Being detained above the legally allowed 48 hours even for a crime one has committed is painful enough, a day’s detention for a crime you did not commit is heart throbbing, but nothing compares to the torment of watching Uganda’s beautiful weather from behind bars an entire three years, more so for a crime you did not commit.
In the meantime, you will see your colleagues with whom you are incarcerated board the bus to court, while others will return to tell the stories, some will be set free to give you an even wilder nightmare of your own condition to which you neither have a solution nor any further emotion to spare.
Such is the story of Jackson Habyarimana, a Congolese refugee who fled his home country in 2008 due to instability, only to land in the open jails of Uganda seven years later. It was here that life rinsed him.
“I left Congo because of war and I don’t know whether the war has ended or not. I don’t know if it’s possible to go back hence me staying here in the camp.”
Habyarimana during his stay in Uganda, was accused of aggravated rape and sent to remand in Masindi government prison. It is here that his life started taking an even worse turn.
“We were living like pigs, the hygiene in there was terrible. The toilet was inside and the odor from it would make you sick. We slept in the toilet, ate inside it, we did everything there,” Habyarimana narrated.
Habyarimana had no channel for redress or complaint no matter the conditions, he claims he suffered language barrier because the warders spoke English which he did not understand. In fact, he feared he would be prone to any plots against him in jail, for failure to understand what others communicated.
Indeed, certain things did not take too long to happen, Habyarimana claims he was subjected to mistreatment time and again, but insists, no one tortured him.
“They would start looking a you in a strange way and you would have nothing to say, because you are not from this country and you can’t even speak back in the language. They could sometimes man handle or threaten me but they could not torture me because they were afraid of prison laws.”
Habyarimana describes cold nights in prison with no blankets, congestion, eating food that is either half-cooked or smells like paraffin. To him, the food was worse than the beatings.
He was later released from prison in 2018. He claims it was much to do with luck for his release from jail.
“The first day I appeared in court, I felt so much joy because he lay the possibility of me being set free or being sent on remand for a short time. It was indeed by luck that I was released,” he said.
For Frank Baine, the Assistant Commissioner Uganda Prisons dismissed Habyraimana’s claims, stating that as a prisoner, Habyrimana was given all the necessary and basic support while a prisoner without discrimination.
“It becomes more convenient to us to manage such prisoners like the rest,” he said.
Baine says that the prison authorities have ensured they work on hygiene facilities and they have achieved in this department.
“At once time we were running a bucket system because of the facilities. Like where Hyabrimana was detained could have been one of the old systems. The rest of the detention facilities have water borne toilets.”
According to the refugee Law Project, more than half of the inmates are on remand. Refugees as well as their hosts are detained beyond 48 hours’ limit, their cases drag on for unduly long periods of time, and throughout the process the presumption of innocence seems to have fallen into abeyance.
Jesse Mugero, a Legal Officer in the Access to Justice Program at the Refugee Law for refugees maintains that the language barrier is one of the factors leading to a lack of access to justice.
‘We have refugees from countries like Congo and Rwanda where they don’t speak English, so they find it hard to access justice here.”
Mugero says he has had a number of scenarios, the most recent being a suspect who had spent 6 years in detention.
“He got the justice, but as a refugee, he had blown away 6 six years of his life and did not know where to start now that he was out.”
Not far from the truth, the three years Hyabarimana spent in jail were not only an emotional waste but a major set back. He returned to no house, no land, no money, no friends and a very fast world where he is stuck in abject poverty.
All he has for survival are poles on each end supported by fibre, this he calls home, with no roof, no wattle or mud to make walls. In there, he lies in wait for torture from torrential rains and they will indeed come to find him.