- RESILIENT. After her torment during the Amin regime as a student, Stella Mystica Nyonyozi Sabiiti chose a career path that allows to resolve conflicts in different countries, writes GILLIAN NANTUME.
People who fulfil the dreams they had in their youth are few and far between. They, like Stella Mystica Nyonyozi Sabiiti, are rare gems. She is loud and bubbly with a sense of purpose.
She is the UN Women advisor to the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Department and she has been living in Ethiopia since 2005. “I have forgotten what Kampala looks like,” she says, jokingly.
Born in the 1950s in Karamoja, where her father, Nicholas Mpirima, was district commissioner of Moroto District, Sabiiti attended Moroto Town Council School.
Her father had been chosen to compose Uganda’s national anthem but when the committee discovered he was Catholic, they gave the opportunity to George Wilberforce Kakoma.
A love for broadcasting
Unlike some families, Sabiiti’s family had a radio and gramophone. As a travelling family, wherever her father went, he tuned into the BBC which nurtured her love for broadcast media.
When she joined Mt St Mary’s College Namagunga, her broadcasting dream became a reality when she was given an opportunity to host a story-telling programme on Radio Uganda during the holidays. She was living in Muyenga, Kampala then. She would continue to work with the radio for many years to come.
Radio in the 70s
By the time of Gen Idi Amin’s coup in 1971, she was advancing through the ranks at the national broadcaster. Soon she was assigned to Radio Uganda’s External Service.
“We would broadcast to East Africa, West Africa, and then we would switch to the international audience towards midnight. When I was on night duty, I would sleep in the studio. There was only one other girl at the radio – a Muganda technician,” she reminisces.
“I was an English announcer and later two girls from Mombasa joined us. It was an exciting and challenging time. High ranking soldiers would call the studio and say, ‘I want that girl!’ Sometimes, Amin would call and say, ‘I don’t like that story you have aired’,” she recalls.
Experiencing the regime’s brutality
In 1976, Sabiiti was a student of Social Science at Makerere University and was also newly married. Her husband, Jack Sabiiti (former Rukiga County MP), was a district commissioner in West Nile.
The couple had an apartment in Bakuli, but when her husband was away, she returned to her room in Mary Stuart Hall.
“That morning, my husband drove me to the campus. Everything was so quiet, and I was wondering why. My roommate told me there had been some kavuyo (chaos) earlier but everything had quieted down.”
Sabiiti was copying the notes she had missed in the social psychology class the previous day. Her roommate was braiding the hair of another friend. Suddenly, someone knocked on their door.
“We shouted to whoever it was to go away. We thought friends were playing pranks on us. Then, the knocking became forceful. It dawned on us that these were men. They shouted, ‘Fungua mlango!’” (Open the door).
Panicking, the girls – whose room was on the sixth floor – tried to hide. Sabiiti and their friend ran to the balcony. Her roommate dived into her bed.
“The soldiers kicked in the door. The door knob – which had broken off – rolled to the balcony. I whispered to it, saying, ‘Please stop there!”
She was pulled back into the room and beaten savagely. The soldiers accused her of being a ring-leader of an uprising.
“I didn’t know of any uprising. Our friend was also beaten. However, the soldiers didn’t touch the bed where my roommate was hiding. Our attackers pushed us down the stairs. When we got to the first floor, I was hit with a gun butt in the lower back. I flew over the winding staircase and hit the floor.
Sabiiti was pregnant. She says even today, she still has pain in her lower back.
“When I regained my consciousness it was like someone was holding my nose and lungs. I think that is what they mean when they say the wind has been knocked out of you. I saw a boot next to me and I was glad someone had come to help. But then, he began kicking me. A girl was lying next to me. She was also pregnant but she later lost her baby.”
The soldiers led them to Lumumba Hall and entered through the kitchen.
“I noticed there were many young men dressed as cooks. Some scrubbing the floor, others washing plates, and doing all sorts of things. When I looked closely, I realised these were not cooks, but students. This was their way of hiding from the soldiers – by disguising as kitchen workers.
I remember looking into the eyes of one of them and he looked away. He didn’t want us to expose him.”
When they reached the front of Lumumba Hall, they found many students being tortured by soldiers. While the university was quiet, a mass torture exercise was going on. With blood spurted all over and some students had broken limbs.
“Those soldiers tortured us in all sorts of ways. More girls were pulled out from Mary Stuart to join us. They ordered us to lie face down and jumped on our backs legs, heads. Then they told us to face upwards and jumped on our stomachs. Then they hit us with rubber whips that had metals rings at the tips. We had cuts all over but they poured water on the ground and told us to wallow in the mud.”
Facing the tormentors
Sabiiti says she psychologically gave her body permission not to feel the pain. She wanted to know why she was being tortured. Something told her to look into the face of the man beating her.
“I will never forget what I saw there. Sadness. I could tell that inside, he was crying at what they were doing to us. That is when I knew God had given me another assignment – to work in peace and conflict resolution.”
