home with them instead.”

One day in November 2007 he was riding in a friend’s car when it was stopped by police for a traffic offense. Both men were asked for their identity papers. Ssentamu was then arrested for overstaying his visa and handed over to the Immigration Bureau in Nagoya, where he stayed for three months.

Then he was transferred to the West Japan Immigration Detention Center in Ibaraki city, Osaka Prefecture, for a year and five months. It was “very bad — overcrowded with sub-standard medical care and awful food,” he says. “I was mostly in solitary confinement. I wouldn’t say I’m stubborn, but I used to tell fellow inmates that we shouldn’t be held in such conditions. I know another Ugandan who now cannot walk after his ‘treatment’ by Immigration Bureau doctors.”

Ssentamu was interviewed for The Japan Times in early 2010 after he sent a long, hand-written letter to the JT alleging inhumane conditions, humiliating treatment of inmates and a beating at the hands of guards at the center. The ensuing fuss resulted, he says, in “a lot of harassment” and his release being “delayed longer than any other prisoner.” The Ugandan also believes he was singled out for harsh treatment after a fight with another inmate, which was “nothing out of the ordinary in that place,” he says.

“Once, while locked in my cell, I got into a confrontation with a Nigerian in the corridor who most inmates regarded as a snitch because he would not take part in the protests we used to hold. Also, he never signed any of the petitions I drew up, demanding our rights and better living conditions,” he explains.

“He called me a pig and said I was crazy. I told him if I ever met him out in the corridor, I’d show him. He said he’d do the same to me.

“Sometime later I was walking down the corridor and there he was, sitting outside his cell. I punched him on his jaw and he fell off his chair, unable to stand. The guards and other inmates immediately separated us.”

Ssentamu was arrested and spent 20 days in a police station holding cell. Then he was transferred to an regular criminal prison in Osaka, charged and convicted of assault. “I was fined ¥200,000 by the court and told I was free to go, but of course I was not. I was taken back to the immigration jail and stayed there until my release” in 2010. “I spent a total of two years in there.”

The Ugandan is bitter about the way he has been treated in Japan. “I must say, my detention in Japan was a worse experience than prison in Uganda. It changed me. I’m not the same person as I was before. If I go out now, sometimes I sit in bars alone, not wanting to talk to anybody.

“I’m not saying the Japanese are bad people,” he adds. “The way they behave is because of their culture and history.”

A year before getting out of detention, Ssentamu sought political asylum, which was granted by the Osaka District Court in the year following his release. Being recognized as a refugee entitled him to a state allowance of ¥85,000 a month — ¥40,000 for housing and ¥45,000 for food. The Japanese government appealed against the ruling and the case went to the High Court, which upheld the district court decision.

Release from the immigration jail came after a Roman Catholic charity for refugees, Tomonokai, offered to act as his guarantor and paid money to get him out. The Zendana Catholic Church then gave him a flat in Nagoya to stay in for free, but once the government allowance was approved, he had to pay the church a monthly ¥40,000 for rent. However, being a refugee meant that he was not allowed to work.

When the government challenged his refugee status in February, the allowance was suspended. Since then he says he has been depending on “kind people” to survive. Also, the priest at the church changed and last February he was given a year’s notice to move out, which he did the day before this interview, going to stay with a friend.

“The legal process dragged on for a year,” Ssentamu told The Japan Times, but in March the Ministry of Justice decided not to contest the high court ruling and let his political refugee status stand.

Soon after his release from prison in Japan, the Ugandan decided he would need as many Japanese friends as possible, given his precarious position. The best way to do this, he thought, was by volunteering.

He began by giving English classes to church members. After hearing about his story from the church, Ssentamu started to receive voluntary donations for his lessons. He now has around 50 students.

He also found another volunteering opportunity at another Nagoya Catholic church, Nunoike, helping provide food to hundreds of homeless people who congregate every Monday and Thursday for free meals made by the church and served at Yabacho Bridge in the Sakae district.

Another of his voluntary efforts is at Nagoya Second Harvest Food Bank, which distributes food to people in need. This involves off-loading and sorting truckloads of vegetables.

“Volunteering keeps me busy because I’m not allowed to work,” says Ssentamu.

Most weeks he also visits prisoners who have fallen foul of the immigration laws and arranges for food to be sent to them from the Food Bank.

“Many are arrested and re-arrested because they make mistakes,” he says. “I can advise them of their rights from my own experience. I want to promote refugee awareness among the Japanese and have formed an association, Refugee Voice, to help achieve this. We have about 28 members, most of whom are refugees. ” The Ugandan has also been invited to talk about his experiences at Nagoya, Aichi and Chubu universities.

Ssentamu explains that becoming a refugee has deeply affected the family he left behind in Uganda. “There were rumors back home that I had been deported from Japan. The security people suspected that maybe I was back in Uganda. My wife had problems there because of me. She was harassed and questioned about my whereabouts and she came to the point where she thought that cutting off all contact with me was the best thing to do for her safety,” he explains.

“My house in Wandegeya town, a kilometer from Kampala city center, has now been locked up. She has left and she is no longer my wife.”

The refugee from East Africa speaks with obvious emotion about the four children he left behind: a girl aged 14, boy-and-girl twins aged 9 and a 7-year-old girl he has never seen. “My last-born was still in the womb when I left,” he says.

Driving this reporter to Nagoya Station in a borrowed car, Ssentamu says his most fervent wish is to return to the land of his birth. This will only happen with regime change in Uganda.

The day it is safe to return home “may not be too far ahead,” he says. “An armed uprising is beginning against Museveni. Mbyua military barracks in Kampala was recently attacked and guns were stolen. A couple of police stations were attacked too, for the same reason.”

So, after all the trauma of arrest, exile and re-arrest, given the chance to turn back the clock, would he fight his battle against the Ugandan regime all over again?

He says simply, “yes.”

Only a lucky few win refugee status in Japan

Moses Sssentamu’s story is far from representative of the norm in Japan, which grants refugee status to only a few applicants a year.

He has further defied the odds considering Amnesty International’s advice that it is “almost impossible” to have an asylum application accepted after falling foul of Japan’s immigration authorities, as Ssentamu did by overstaying his visa.

In 2012 a record 2,545 foreigners sought asylum, while only 18 were granted refugee status. Since 1982, when the current refugee system was established, 14,299 people have applied and 616 have been accepted as refugees.

Foreigners denied refugee status but allowed to stay in Japan on humanitarian grounds numbered 112.

Almost all countries follow what is called the “country of first asylum rule”; that is, refugee status must be applied for in the first country an applicant arrives in. So leaving Japan for another country with a more lenient refugee policy is usually not an option for asylum seekers.

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