In Summary

Crime. Across the country, Ugandans are witnessing an uptick in violent crime. The last annual police crime report, published 10 months ago, highlighted a spike in violent crimes in 2017 compared to the year before. There is no word yet on the 2018 and 2019 reports but going by recent media reports, the compilation will likely be shocking, as ruthless cartels have followed a choreographed routine to kidnap and demand ransoms writes Frederic Musisi.

On April 1, the day before American tourist Kimbley Sue Endecott and her guide Jean Paul Mirenge were kidnapped in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Kanungu District at Uganda-DR Congo border, she stopped by a forex bureau in Kihihi Town where she exchanged an unspecified amount of money.
Two people familiar with the ongoing investigation of her kidnap revealed that she exchanged $8,000 to Ugandan shillings (about Shs29 million), a claim this newspaper could not independently verify.
One of the 11 suspects in detention for the kidnap of Ms Endecott is the operator of the forex bureau. It is suspected he could have tipped off her captors or was working with them.
Initially, 40 people were randomly picked up as suspects around Kanungu but others were set free.

Of the 11 suspects, security sources told Daily Monitor that the five prime suspects include a Congolese, and four Ugandans.
The suspects were due to appear before the Magistrates Court in Kanungu last Tuesday but they were not presented.
In Kihihi Town, a drab outpost with a patch of unpaved roads, south-western Uganda in whose backyard the American tourist and her guide were kidnapped; residents narrate with vivid anecdotes of what they saw and heard.

It was a spectacle as nearly the entire country’s elite security, with the barrels of their rifles, descended on the area for the search and rescue operation of the American tourist.
Yet, in the same district, which borders the restive eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in southwestern Uganda, the frequency of kidnap for ransom cases probably outstrips any other part of the country.
An insidious plague of crime where cartels and neighbours routinely prey upon victims, and scour the grasslands to snatch their next victim, is thriving uninterruptedly.

The reasons for the kidnaps go beyond the porous borders and ransoms; Ugandan men who marry on the Congo side but fail to pay bride price are routinely picked up and their families propelled to pay what is due, and business deals gone bad on the Congo side too attract revenge which is sometimes exacted through kidnap.
Residents say many cases are not reported to police because they often don’t do anything.

Some residents who asked not to be named claimed they are convinced some Ugandan security officials work with cartels hiding in the deeper recesses of lawless Congo, which have turned kidnapping into a lucrative business.
Kanungu District authorities say they too believe there are some Ugandan conspirators who are part of this scheme and its plausible that the cartel that kidnapped the American tourist has been involved in kidnaps in the district that lies at the parallels between Uganda and Congo.

Long wait. Kimberly Sue (R) meets different people who were waiting for her after she was released. FILE PHOTOs

A nightmare in real life
Two weeks after security forces had combed the entire Kanungu in search for the American tourist, 17-year-old Ronald Niwagaba, a resident of Rukara Village in Kihembe Parish in Kanyatorogo Sub-county which is adjacent to the Uganda—DR Congo border was kidnapped on Easter Monday.
In a punishing world of stark contrasts, Niwagaba, unlike Kimberly, was left abandoned without the aid of police or security personnel coming to his rescue. His fate lay in the hands of his capricious captors or the ability of his family to pay the ransom within a specified deadline.

Two days later, Niwagaba was released after his family paid a ransom of Shs3.5 million. His captors initially demanded for $3,000 or roughly Shs11 million.
“We were from harvesting bananas from our garden on the Congo side. We are right at the border when men jumped out of the bush with guns and told us to stop or they would shoot us; we were together with our younger sister and a garden helper: as soon as night fell they let them go with instructions to my family,” a visibly shaken Niwagba narrated.

Unlike other victims, the youngsters were not assaulted but the two days’ ordeal while in captivity will torment them for years to come.
Mr Niwagaba says when the ransom money was about to be paid, one the captors shot dead his colleague in their sight and ordered them to wear his clothes to beat the punishing cold.
“He told us if we did anything stupid he would shoot us as well,” Niwagaba recalls.
His ordeal notwithstanding, Niwagaba like most residents, has to go to the garden to forage—a spitting distance from where gunmen cornered them.

According to Niwagaba’s father Enos Mirimu, he first reported his sons’ kidnap to the Uganda People’s Defence Forces detach in the area, who referred him to police in the neighbouring Kihihi Town. Here, he was referred back to the village police post, which advised him to go back home and wait—they never came.
The Kanungu Resident District Commissioner (RDC), Mr Shafiq Ssekandi, told Daily Monitor that often security personnel do not intervene because the actors operate in a foreign land—Congo.

“We try to offer moral support as we can but you know our police stepping even an inch in the Congo territory would be an abuse of international law,” Mr Ssekandi said. “But is mainly insecurity in Congo that is driving these cases.”
Kanungu, a quiet hamlet sprang into prominence in 2000 during the Kibwetere cult massacre. Most recently in 2017, a debilitating drought brought the district on its knees, and attracted food aid from among others the Chinese government through the World Food Programme.
Kanungu, which neighbours the eastern part of DRC, a sanctuary of roaming militias, has placed those who inhabit particularly border villages in harm’s way.

