Ugandan hunger striker speaks out against UK immigration system

After three month’s incarceration in the United Kingdom immigration system, the spokeswoman for the Ugandan hunger strikers talks to Jason N. Parkinson about imprisonment in Uganda and the UK.

Harriet Anyangokolo, 26, from Amuru in Northern Uganda fled to the UK in 2004.

She talks with a soft, weak voice, after more than four weeks without solid food.

In the final days of her hunger strike blood started seeping from the lining of her mouth. Still, she battles on, determined to tell me her story.

“I was persecuted,” states Harriet. “I was accused of supporting the Lords Resistance Army (LRA).”

Harriet was arrested by the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) and taken to prison, a “safe house” in Gulu. There she was beaten, tortured and raped for two weeks.

“Four soldiers beat me, kicking, punching,” recalls Harriet. “They beat me so bad they left me there on the floor. They thought I was dead.”

Harriet crawled out of the safe house undetected. She was found local people who helped her, despite risking the same punishment. They took her to Opuru.

She hid at a friend’s house and was reunited with her two children, a boy aged seven and a girl of three.

The reunion did not last long. Aware of her escape, that night the soldiers came.

“I thought they would kill me,” she says.

Harriet leapt from the rear window of the house and ran into the bush. There she hid for the next hour, watching what the soldiers would do next. Her two children were still in the house.

To her horror the soldiers searched the house, abducted her children and burned the home to the ground, a lesson for any whom dare oppose President Museveni.

Frantic with fear and trauma, Harriet ran into the night. She says she does not remember what happened or where she ran, but she was picked up by some people in a truck and driven for an hour where she was taken to a church to meet an Italian priest.

The priest helped her flee. He bought two plane tickets and escorted her out of Uganda. The next thing Harriet remembers, she was in the arrival terminal of Heathrow International Airport.

The priest left her, saying she should wait and he would return soon. He never came back.

Harriet was alone in a foreign country and barely understood the language. There was no one there no one to help her.

“People were asking me, am I waiting for someone,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know anybody.”

Harriet’s first night in the UK she described as “cold and wet”. She slept rough outside the airport. In the morning she returned and declared herself to airport authorities.

At first things seemed to go well. Harriet was contacted by the Refugee Council (RC), who appointed her a solicitor and arranged her first meeting with the UK Home Office (HO).

RC also arranged a home for her and benefits so she had money to for food and basic essentials.

But after several months the benefits stopped without any warning.

“I became homeless really,” says Harriet. “The Refugee Council gave me food, bedding, and helped with accommodation and my transport costs to get to my refugee appointments. But I had nothing.”

In December 2004 a friend arranged a job for Harriet under a different name. Harriet worked there for five months. This too was short-lived.

In May 2005 a squad of police officers arrived with several immigration officials. They took Harriet with a group of other foreign workers into an office. Everyone was questioned. But only when they came to Harriet did one of the immigration officers reveal a portable fingerprint machine.

“They made me put my finger in the machine,” recalls Harriet. “I was the only one they did this to. One police officer complained, he said it was racist to pick only on me. The immigration people ignored him. They scanned my finger and said I Harriet Anyangokolo.”

Harriet was taken to Colnbrook detention centre near Heathrow Airport. Her room was small, dark and cold. She was refused access to a toilet. A camera in the wall watched her every move and could see her even when she took a bath.

She tried to cover the camera lens with tape, so she could have some privacy when bathing, but the guards made her remove it. Every time she did have a bath the water leaked onto the floor of her room, increasing her exposure to the damp and cold.

“In there I cried for days,” says Harriet, “I was very very depressed. No one talked to me.

“We were only allowed outside our rooms for 20 minutes a day and we were not allowed to talk to any of the other detainees.”

On June 27 Harriet was not given any food all day. At 8pm a nurse came to give her medication. As well as post traumatic stress disorder Harriet also suffered from gastric ulcers. She knew if she took the medicine on an empty stomach she would be in incredible pain, she could even die.

The nurse ignored Harriet’s concerns and forced her to take the medicine.

“If I die you will pay the price,” Harriet told the nurse.

As night passed Harriet grew sick in her stomach, the pain increasing till she could no longer sleep. She complained but was ignored. She pushed the panic button in her cell. Still no one came.

It was 8am the next morning when she saw another person. She was curled up on her bed in agony when a guard came in with her breakfast.

“Even criminals are not treated like this,” states Harriet, “and I am not a criminal.”

She tried to complain but was ignored and refused a complaint form. She tried other officers at Colnbrook but all that did was have her telephone access denied.

That same day Harriet was removed from Colnbrook and sent to Yarl’s Wood removal centre in preparation for her deportation.

The HO had made a decision on Harriet’s asylum claim. They rejected it, stating it “was not credible”.

Harriet demanded a medical examination to prove her story, but it was refused.

Her first deportation was cancelled. The second on July 16 was not.

Private immigration escorts took her to Gatwick Airport.

“I told them I am not going anywhere,” recounts Harriet defiantly. “I would rather die than go back to face more torture in Uganda.

