Coronavirus: ‘You can risk your life as long you are doing the right thing’

Distributing food to Uganda’s hungry can get you tortured and arrested

Khalid Mahmoud (39): was arrested for planning to carry out a food distribution for orphans, widows and other vulnerable people. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Khalid Mahmoud (39): was arrested for planning to carry out a food distribution for orphans, widows and other vulnerable people. Photograph: Sally Hayden

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Khalid Mahmoud was at home when police and local authorities arrived to arrest him. “You are being arrested for committing attempted murder,” he remembers one man telling him. “You are distributing food.”

Mahmoud’s five children watched as the slim, polite 39 year old had his hands tied together. They were all crying when he was hauled away and pushed into a pick-up truck. His pregnant wife, her baby overdue, looked on in despair. He would spend the night in a cell.

The civil servant, who works in northern Uganda’s Gulu University, had pooled money with two friends as coronavirus-related restrictions began to come into force. They spent the equivalent of €2,400 on 250kg of maize flour and 200kg of beans, which he hoped to give out to 100 of his neighbourhood’s poorest families. He chose those headed by orphans, widows, the elderly and disabled – the most vulnerable in what was to become Uganda’s lockdown.

Akello Madelena (72), Adok Joska (76) and Lalam Elvera (80) are struggling with a lack of food during the coronavirus lockdown. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Akello Madelena (72), Adok Joska (76) and Lalam Elvera (80) are struggling with a lack of food during the coronavirus lockdown. Photograph: Sally Hayden

But Mahmoud fell prey to what critics call the Ugandan government’s latest crackdown on opposition. On March 30th, as President Yoweri Museveni announced he was suspending transport, closing non-food markets and non-essential service providers, and shutting down the means many had of making a living, he also put a halt on charity, announcing that food donations must be routed through government-associated task forces.

While Museveni said this was to stop crowds gathering and disease spreading, critics say he is trying to prevent anyone else garnering goodwill before next year’s presidential election, with human rights groups even accusing security forces of torturing an opposition politician who tried to help the poor. In spite of its intervention, government food distributions have barely stretched outside the capital, Kampala, while four senior government officials given the job of buying supplies were arrested for falsely inflating prices.

Mango tree meeting

A regular meeting of Gulu’s coronavirus task force sees more than 100 people sitting under a mango tree – hospital representatives, MPs, charity workers and civil servants among them.

Attendees will read out lists of donations, from vehicles and food to cash. Big contributions are applauded, but it is unclear where they are going. Only 500 families in one parish were given a small amount of beans and maize this week, one month after the lockdown came into force.

In Pece Pawel, a parish about 10 minutes’ drive out of the small city, some of the women Mahmoud was supposed to help gather to tell their stories.

Adok Joska, a 76 year old in a faded leopard print dress, takes care of three young children whose parents died. “These days life is too hard,” she says. “In lockdown we’re facing famine. I can eat only once a day, sometimes only porridge. There’s nothing we can do but request our government to support us.”

Beside her sits Akello Madelena, a 72 year old in a rose-pink T-shirt spotted with holes, who minds five children. She used to sell charcoal but that activity is banned under the lockdown. “We’re picking the roots and leaves [from plants]; we cut them into pieces and make a soup,” she says.

A government-organised coronavirus task force meeting in Gulu, northern Uganda. Photograph: Sally Hayden
A government-organised coronavirus task force meeting in Gulu, northern Uganda. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Videos shared on social media show women begging for food in Kampala. One removes her clothes and rolls on the floor. “My children, they’re going to die with hunger,” she cries.

Millions watch as, in his televised speeches, the president praises those who make big donations, sometimes spending 20 minutes reading lists of them aloud. Meanwhile, many of Uganda’s poor fear starvation.

In a national address on April 28th, Museveni said work had been delayed after parliament allocated 10 billion Ugandan shillings (€2.4 million) to be distributed among MPs to raise awareness about Covid-19, a move the opposition condemned as corruption.

‘Fraud so vile’

Museveni later called on parliamentarians to give the money to their local task forces, saying it had been “bad planning” and “reprehensible” to take it for themselves. Opposition leader and popstar Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, protested against the allocation, calling it a “bribe”.

“Wrong and immoral,” Kyagulanyi tweeted. “I’ve returned this money and will not partake in a fraud so vile.”

On April 19th, opposition MP Francis Zaake was arrested and allegedly tortured for trying to hand out food. Witnesses who saw him three days later told Human Rights Watch he was unable to walk and appeared to have been severely beaten. The government did not reply to a request for comment.

Women walk home before the 7pm coronavirus curfew in Gulu, northern Uganda. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Women walk home before the 7pm coronavirus curfew in Gulu, northern Uganda. Photograph: Sally Hayden

“I feel that there is this mentality that is if it’s not the [ruling] National Resistance Movement that is doing something then nobody else should do it . . . even if people are to die, let them die,” said Mahmoud. “And definitely this is not correct. They are taking every donation as being political, which is not the case.”

Mahmoud was released after being forced to pay 500,000 Ugandan shillings (€120) in what he was told were costs associated with his arrest. When he asked what would happen to the food, which had also been seized, security officers said his only option was to give it to the government task force, who would distribute it without his involvement and without telling him who had received it. Mahmoud told security he would keep it for himself instead.

Once back home, Mahmoud resumed his mission, giving bags of maize and beans to some of the families he had previously planned to help. “I didn’t see anyone. I did it successfully. I did it quietly,” he said the day after he had finished, sounding triumphant. “You can risk your life, you can risk any problem as long as you know you are doing the right thing.”

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