Teargas and Gunshots in Mbarara

When I traveled this weekend to the quiet city of Mbarara, the last thing I expected was to be caught in a violent protest that ended with teargas and gunshots. But violence shook this peaceful town yesterday right when a friend and I were having brunch at the city center.

Most Ugandan businesses were closed on Friday for the Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, and I took advantage of the holiday weekend by visiting a few friends in Mbarara. We had dinner while watching live music Friday night and we planned on departing early Saturday morning to Lake Bunyonyi, a beautiful place in the southwesternmost corner of Uganda.

Unfortunately, however, an epidemic of Marburg Fever broke out two weeks ago a few kilometers from the gorgeous lake. Until yesterday morning, I mistakenly thought that the epidemic was in Kibale, not Kabale. As I read the newspapers before we were about to leave, I realized my mistake and that our hostel was only a few kilometers from the outbreak of a virus that has an estimated 20-90% death rate. Because 132 people in Kabale District have been in contact with infected victims and we would have to pass through the city center in a crowded matatu on the way to the hostel, we decided to nix the trip. Looking back, we might have been safer if we took our chances with Marburg rather than staying in Mbarara.

The backup plan was to return to the Ssese Islands (see recent blog post). I had just been there last weekend, but my friend really wanted to see the islands and she is leaving Uganda soon. It’s a six-hour journey to the islands from Mbarara, so we decided to eat brunch downtown before going to the taxi park and hopping on a bus.

When we arrived in town, we noticed that main street was swarming with people. Protesters leaned off balconies, chanted, and flashed double “v” signs (the sign of the political opposition). We asked someone what was going on and they said that the Vice President was rolling through town. The Vice President isn’t very popular here, but I was surprised that this many people were flocking to the streets to protest.

After taking a quick snapshot of the protesters, we retreated to a restaurant a couple blocks away. I ordered a rolex, a delicious omelet rolled up in chapati, and we casually sipped instant coffee until we heard what sounded like teargas canisters being fired. I didn’t know what this sounded like from first-hand experience, but I had heard accounts of protesters who described it as a loud popping noise. People started sprinting past our restaurant covering their eyes and we also heard what sounded like gunshots.

The servers at the restaurant immediately ran to the iron doors and closed them as people ran by. I asked what was going on and the waiter said that President Museveni was driving through Mbarara. That made a bit more sense–after all, the President for two and half decades isn’t exactly the most popular guy in the country. As we continued our brunch, things gradually calmed down outside.

About an hour after the first gunshots rang out, I looked out onto the street and saw that traffic had resumed. We grabbed our bags and stepped outside, making a sharp left away from the protesters toward the taxi park. We wanted to get out of town and head to the islands as quickly as possible.

As soon as we stepped outside, we heard semi-automatic gunfire a block away. The shots echoed off the buildings in front of us and we sprinted into the first shop we saw–a small mattress store. The store clerk immediately closed the iron doors and we stood silently against the mattresses. The store clerk informed us that Museveni wasn’t driving by; it was actually Dr. Kizza Besigye, the leader of the political opposition.

Gazing out onto the street from the mattress store.

That made a lot more sense. Whenever Besigye travels through Kampala, crowds flock to him to express their support. But in Uganda, the right to assemble is not protected and the police break up opposition protests as soon as they start. Museveni’s government worries that protests would allow the Arab Spring to spread to Uganda, so the police crush open forms of dissent as quickly as possible.

I can see both sides to this dilemma. The government claims that it is maintaining peace and order by preventing any kind of protest, but frustrated citizens want the right to express themselves on the streets. After all, Museveni has already manipulated the political process and changed the constitution so that he can stay in power indefinitely, so what other recourse do these citizens have?

Unfortunately, there is no middle ground and the police have repeatedly used violence to stop protests in Kampala during the past few weeks. Four people were shot three weeks ago and 70 were injured when Besigye escaped house arrest (“preventative arrest” without warrant, as the police called it). The police aren’t supposed to use live rounds when suppressing protests, but poor training and the lack of accountability have led to numerous abuses. Some 40 people were killed in the 2009 Buganda riots and the police still haven’t thoroughly investigated these deaths, according to Human Rights Watch. But what makes the violence in Mbarara so surprising is that everyone I was with in the mattress store assured me that this kind of thing had never happened there. Some residents had lived there for decades without seeing conflict between civilians and the police.

