Paddy Sserunjonji aka Sobi, first seized the media spotlight in 2017 as a self-confessed leader of Kifeesi, a criminal gang, which terrorized Kampala then and now, three years later, he commands a safe house on Lwamayuba island in Kalangala, a former prisoner there has said.
“We were all shocked when Sobi welcomed us. He had a pistol around his waist and raised an AK-47 gun before introducing himself as Captain Sobi. He told us that we have come to learn a lesson…” Alex Odwori, 30, a former prisoner on the island, recounts his very first painful moments eight months ago after disembarking from the transport boat at Lwamayuba island.
Odwori, a ruling NRM mobiliser, explains in a lengthy interview with The Observer, how a disagreement with the Internal Security Organization hierarchy led to his kidnap and his very first chance face-to-face encounter with an AK-47-totting Captain Sobi in Kalangala.
Odwori’s account paints a gory picture of the horrors prisoners face in safe houses, drawing on his own eight-month stints in two safe houses without any contact with lawyers or family.
Odwori persistently begged to tell his story and sat down voluntarily for this interview last week. He said he had tried and failed to get his captors held to account by several security bosses including General Salim Saleh and parliament’s human rights committee.
Speaking in a low tone, Odwori said ISO bosses want him killed. “….They have been following me and I am still getting a lot of threatening phone calls…You need to hear my story before I die because anything can happen between now, and that will be the end of my story,” Odwori said.
He is still hurting. He suffers bouts of searing chest pain brought on by the several beatings he got in ISO’s safe houses in Kyengera and Lwamayuba in Kalangala.
Odwori said he can’t keep hiding from his tormentors. “This must end!” In the event that he is killed, Odwori said, he would rest with the firm belief that his killers will also die one day.
Last month military intelligence operatives raided two safe houses run by ISO in Kyengera in Waksio district and Kisaasi near Baha’i Temple, in Kampala.
The raid came two months after eight ISO operatives working under Cyber Unit went in hiding after their colleague, Simon Peter Odongo, was arrested and charged in the military court. ISO was, among other things, accused of torturing suspects in safe houses.
ISO chief Kaka Bagyenda didn’t answer nor return our repeated calls on Monday.
EARLY LIFE WITH ISO
Before Odwori met his tormentors last year, he owned a string of men’s clothes shops in Kansanga, a Kampala suburb and Mbale. He was also a mobiliser for the ruling NRM party then and shared security-related information with police, Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) and ISO.
Odwori said that through his engagements with security organs, he was invited for a meeting at ISO headquarters in Nakasero in mid-2018. During the meeting, he said, he was asked to work for ISO. He said he also started getting money but without any assignments.
He pocketed between Shs 500,000 and Shs 3m for fuel or lunch.
Asked why he didn’t reject the money, Odwori said: “Can you refuse money when a big man has given it to you in cash? I was a struggling man and I willingly accepted the fuel and lunch offers thinking it was a favour.”
Towards the end of 2018, Odwori said, the plot got twisted. He said he was introduced to Simon Peter Odongo, then working under ISO’s Cyber Unit, with whom they would work on some assignments.
Since he dealt with police, Odwori claims, he was asked to furnish his ISO benefactors with insights into the murder investigation of the late Assistant Inspector General of Police Andrew Felix Kaweesi.
He claims he flatly rejected that request because he was simply an NRM mobiliser without any insider knowledge on the investigation. Odwori also insisted he didn’t know police chief Kale Kayihura personally.
“As a person, I knew Kayihura like any person. I never had any business with him. He knew me as a mobiliser and that was it. Even with security information, I always shared it with police officers, not Kayihura,” he said.
According to Odwori, another meeting was scheduled in late September 2018.
NEW TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT
In a meeting at Fang Fang restaurant in Nakasero, Odwori said, he got his first assignment. Odwori said he was asked to implicate an army general in a plot to overthrow the government and poison an ISO officer.
He was supposed to make the claims publicly during a press conference. In January 2019, Odwori said he turned down the assignment.
KIDNAPPED, SENT TO SAFE HOUSES
His failure to pull off the mission put him in trouble. Odwori claims that Odongo lied to the ISO bosses that he (Odwori) had shared his dealings with internal security with police.
The Observer understands that Odongo has since been arrested and charged in the military court on allegations of presenting forged intelligence reports and extorting money from victims.
Six days after Kale Kayihura was fired by President Museveni as IGP in March 2019, Odwori was kidnapped by uniformed and plain-clothes security agents. On the fateful day, he had hitched a boda boda ride at around 5pm when a Toyata Mark X rammed into them near Nakasero primary school.
The accident also involved a Toyota Noah and a double cabin vehicle whose registration number he vividly crammed as UAG 220C.
While he writhed in pain on the ground with minor injuries, he noticed faces of people who normally conduct ISO’s daily operations such as Kaberenge, Ddiba, Bukomero and Nsubuga in the vehicles.
“One uniformed officer came out and said: “This is our target.”
He said one officer wanted to shoot him but another restrained him. The boda boda rider was ordered to speed off. Minutes later, a van approached the scene and the agents threw him inside.
He was blindfolded, handcuffed and his legs chained. He ended up at the ISO headquarters at around 6:30pm. Here, they changed into a double cabin, blindfolded him again and took him to another place.
“As soon as they hooted at the gate, they removed my blindfold. At the front, the place looked like a normal residential house but with armed soldiers. Inside, I saw people tied to the wall of the house shade with chains. That’s when I knew I was headed for the worst,” he said.
“HELL ON EARTH”
Odwori was not spared the first reception at the house shade known as “Rambo”. He spent the night with arms and legs tied on either side of the windows.