Sabiiti asked the soldier what his wife had cooked for him the night before. In answer, he kicked her. Other soldiers joined in, but every time they paused, she asked the same question. Eventually, they gave up and had a conversation with her.
And the rescue mission?
“When the soldiers eventually left, we were all broken. We crawled back to Mary Stuart and found the cooks had made tea and laid it out in the parking lot. They were seated among the cups and teapots, crying. It is only when I saw them that it all hit me. I felt the pain. I saw the blood on my body. I broke down.”
Once the soldiers left, ambulances were allowed in. Sabiiti was placed in an ambulance but as it sped off towards Wandegeya, she jumped out.
“I wanted to find my husband and as I passed through banana plantations, some women pulled me off the road because I was behaving like a mad person. They took me to their home and cleaned me up and gave me clean clothes. Every time I saw a car I would hide,” Sabiiti recalls.
Her husband found her and took her to Mulago hospital. Sabiiti didn’t go back to work at Radio Uganda then.
Wife stays to run family
A year after her ordeal, her husband went into exile in Canada, and after her studies, in 1978, she joined him.
“Amin’s time was chaotic, but strangely, that is the time we enjoyed music. Much as Amin’s regime was full of death, it was also full of life. There was the Cape Villa and some kind of marina. Oh God! Life was pulsating! I have never seen life like that again.”
Returning to Uganda
The family returned to Uganda in 1981 and immediately, Sabiiti returned to broadcasting.
“Our studio was shifted to Nakasero, and I became the first and only female news editor. As far as I’m concerned, Obote II was worse than Amin. The killings were targeted. I was surrounded by Obote’s men at work and home. Someone had even placed a roadblock at the gate of our home on Mackinnon Road in Nakasero.”
Sabiiti’s husband had been shot at on numerous occasions and she did not know why. Then, one day, he told her he was going for a job interview in Nairobi, Kenya. He did not return.
“I had three children and I was pregnant. It got to a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I was scared of going into labour at night, so I began sleeping in Mulago hospital. I’d come back home in the morning,” she relates.
Anyone who took over government would run to Radio Uganda to announce a coup, so staff at the radio station had devised a secret exit. Also, to access the newsroom, soldiers had to walk along a long verandah which gave the staff time to exit the newsroom.
More pressure at work
“The studio was in Broadcasting House near Crested Towers but the newsroom was in Nakasero. These were bad times and many anchors wouldn’t show up, so the editor on duty would read the news.”
The news jingle would play in the studio at Broadcasting House, and then the technicians would call the newsroom in Nakasero for someone to read the news.
“They would tell us, ‘When the extension rings, start reading the news.’ Sometimes, a call come in from somewhere else – just someone asking about something else. But, once we heard the call, we would begin reading the news. Then the guys in the studio would call and scream at us, ‘What are you doing? We haven’t yet called you!’”
All the other editors were regime loyalists. They are the ones who informed her that her husband had joined the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels.
“Every so often, a story would be broadcast from the rebels and they would accuse me of sneaking it in the bulletin. Really, I was so miserable. I was pregnant and hungry.”
Even if she had the money, there was nowhere to buy food. On many nights, her neighbour threw parties. Luckily when the men were drunk, his wife would sneak Sabiiti and her children into the kitchen to eat the leftovers.
Finally sanity reigns
Sabiiti and her children eventually joined her husband in Nairobi. She joined All Africa Conference of Churches as the deputy editor-in-chief of their news agency. Later she joined UNEP.
“It’s a long story and Michael Jordan’s (American basketball star) mother wants to write a book about it. Our men went off to Libya for training. We (rebel’s wives) did not have husbands. Our children did not have fathers.”
The Sabiitis were relocated to the Netherlands but after three months, her husband returned to the ‘bush.’
After they returned to Uganda, Sabiiti worked in conflict resolution before moving to the African Union in 2005.
Working in peace and security
In the Netherlands, Sabiiti began working on her dream- to foster peace and security. When the family returned to Uganda again, she led the peace process between the government and the Uganda National Rescue Front II. These were former Uganda Army soldiers who tormented her in 1976.
Sabiiti has worked on all the conflicts in Uganda before she left in 2005 to join the African Union.
“I worked on the disarmament process in Karamoja and I remember falling into an ambush with the late Omwony Ojok (former state minister for economic monitoring). Karamoja was the toughest conflict I worked on. It was not an insurgency. In other conflicts, there are rules of engagement. But in Karamoja, everyone had a gun. I am still surprised we did not die.”
She recalls a time during the campaigns when the President camped in the open in Karamoja.
“In the night, the Karamojongs attacked the camp because they wanted to take the guns. It was very daring.”
During the course of her work, the mother of four has worked on several conflicts, including the Rwanda genocide, the Burundi peace talks, conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Caribbean and Asia Pacific region, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, and Colombia.