The insecurity is occasioned by heavy fighting, which often drives away Congolese into these districts. Last week alone, 130 Congolese fled to Kanungu after a militia raided their villages.
Yet barely an arm’s length across the border into Congo, is a vast expanse that residents from Kanungu cultivate.
Mr Gad Tweheyo’s ordeal in captivity is not so different from that of other victims but he says he counts himself lucky because the captors initially demanded for Shs9 million but after haggling for more than 10 days, settled for Shs2 million.
Mr Tweheyo narrated that he sold almost everything he once owned to acquire land across the border, where the soils are more fertile than in Uganda.

“I now own nothing; after my experience I cannot go back to Congo,” Tweheyo said. He said he eventually sold his land in Congo cheaply because ‘everyone [buyer] factors in the risks, including the unprecedented spate of kidnaps along the border villages.’
An acre of land in Kanungu costs Shs3 million and its cheaper in the Congo going for only Shs1 million.
The RDC says given the population explosion on the Ugandan side, many residents are now looking at the expansive idle land across the border as an alternative.

Charles Yonasani was abducted by gunmen at the border from his garden in Congo. According to his brother Dabtience Tumusiime, they beat him severely to the extent that his buttocks were shattered, which necessitated a medical operation.

Polic spokesperson Fred Enanga


“They first asked for Shs25 million we kept negotiating until they accepted Shs4 million,” Mr Tumusiime recalled.
“Besides the Shs4 million they also asked for a carton of [Chief] waragi and a solar panel battery; each time they put him on phone to prove he is alive we would hear him screaming in pain: they would beat him hard to make us believe they would kill him if we didn’t get them what they asked for,” he said.

Mr Yonasani himself is convinced that one of his neighbours works with the kidnap cartels in Congo.
“I kept telling my captors that I was a poor man but they kept referring to the solar panel I own at home as one of the indicators that I was a rich man,”
“There were several other pointers which made me believe that someone who knew me well was working with them,” he recounted.
Despite several incidents of kidnap, residents still take the perilous journey into the Congo.

Mr Edward Timanyira’s 12-year-old son whose throat was slit in Kyemamba Village in Lyantonde District is amongst the victims whose death was not recorded in police records.
A grieving Timanyira narrated that the main suspect in his son’s kidnap and murder case was a fellow Church member who acted as a friendly neighbour.
“My son went to school one Friday, he never come back. One morning, the mobile operator in a nearby town received a phone call with a message for me that I should pay Shs500,000 or else forget about my son,” a teary Mr Timanyira recounts.

Mr Timanyira is bitter after he relied on police for assistance but it was in vain. He desperately turned to another resident John Ssempwengu but this did not yield any results.
Ssempwengu had earlier on relied on a friend who asked a minister to intervene after his son was kidnapped. A special team of investigators was dispatched, which led to his son’s rescue.
Kidnaps have become the new scourge, casting a pallover life in Uganda. Consumed by fear, the communities in Kanungu who have been abandoned by authorities, do not when these cartels will strike again.

Kidnap and ransom
Reason for the kidnap. Some residents, however, believe not everyone is a viable target; but those with money. This is why some victims are kidnapped at the Ugandan border and moved into Congo.
Globally, Uganda does not feature anywhere on the list of countries where kidnapping is a virulent form of banditry. The list includes countries such as Mexico, Haiti, Brazil, the Philippines, India, Colombia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and others.

However, the kidnap of American tourist Kimberly Sue Endecott in April put the country into sharp focus near and far. Internally, kidnappings for ransom had become known as merely an intractable violent crime.
Police has recorded a paltry 19 kidnaps across the country though most that have occurred in areas such as Kanungu have not been recorded.
Police spokesperson, Fred Enanga, told Daily Monitor that ransom is the main driving factor behind the spate of kidnaps in the country.
Killings. However, there are incidents where victims are killed before relatives pay the ransom so the motive[s] is not clear.

These cases include, Gideon Kasirye from Kasanje in Wakiso who was found strangled and dumped in a forest, Jonathan Ssempereza, aged six, whose throat was slit and the body dumped in Kireka Market, Gift Akech from Kasokoso, Nakawa division, whose body was piled in a sack and dumped in a water channel, and Oscar Muhairwe from Isingiro who was buried after the kidnapper received Shs 250,000 from his relatives.

Other kidnaps
Survivor speak out. Mr Gad Tweheyo’s ordeal in captivity is not so different from that of other victims but he says he counts himself lucky because the captors initially demanded for Shs9 million but after haggling for more than 10 days, settled for Shs2 million.
Mr Tweheyo narrated that he sold almost everything he once owned to acquire land across the border, where the soils are more fertile than in Uganda.
“I now own nothing; after my experience I cannot go back to Congo,” Tweheyo said. He said he eventually sold his land in Congo cheaply because ‘everyone [buyer] factors in the risks, including the unprecedented spate of kidnaps along the border villages.’