By Jocelyn Edwards
As she sits in the shade on a bench outside the police post in south Kampala that she works at, Vastine Kiconco touches one of the three and half inch long scars that mark her head. Its been almost a month and a half since the police officer was attacked by rioters during the unrest that rocked the capitol city, but the wounds from where they hit her with stones and pieces of wood still hurt, she says. The mob stepped on and kicked her in the chest during the September 10 attack along Masaka Road, so hard that, when I coughed, I coughed blood.
The attack that Kiconco experienced stands out in the melee that happened in Kampala last month; in a conflict that saw violence on both the part of the protesters and police, it is surely one of the most brutal incidents. But it was also memorable for another reason. Several men removed her clothes, stripping her down to her undergarments. While other police officers were also targeted, perhaps in response to their repression of the riots, no m ale officers were undressed. Was the incident an anomaly or was it indicative of a larger undercurrent of societal violence towards women that bubbled to the surface during the riots?
The 26-year-old police officer was called to Ndeeba to help deal with protesters the day that she was attacked. She was walking along Masaka Road with a few other officers when the rioters pounced. Other officers were able to escape, but unable to dodge through wreckage of cars and other debris that was strewn on the road quickly enough, Kiconco was left behind. Seizing up rocks and pieces of timber, a group of men pelted her until she was unconscious.
The attack Kiconco suffered was surely among the most signifcant during the riots, whether done by police or protestors. Moses Ochieng is the division police commander for the area. It was serious because those people actually wanted to get petrol and burn her, said Ochieng. Within a blink of an eye, they had already done many things to her.
After incapacitating the young police officer, rioters removed her uniform and stripped her down to her bra and shorts. Kiconco almost doesnt have the words to express how humiliating the experience was for her. They were saying let us take the uniform, remove the uniform so that she remains naked, She shakes her head. I cant tell you, I cant tell you… I had shame.
The woman believes that the fact that she was targeted for undressing is a function of her gender. â€œThey saw that Im a lady and they wanted to shame me … thats why they made me naked. The men, they didnâ€™t make them naked, they wanted to shame me.
DPC Ochieng agrees. I think she was attacked because she was a woman. Why didnt they attack other [officers]? Others were maybe hit with stones; others werent [attacked] like that.
At first glance, the incident seems to fit in with the pattern of attacks on civilian women reported in the riots. According to police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba, over 30 women were targeted by rioters and undressed during the period of unrest in September. Witnesses reported that women were separated and stripped according to whether or not they were wearing trousers, Nabakooba said.
But such reports are hard to substantiate. It seems that everyone has heard the reports of women being undressed by rioters, but no one has actually seen it. Nabakooba herself admits that police do not have any complaints by victims themselves on record. It may be that the story of women being undressed is just another rumor swirling in the hysteria surrounding the riots as different sides try to discredit the other. Or, as the police spokeswoman suggested, it might be because the women are too ashamed to come forward. Already it is humiliating; people fear to report such things to police. You just want to run for your dear life, go back home and keep quiet because its an embarrassment.
Left unconscious by the rioters, Kiconco was eventually helped to safety by some civilian women. Put on an IV drip and the cuts on her head, ear and face stitched, the woman spent two weeks in the hospital recovering. The attack had displaced a bone in her forehead which still needs to be reset. The police officer eventually returned to work on Monday October 19th, a little over a month after the attack.
Many observers have pointed out that rioters could have targeted police personnel as a reaction to the police and other security officers brutal handling of the riots. The police was high-handed and brutal; beating up people with clubs and gun butts even when they were not seemingly involved in riots. An incident near Kisekka market filmed on TV as para-military police beat up an elderly man pushing him into the dirty waters of Nakivubo drainage channel has been cited. Other incidents, also filmed, involved the notorious Kiboko Squad operating alongside the police that indiscriminately canned people found on the streets regardless of whether they were rioters or not. Many unarmed rioters were also shot at point-blank with live bullets.
Officially 21 people died in the riots but pundits have put the figure much higher. Many people are still reportedly missing while over 500 are in jail facing trial.
Kiconco could therefore easily have been a victim of her uniform with rioters finding a soft target in her to get back at a police force that had exhibited brutality, bloodthirstiness, arrogance and indiscrimination. She was simply its face.