Benon Herbert Oluka

'I have seen my fair share of violent, despicable acts'

The death of George Floyd under the knee of now former Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin shook me to the core, as it has a lot of people around the world. And yet I did not even watch the video of the heartbreaking incident.

Just like I did not watch the video of the point-blank shooting of a boda boda rider by a Local Defence Unit (LDU) militia-man in Masaka district in central Uganda. And just like I have not watched videos of other violent or gruesome murders that seem to litter social media these days.

The fact that I have not watched any of such videos lately would come as a surprise to those who have known me from way back. In my earliest days as a rookie reporter and photographer at The Observer, I was baptised the newspaper's "Teargas Correspondent." This is because whenever there was a protest or a riot somewhere in Kampala, I was sure to be among the first to turn up — with a camera slung across my shoulder and a notebook in hand.

Additionally, I was one of the newspaper's trusted reporters to cover the tail-end of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) war in northern Uganda. I would carry some of the same burden at The East African and Daily Monitor newspapers, even getting to travel to Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan at some point on similar assignments.

During those reporting assignments, I saw things I wish in vain that I could unseen. And whenever I returned home, I never received any kind of counselling or psychosocial support. So the images have stayed with me throughout.

Yet those were not the first images of violence I ever got to see in life. I have seen violence in all forms and shapes. Domestic violence from a young age that almost shut down my system (or probably did for a while as a coping mechanism). And then soldiers belonging to the NRA (now UPDF) whipping my Mom at Kumi boma grounds. A dead body of a rebel commander called Ogwang, (can't recall the other name) of the Uganda People's Army (UPA) group, which the NRA chose to parade on the main street and boma grounds of Kumi town. And the infamous 2011 images of a badly injured Dr Kizza Besigye gasping for fresh air after being doused in Teargas inside his car by Policeman Gilbert Arinaitwe Bwana and co. along the Mulago roundabout.

I have seen my fair share of violent, despicable acts in my lifetime. And I guess my system can't take it any more. The first time I realised this was when I witnessed an incident in which a car thief ran over the car owner who was emerging out of a supermarket around Naalya and started screaming for help (while trying to stop the thief from getting away) once she'd realized that someone was getting away with her vehicle. The thief drove over her, leaving the lady for dead. I stopped for a while as a crowd gathered around her. But after realising that I didn't have the stomach anymore for incidents like the close up of that injured lady, I drove away for the sake of my own sanity. Later, I was able to trace the whereabouts of that lady through a friend and was glad to ascertain that her physical injuries healed after she spent some time in a hospital.

Today, for the sake of my own mental health, I stay away from such scenes if I encounter them — and don't view any videos of a similar nature. I am not alone. A now deceased Ugandan television anchor once intimated to me that he fainted each time he saw a chicken being slaughtered because he'd witnessed similar incidents when human beings were being decapitated at safe houses in the 1970s. He, too, had reached his threshold of violence.

So I wonder how depraved someone must be to kneel on another human being's neck (while pocketing to boot) and not yield to the pleas of that person saying, “Please man, I can't breath.” How does another human being cry out for their Mum, loose control of their bowel movements and bleed through their nose (according to the descriptions in a several newspaper articles) without somehow getting to the humane side of your being?!

I wonder what kind of human beings can mete out the kind of violent acts that Ugandan Member of Parliament  Zaake Francis Butebi and author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija described after their recent stints in the dungeons of Uganda's security and intelligence agencies. As we say in one of the local languages, "who grew these people?"

We see so much human-to-human violence in this world and it affects us in different ways, and at different times. And as is the way with human nature, people either shut down to cope a little longer or get desperate to put a stop to such blatant disregard for life.

Benon Herbert Oluka is a Ugandan journalist, a member of the African Investigative Publishing Collective (AIPC) and the co-ordinator of the Africa chapter of the Global Investigative Journalism Network.