A Tough Reality - The Naguru Remand Home
By Megan Springer - Kampala, Uganda
Two weeks ago, the Uganda team began working on the Naguru Remand Home project - trying to put together the stories of 17 kids who have been held in remand while they await trial on their cases. Despite the fact that the Children Act in Uganda only permits a child to serve six months in remand, some of these kids had been at the Naguru Remand home for well over a year. The group, consisting of Pepperdine law students, American lawyers, Ugandan Lawyers, and Ugandan law students, divided up into teams, with each American law student being responsible for one or two individual cases. We went to the remand home in the afternoon of the first with the hopes of interviewing the kids. Upon arriving, I was honestly surprised at how nice the building was, all things being considered. There are different remand homes all around Uganda, and apparently Naguru is one of the nice ones. The facilities are by no means comfortable, but they get the job done in a way that seems humane.
We had a brief group introduction, then started the interviews. My group first interviewed a boy who could not have been over the age of 13, but claimed he was born in 1993. He also claimed he was 16 years old, and his indictment had him listed at 14. So we probed him more to find that he really had no idea what age he was or what his birthday was, but he imagined himself being born in 1993. We moved on. This child, like three of the others we interviewed, was charged with aggravated defilement – statutory rape. His charge was for having sex with a five year old girl. He, unlike the next three children, denied the charges.
Our second interviewee was an 18 year old with an attitude. He was smirking and had a bit of a conceited air about him. He too was charged with statutory rape, but he admitted to it. His defense being that the victim was his girlfriend and he was told she was 16. (In Uganda, defilement is a non-capital offense, kind of like a misdemeanor or minor felony in the United States. But aggravated defilement, forcible rape or consensual sex with someone under the age of 14, is a capital offense, like a serious felony.) In reality, the victim was only 12.
Those were the only two interviews we covered on the first day, and collectively they took over three hours. The story of the first child didn't make any sense and there was a fear that he felt obligated to answer our questions so he was trying to come up with things. The second boy's story was straight forward, and because that boy has been in the remand home for almost two years, he will likely be released immediately upon his case being heard. Since the maximum sentence for any crime committed by a minor is three years, and these kids can credit the time that they have spent in the remand home, many of them will walk free or serve a very short sentence after they go to trial. It is getting their case to trial that is the hard part. The justice system here moves slowly, and if you do not have someone pushing for your case to be heard, it won't be heard, at least not for a while. We are hoping to make things so easy for the lawyers and the court by preparing all the materials for these children's trials that it is easy to get them through the system once their case is moving.
After the interviews on Monday we called it a day. It was a very eye-opening and intense four hours of work, but nothing compared to what the next day would bring. That day started at nine in the morning at the remand home. We came to finish our remaining three interviews, then start working on the briefs. Our first interview of the day was another boy charged with aggravated defilement. He claimed that he loved the girl, but he was having sex with her and her best friend, and they all knew it. He further stated that he assumed she was 16 because of the way she looked, but the court declared her to be 14 years old, and a medical examinations claimed that she was 10. How a ten year old gets mistaken for 16 is beyond me.
Our second interview of the day was the one that really got to me. It was a girl, one of my individual cases. She was charged with and admitted to murdering a five year old girl by drowning her in a stream. The girl had insulted her and she lost her temper and held her underwater. This girl explained the entire story of how she killed her, what happened afterwards, and all that had led up to it with no sign of any emotion. I have never seen anyone talk about something so serious with so little emotion. However, as disturbing as it was to have this account told in such a cold manner, it is heartbreaking to understand why this girl is so withdrawn. Her family history includes just about every single person in her life beating her in some way. She is covered in scars and wounds from being beaten, and described the incidents of abuse with no hesitation. And now that she has been charged with murder, her entire family has disowned her and the charitable organizations that were providing her aid have withdrawn that support. So she has no one. Not a single person who would stand up for her, care for her, or take her in. She is a product of her environment, one of abuse and cruelty.
What breaks my heart about her situation is that this girl was the most polite and respectful child that we encountered the entire time. She also was one of the few that could speak and understand a little English, so we know she was bright. This girl has a good heart and the potential to learn, but her situation has failed to give her a single opportunity to let those things shine and develop. I was prepared to talk to kids that were wrongly accused and sitting in the remand home for years waiting for someone to help them. I was ready to see a remand home with such unlivable conditions that it broke me down. But I was not ready to see and talk to a child who did do wrong, but never had much of a chance to do anything else, and probably never will.
Our final interview was a boy charged with aggravated defilement. He had only been in the remand home for three days, and we were assigned his case last minute. His story was all over the place, but his general message was that he didn't do it. One thing I've learned about village life in Uganda from all these kids is that family grudges are common, and a way that they get solved is by accusing someone of a crime, and rape tends to be a go to offense. Also, the victim's family will commonly press charges then say that if the accused's family pays them some enormous (by their standards) sum of money, the charges will be dropped.
All in all, it's a lot to take in. It is a very tough emotional situation with every child, but I have been able to put that aside and focus on telling the child's story. That is what we are doing, we are telling their story. Putting it together cleanly, concisely, and professionally so it can be told to a public defender, the prosecutor, the court, and a social worker, all with the hopes that it will help get this child either released and back in school, or placed in a prison facility for the remainder of his or her sentence.
Now two weeks later, we have finished up most all the cases, with the exception of the few that we have not had the opportunity to see the police file for. But altogether, this experience was very eye-opening and rewarding thus far, despite how draining it has been. However, despite the difficulties, I feel so blessed to have taken part in this experience, and hopefully our small contribution of work will help at least one of these kids get back home sooner.