Information on the causes of Saturday’s protests is still forthcoming. all-Africa.com reports that three policemen were injured, but it doesn’t mention how many protesters were hurt. The Daily Monitor has more details on how these events unfolded. Apparently, Besigye was stopped by police when he entered Mbarara and protesters flocked to his car to express their support. While the police could have let him move quickly through town, they chose instead to initiate a three-hour standoff in which chaos and violence ensued.

About an hour after we entered the mattress store, the streets calmed down and the owner informed us that Besigye was gone. We quietly exited the store and walked away from the city center, still trying to avoid protesters and police. On a side street two blocks from downtown, we passed an SUV with a shattered back window. The owner informed me that a bullet had hit her car when she wasn’t inside, but the hole might also have been caused by a rock.

A car on the street two blocks from the heart of the protests.

A few minutes later, we arrived safely at the taxi park and boarded a bus to Masaka. From there, we crammed into the most crowded taxi I have ever seen or been on. Typically, the matatus here hold 14 passengers–four rows of three and two passengers next to the driver, with the conductor crammed into the middle row. Our taxi to the ferry fit 23. We squeezed four people to a row and the middle row had eight–five adults, two babies, and a chicken. Meanwhile, the floor of the taxi was covered with corn and flour being sent to the islands.

Our facial expressions on the jam-packed taxi.

We rode uncomfortably for an hour and a half on a bumpy dirt road until we reached the ferry. At last we had made it to our destination. Once again, the island was serene and we enjoyed a barbecue on the beach with a flock of travelers who had escaped Kampala for the holiday weekend. There was no electricity or running water, but at this point we didn’t even mind.

The next morning, we woke up at 6 am so that we could see the sunrise and walk through the forest before we left at noon. Shortly after dawn, our plans were dampened by drizzling rain. Undeterred, we donned hiking shoes and umbrellas to march into the forest, but as soon as we left the cabin, the heavens opened and sheets of rain engulfed the island. The downpour was unlike anything I had ever seen–the kind of rain that can only be found in a rain forest or on an island in the middle of a huge lake.

Soaked to the core, we surrendered, grabbed our bags, and sprinted to the ferry to Entebbe. After a wet and cold three-and-a-half-hour boat ride, we arrived in Entebbe and took a boda boda to the popular botanical garden. The garden was lush with trees and plants and in a way, it salvaged our trip. At least we got to do something touristy, even if it was unplanned and not our top choice. In an ideal world, we could have spent a relaxing weekend at Lake Bunyonyi, but I have discovered during my brief time here that traveling in Uganda is completely unpredictable.

Nevertheless, it was this tumultuous trip that made me realize how much I love Uganda. Although it is frustrating to have your plans dashed by rare diseases, violent protests, and torrential downpours, traveling here is incredibly rewarding. You can test yourself like never before and have experiences that make backpacking across Europe seem quaint. But apart from the chaos, the chickens, and the bumpy roads, there is an authenticity to Africa that is different from anywhere I’ve ever been. When people risk their lives to clamor for democracy and oppose the police state, or cram into a taxi with 22 other people to bring a chicken home for dinner, they exude a fervor and humility that puts pretentiousness to shame.

In my mind, it is this fervor and humility that gives Ugandans a nascent and quiet power. As Uganda begins to have the world’s fastest growing population with a median age of 15, this small country will explode into a populated powerhouse. Currently, there are very few opportunities for young Ugandans and youth unemployment is a scary indicator for a government that wants to avoid a repeat of the Arab Spring. For the sake of the babies in our matatu, there is a lot of work to be done. Ugandans are reaching for the stars, but a consortium of obstacles are pinning them down. Despite these odds, I think they can do it, and I am honored to be surrounded by people who are literally changing the world.

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