“In Gatwick there was a long queue of people. They were lined up with their belongings in black bin bags, like slaves. One man stripped naked and refused to board his plane. The guards grabbed him by the neck, dragged him on the floor. They handcuffed him and dragged him into a room.

“You cannot believe the stress and depression I felt in that airport, knowing they were sending me back to that torture.”

Harriet refused to board the plane, defying the increasingly aggressive escorts. She was sent back to the detention centre.

A week later she started her hunger strike. Nine other Ugandan detainees in the Dove unit at Yarl’s Wood joined her in solidarity.

Her health deteriorated rapidly and she was given a hospital appointment. Staff at the detention centre, which is run by Global Solutions Limited (GSL), got the hospital mixed up. She missed the appointment and it was never rescheduled.

On August 13 Harriet went to make a phone call. She was expecting a referral from the doctor stating she was medically unfit for deportation. She was also waiting on a call from her solicitor to say a fax of the referral was sent to Yarl’s Wood managers.

That morning Harriet went live on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour to talk about her deportation, the crisis in Uganda and her experiences in the UK immigration system.

In the shop Harriet discovered her 71 pence-a-day account was closed. She was unable to make any calls: “Maybe you’re going home,” the staff told her.

Harriet was taken to a manager’s office. The door was locked behind her. Inside were five women, one GSL manager, two officials from HO and two private immigration escorts.

Harriet was to be transferred to Colnbrook immediately. She explained her deportation had been stopped. She even had her deportation referral number. The officers said the fax never appeared and ignored the referral number.

Harriet was escorted to the “Kingfisher” unit, Yarl’s Wood solitary confinement ward. There she waited to be deported. At the last minute a phone call came from HO stating her deportation was cancelled again. Harriet was moved back to her room.

The following day guards moved in on fellow Ugandan Charity Mutebwa, 26, a close friend of Harriet who was also considered one of the hunger strike ringleaders. She was also known to be in contact with the UK press.

Charity barricaded herself in a friend’s room. The Ugandan hunger strikers formed a human shield around the doorway and refused the guards access.

“Why move her now?” they protested. “She is not deported till Tuesday. Leave her with us.”

After a tense stand-off spanning several hours the guards retreated.

Harriet returned to her room to find the door broken. She asked a guard what happened. He said he had no idea and laughed at her.

“It didn’t matter,” Harriet says, “I had no privacy. The guards came into my room whenever they wanted.”

On July 27 Harriet just finished taking a bath. She was only wearing her underwear. An officer walked into her room without knocking.

“I said, why don’t you take my life,” recounts Harriet, “I came here seeking asylum and I am tortured like this.”

After the guard left Harriet took one of the blades from her disposable razor and slashed her wrists. Her roommate returned and raised the alarm.

“When the guards came running,” Harriet says, “I told them, I want to die, I’m tired of everything.”

From that day on Harriet was on suicide watch. She was monitored every 15 minutes and most of her belongings were removed.

A week later it happened again. This time the guard walked in on Harriet while she was naked. The guard told her not to tell anyone.

“All the time I was on suicide watch they never knocked on the door,” claims Harriet.

On Monday morning, August 15, 7am, Harriet woke to guards in her room. They said she would be moved to solitary confinement because she was “non-compliant and obstructive to staff”.

Harriet claims this was because of the BBC interview and her role in the previous day’s obstruction of Charity’s deportation.

“There was a battalion of guards in the hall,” she says, “since we started the hunger strike security had increased. But this was the most I had ever seen.

“There was a guard at every door, blocking the windows so no one could see out. Everyone was locked in their rooms. I heard screaming, I thought it must be Charity. They were deporting her.”

Harriet was put in the “Kingfisher” solitary unit, but the door was not locked. The room was cold and damp, with no mattress or bedding.
She went to Charity’s room in isolation and they talked for a while. A guard halted the conversation and put Harriet back in her room, but not before she saw Charity’s wrists and ankles were visibly injured from being restrained.

At 3.30pm Charity was removed from the Kingfisher unit and taken to Colnbrook detention centre.

For three days Harriet lay in her room in solitary confinement without water. Her strength drained and illness encroached. Her mouth started bleeding. She was refused medication because of her attempted suicide.

Medics were called in. They measured her blood pressure. It registered 83 over 71, dangerously low.

She was removed from solitary on August 18 and taken back to her room on the Dove wing.

“I could barely walk,” states Harriet, “I used the walls to support myself.”

She lay in her room for four more days.

On 22 August a guard came to her room: “Harriet, you’ve been released,” he said.

“I started to cry,” recalls Harriet.

She was taken to the exit of Yarl’s Wood removal centre and given a one-way travel card back to London.

Harriet protested, she had no strength and could not walk, how was she supposed to get back to London on her own?

“You’re not our responsibility anymore,” replied GSL officials.

Harriet was picked up in a friend’s car and taken to Bedford hospital. She was immediately put on a drip and given vital medication.

By 9pm Harriet was back in London. She is currently staying temporarily at a friend’s house.

“I am going to carry on campaigning for all other women in the detention centres and at home, in Uganda,” says Harriet after her three-month detention. “There are women being raped, thousands of children are in the streets. This must stop after 19 years.

"We need peace. We are all children of God.”