Kizza Besigye knew two things about the day of February 15th, the first was that he would campaign in the city center, his stronghold, and the other that his campaigns would close the next day so he needed to maximize his efforts.
If you’d told him, five hours on, he would be ducking beneath a sea of bullets, suffocated with poisonous gas, in a car being forcefully towed by a police truck, he’d probably believe you but not take you for your word.
But so his day went.
The morning was unsettling. I’d been pacing from office to office within the Serena basement, which was our newsroom, trying to tie the last dots of an election project.
In equal measure, many distractions were in the air. “Raymond pick me a copy of the docket at the printer”, Patricia, our producer would request. “Did you confirm that interview for today” Brian Mulondo, a morning show presenter and partner on the election project would also disrupt.
To escape the noise, I crammed into the News Manager’s office, plunked down two headsets in my ear and drifted away on my script. Occasionally though, I’d peep at my twitter account to see how the day was progressing online.
A few minutes onto 1pm, as the dash for the bulletin gripped the newsroom, I noticed, through the glass barricade of the office, a little gathering on one of the computers. Reporters, pausing the editing of their stories, had gathered at a desk to see how ‘it had gone down’ on Luwum street.
I’d later learn, the ‘going down’ implied an arrest of Besigye.
For a man who’d been arrested 48 times before this day, all in two years, this shouldn’t have been news. But it was. Because it was campaign season and he had his crowds.
“We still don’t know where he has been taken though” I eavesdropped the last part of a conversation that a reporter was debriefing the news manager.
Relaxed, still unbothered, I returned to writing my script. This time though, choosing to look at the timeline before continuing.
The pictures were gripping of attention. In one, Besigye, ducked, surrounded by three seemingly protective men, in another, a street with people lying on the ground and gas blurring the streaming traffic.
“This might be a big story” I muttered to myself.
Maurice, the news manager skimmed through the newsroom, calling my name thrice before my music would let me hear him.
“Can you be part of the story?’ he asked. I’d hesitantly stepped away from the news stories because of the project I was working on but equally, with almost everybody’s hands full, it would be selfish to maintain my stay away.
It was now less than ten minutes to the 1 O’clock bulletin and judging by events, the bulletin would have to be longer given the magnitude of battles that were happening in the city.
I scampered down the studio hallway with a bulletproof jacket in one hand and a helmet in the other. Two cameramen would join me as we rushed to Kiira Road police (A place we suspected he’d be taken) to do a live update. The newsroom liked the live updates.
My voice was struggling to peer through the hundreds that had gathered at Kiira Road police when we got there.
On the line, in my ears, Manmeet, an Asian producer at NTV, readied me for the live update.
“Joel is in studio, we are coming to you in 4 minutes” she said in heavily laced Indian accent.
4 minutes! Just 4 minutes! That’s all I had to have all my facts together. Facts of a story I had only started following 15 minutes before this moment. But journalism, specifically broadcast journalism, is as such, you think on your feet.
I briefly caught the first glimpse of Besigye as his head peered out of the black Ford pickup truck that had brought him to the station.
From the back seat he emerged, they’d crammed in with Kampala Woman MP, Nabillah Naggayi Ssempala and three other people I couldn’t readily identify.
I took down the notes on my Evernote application and kept refreshing as the clock chimed down the four minutes.
By this time, armored police men with knees barricaded in black shiny guards had taken to securing the entrance to the station. They each wore a pair of black sunglasses, carving out at their ears with little initials of ‘Raybans’.
Their heads cowered into blue helmets with leather coating and their veiny arms held seemingly new and shiny Ak-47 machine guns, the index finger never leaving the trigger.
Our crew had already set up. A small ‘quick-link’ machine had been powered. The machine would then be connected to the camera by a cable and signal transmitted through it to the studio.
Manmeet could ‘see me’. A term we regularly used to check if the signal was working
“Go away from here” a rude voice interfered with the signal test. It was one of the cops. He’d been instructed to not let us film from the entrance showing the car that had brought Besigye.
I obliged, only just so I could do the update now with the protesters that had gathered. The other part because we needed to make a quick news judgement on whether to start an update in the middle of a scuffle or tell the story.
I still kept an eye at the cop, his face a paint of gloom and threat. He kept gesturing us away as he tightened his thumb on the trigger. Four of his other colleagues were now peering from his back, seemingly headed for a ruthless encounter; they’d pull out black whips as they advanced.
I gestured to my cameraman to face his lens in their direction. Away from me. Away from the live update. I didn’t know what would happen next but whatever it was, I’d be safer having it on camera.
What would be one of my longest days in a riot had begun and I still had no clue about it….