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[ 21. Mar 2006 ]

UK: Halting Deportations

Demo Against Deportations, London, 01 Mar 2006

A last-ditch attempt to halt the deportation of Mariah Rugobya from UK to Uganda.

 

As the Troops Home From Iraq - Don't Attack Iran demonstration dispersed, that organisers said numbered up to 100,000 in the streets of London on Saturday 18 March 2006, talk between demonstrators and activists turned to the fate of Ugandan refugee Mariah Rugobya.

20-year-old Mariah was due for deportation back to Uganda at 10pm that very night. Her twin sister Judith had just narrowly avoided a previous deportation on Tuesday 7 March. The murmurs around The Lord Moon of the Mall was to gather at Kings Cross Station at 6.30pm and head towards Heathrow airport for a last attempt to halt the removal through some kind of direct action.

The pub was under heavy guard by police officers because a group of black-clad demonstrators labelled Square Bloc gave them a high-speed run-around the West End after a continuous and panic-stricken looking police escort during the march.

As they hit Piccadilly Circus the block moved forwards, gaining speed. Someone yelled, "Go". Another shouted, "Get Gap". And they ran, dispersing from the demonstration into Glasshouse Street. Police feared the worst and gave chase, only to be left on the doorstep of a pub, some hundred metres down the road, with blank and confused faces. One officer even looked strangely disappointed. But the only cameraman to catch the scene could still be heard giggling to himself some ten minutes later.

Small groups of campaigners were already on their way to Heathrow. A second group was organising at Kings Cross. I joined the small group that left the pub and tried to incept the others on route along the Piccadilly Tube line. But I even lost them when the realisation I hadn't eaten all day except for two bananas for breakfast took hold. So I headed onwards on my own.

Mariah and Judith Rugobya fled Uganda in 2003, like many other Ugandans at that time of increasing turmoil. Mariah claims she was kidnapped along with their mother by the Allied Democratic Front (ADF) rebels and taken to the Ituli forest. The ADF, based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was set up in 1995 by supporters of the late dictator Idi Amin. They seek to set up a Sharia law Islamic state.

Mariah was raped and tortured by the ADF. They then shot her mother right in front of Mariah because she was "too old" to run and keep up with the rebels.

The ADF were later captured by government troops. Mariah was taken to Katojo prison for interrogation. There she claims she was raped and tortured again, this time by the UPDF.

Since their arrival in the UK Judith and Mariah tried to rebuild their lives together, living in Edmonton, North London, began studies at Enfield College and were under the care of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

The UK Immigration service detained both sisters four times as illegal immigrants and incarcerated them at various detention centres. During the latest detention both were held at the notorious Yarl's Wood removal centre in Bedfordshire that has seen endless allegations of abuse and several cases of suicide by detainees.

On 26 February Judith made a public statement: "Being in Yarl's Wood is like being on Death Row, you never know when the lethal injection will be administered," she said. "We are very anxious, have palpitations, we can't sleep, eat or concentrate on anything. We are on the verge of insanity, we are mortified at the thought of ending up like Sophie Odogo. This fourth time round we can't really tell."

35-year-old Ugandan refugee Sophie Odogo lost her sanity whilst being detained at Yarl's Wood. This case is still being investigated.

The UK Home Office has a policy. They do not comment on individual cases. I discovered this last year when researching the story of Harriet Anyangokolo, another Ugandan refugee.

The UK immigration policy on Uganda is that refugees will continue to be deported, although the HO does not like to refer to it as that. They consider them removals. Deportations are for criminals I was told.

Deportations to Uganda are considered safe and legal because of assurances over human rights issued by the government led by recently re-elected President Yoweri Museveni.

Despite the spiralling situation in Uganda prior to and after the election, that saw violent demonstrations against the government and various charges, including terrorism, set against the opposition leader Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change, the deportations continue. The arrest of Besigye was internationally condemned, including by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The Ugandan people not only have to deal with the oppression from an increasingly vicious military authority, but face the same terrors of arbitrary imprisonment, rape, torture and death at the hands of the ADF or the Lords Resistance Army (LRA). For the people of Uganda they are stuck in the middle of a triangulation of increasing violence and there is no one to protect them on any side.

Human Rights Watch reported between June 2002 and July 2003 the LRA abducted 8,400 children, forced 20,000 minors onto the streets and over 800,000 Northern Ugandans were displaced. The death toll is still unknown.

Even Sir Bob Geldof has lost faith in the Ugandan government after previously praising the country's earlier advancements on AIDS and HIV.

"Get a grip, Museveni. Your time is up, go away," he said.

At Heathrow airport I met many various individuals from Student Action for Refugees (STAR) and No Borders. They hung around the check-in desk of Ethiopian Airways handing out leaflets to passengers boarding the same aircraft as Mariah. They explained the situation and what was probably going to happen to her if she was deported.

I was told the response from many passengers was positive and they were appalled at the UK government for continuing to send refugees back to such an uncertain future. Others replied with a common response. There was nothing they could, or even they did not care.

Then it came through that BBC London Tonight ran a report on Mariah's case on the 6.30pm news slot.

Within an hour Heathrow security were closing in on the groups of campaigners and began moving them out of the airport, with threats that the police were on the way and the campaigners risked arrest if they refused to leave.

As some of the leafleteers left, others from different positions in the airport took their place. The warnings from the security staff became more severe as time went on. But a small group of campaigners managed to stay till the check-in desk was closed. This meant nearly all passengers on that flight knew exactly what was going on, including a journalist who was heading out to Uganda.

I went to the check-in desk and tried to talk to the Ethiopian Airlines staff. I produced my press card, hoping that would throw some weight behind what I said. The staff looked blankly, declaring there was nothing they could do. It was a Home Office decision I was told.

I argued this, stating they could refuse to fly her because of Mariah's seriously deteriorating mental state.

"We know what is going on," said one female staff member. "We've seen the leaflets."

"So you know what she has been through," I replied. "Do you realise what will happen to her if you take her back?"

"I'm very sorry, sir. There is nothing we can do."

"Imagine if that was your daughter," I said. "Imagine if that was you. She's only 20-years-old."

Another staff member then joined in and told me to leave because I was hampering their work, and they would have to call security.

Finally the security staff collared the last remaining small group and again threatened arrest. The others walked off, but the security officer called me back.

"We know how you work," he said. "You're networking using mobile phones."

"Networking?"

"Yes, and if you come back, next time we won't be so lenient."

I told him I did not think these people really cared about being arrested. To them human life was more important than that. "That's their choice," he replied.

"Thank you so much for your patience," I said, and left quick. I felt like he was trying to hold me back and did not want to be around if the police really were on their way. I had already been in enough trouble that week.

On the Tube back to Central London everyone was somewhat subdued. You could see in their faces, they were trying to hold on to some kind of hope. But it was fading fast as time went on. One member of STAR pulled out a strange homemade instrument called a Mbira and began playing to ease the situation.

Then came a text message, from the journalist who was on the plane. Woman removed from plane it said. Then a second call came in confirming the deportation of Mariah had been halted.

Other people in the Tube carriage looked panicked as a huge roar of noise burst from the campaigners. People had tears in their eyes. Later information exposed that Mariah had created such a noise on the plane that the pilot refused to fly until she was removed. But what was different now from before was most people on that plane knew exactly why she was creating such a commotion. And most probably agreed with her.

For Mariah, this meant she would be returning to the detention centre. But this, on a scale of things, was infinitely a safer outcome than being returned to Uganda. And at least she would be with her sister Judith, the only stability she has had in her life.

This Article from Oscar Beard was published first on 19. Mar 2006 @ :: uk.indymedia.org