“They also brought big stones for me to step on. After balancing so well, they kicked the stones. I could hardly step on the floor. This was Rambo on the shade with nine other people for some days,” he recalled.
He said after spending two weeks at this residence, over-stayed detainees told him he was at Kyengera base two controlled by a one Okwi and Jack Nsangiranabo.
ISO agents hung him by his arms for days. He said he narrowly survived dislocating his shoulders. He spent months in chains and being severely tortured by soldiers who insisted he should accept to execute the mission.
He said soldiers repeatedly poured cold water on him in the wee hours of the night and beat him.
“Whenever they brought food – posho and beans and half-cooked rice – they would just throw it at us. With handcuffs, you had to hold the plate and eat like a dog,” he said.
A month later, he said, investigators led by one Afande Patrick arrived at the safe house and repeatedly assured him of his freedom if he accepted to accomplish the mission.
One night, Odwori said he was blindfolded and bundled into a double cabin pick-up in the wee hours of the night and driven to an unknown location. He claims he ended up in Nakasero ISO office where he was asked for the last time to execute the mission. He claims he refused.
He said he was returned to base two Kyengera until May when he was transferred to another “real hell on earth,” a safe house on Lwamayuba island in Kalangala.
He said his relatives and security friends endured months of threats and anonymous phone calls until they gave up looking for him. He claims ISO operatives took photos of him and shared them with his relatives and asked for money. Odwori said his relatives sent the money but never secured his release.
JOURNEY TO KALANGALA
After spending almost three months in Kyengera, Odwori and other detainees were transferred to Lwamayuba island in Kalangala, now a deserted no-go area for fishermen.
“It was during broad daylight when a bus came at Kyengera. They lied to us that we were going to meet ISO boss Kaka and that he had forgiven all of us. Whenever they read one’s name, you go to the bus, they handcuff you, chain your legs and blindfold you,” Odwori said.
“They told us to keep our heads down throughout the journey but some of us peeped through the window. I got to understand we were on Entebbe express way heading to Entebbe side.”
He said they were driven to the former Heritage park – about 3km off Kampala-Entebbe road at Kitala. Odwori said this place, located on the lakeshore, is partly a staff training wing for ISO.
He quoted a one Maj. Amos as saying: “You people are supposed to be killed but whoever performs what we want, we shall pick you from the island.”
The group comprising about 20 people, was given life jackets, blindfolded again, handcuffed and bundled onto a huge boat to Lwamayuba.
Upon arrival, Odwori said he was surprised to be ushered onto the island by Paddy Sserunjonji aka Sobi, a self-confessed former leader of the notorious Kifeesi criminal gang in the city. Sobi was arrested but later released after some security officials claimed he was a reformed criminal aiding several investigations.
“We were all shocked when Sobi welcomed us. He had a pistol around his waist and raised an AK-47 gun before introducing himself as Captain Sobi. He told us that we have come to learn a lesson…,” he said.
He said Sobi told the group that President Museveni was aware about their arrival at the island. He instructed them to obey all the orders given to them and later assigned each a yellow overall.
Life at Lwamayuba worsened when detainees were forced to work in Kaka’s coconut farms, pineapples, cassava gardens, sugarcanes, clearing bushes in forests, among others. Sobi informed them that all the produce belonged to Kaka. Sobi and a one Afande Musoga supervised most of the work at the island.
“We reached a time when they assigned us platoon sergeants and military gumboots. My hands were full of wounds since we worked in farms without protective gear.”
Staying in handcuffs and chains all day long was a routine at Lwamayuba. To regain some freedom, Odwori boldly approached one of the ISO officers – who he declined to name – and pleaded with the officer to take a photo of him in chains and send it to someone who would help expose his life at the island.
Odwori’s photo reached the person on the outside who shared it widely. It’s around this time in August 2019 that parliament picked interest in the matter. MPs demanded to inspect the so-called safe houses.
But members of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee were denied access to safe houses in Kyengera, Nakasero, Nalukolongo, Kabowa and Nakasero.
Odwori claims a high-ranking ISO official visited the island twice and claimed that Odwori and his colleagues were not prisoners but ISO assets. A week later, the group went on a hunger strike to demand better conditions but they were thoroughly beaten instead.
Odwori said prisoners were told that if MPs came to the island, “we should accept the various fake charges against us.”
But before the MPs would set foot on the island, the detainees were ordered to surrender the yellow overalls, army boots and loaded onto a boat back to Heritage Park. Here, a bus was on standby to drop some of them at various police stations. Odwori said he disembarked from Najjanankumbi and walked scot-free.
“Just like that on September 9, 2019, I was released and cautioned not to discuss anything in the media,” he said.
WE NEED JUSTICE
Odwori is now coordinating other survivors from Lwamayuba and Kyengera to seek audience with the president. In October 2019, Odwori claims, he met Gen Salim Saleh and other security bosses at his home in Kapeeka. However, 10 months later, Saleh is yet to act on their pleas.
“One of Gen Saleh’s aides recently told me that we remain patient because he’s handling our matter. He said the Covid-19 situation could have delayed our hopes to meet the president,” Odwori said.
In December, Odwori planned to pen a letter to President Museveni but some unknown people attacked him in Bweyogerere at around 10 pm. He reported a case of his stolen laptop and some documents in the car under SD REF 18/28/12/19 at Bweyogerere police. The reference chit shows the case as a robbery but the suspects are unknown.
He wants his captors held accountable for torturing him and pay for his lost property.
“On kidnapping me, I had $1,500 meant to deliver to someone and Shs 2m cash. The ISO agents stole all the money and my two phones have never been returned. I need justice, not only for me but also for the other innocent survivors of ISO safe houses,” Odwori said.