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Slave markets are sprouting up across eastern Uganda, capitalizing on poverty and recent droughts.

When Christine Nambereke left Uganda for Oman last September, she hoped she was on her way to helping her husband and seven children fight crippling poverty. An agent had promised the 31-year-old a job as a housemaid with a monthly pay of 600,000 shillings ($168). But when she reached Muscat, she was sold as a slave. And when she returned to Uganda in early May, she was dead.

Nambereke, from Bumbo village in eastern Uganda, is among 16 Ugandans who’ve died in the Middle East over just the past year, according to a parliamentary panel report from April this year. These women — all of whom died unnatural deaths after complaining of abuse — are just the most extreme examples of a growing epidemic of an increasingly open, modern slave trade that starts in Uganda’s eastern region and culminates in closed rooms in Gulf nations.

Migrant workers from across Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia have for several years complained of abuse in the Middle East. But over the past year, eastern Uganda has emerged as the theater of a double-barreled racket. At fast-spreading weekly markets, some women are promised jobs in the Gulf only to be sold once they get there, while others — many of them girls between the ages of 10 and 18 — are directly and publicly “bought” as slaves in Uganda and then resold in the Middle East, according to Ugandan authorities, Interpol, independent experts, legislators, victims and their families.

WE WERE SOLD AS IF WE WERE DOMESTIC ANIMALS.

Stella Namazzi

The public sale of women started at Arapai, eastern Uganda’s second-largest market located 180 miles northeast of the capital Kampala, in January 2018, says Edina Nagudi, the local government’s officer in charge of the region’s markets.It began with the auction of around five girls on each day of the market, but the number rose to 20 within two months, she says. The practice quickly spread to other regional markets such as Chapi and SireAtArapai alone, up to 50 girls are now auctioned in a day, says Nagudi. Overall, more than 9,000 girls and young women are estimated to have been bought at these markets since last year — for as little as 50,000 shillings ($14), according to Betty Atim, a member of Parliament.

Complaints from a handful of these women, and a few others who, like Nambereke, thought they were traveling to the Middle East for jobs, have reached Interpol. The agency’s Uganda spokesperson, Vincent Sekate, confirms that these women invariably end up in modern-day slavery. But Interpol, he concedes, has been able to rescue only 12 Ugandan women over the past year. And for some, even death doesn’t bring closure. After 22-year-old Shivan Kihembo died in Oman in October — months after she had been sold there — her father, Patrick Mugume, was asked by his daughter’s “owners” for money if he wanted her body back.

“I sold my land … and sent it to her boss in Oman before the body was released,” he says.

Given the blood and toil that ties them, one might expect close relations between Uganda and Gulf nations. But Oman, Jordan and Kuwait don’t even have embassies in Kampala. Their embassies in neighboring Kenya did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment. True, migrant laborers from other African countries have suffered human rights violations — and not just in the Gulf but in Southeast Asia too — in recent years that have drawn comparisons with slavery. But what’s different with Uganda, experts say, is the openness with which women are being auctioned in markets alongside domestic animals and household goods.

Sisi Tukize claims that one of her kidneys was removed without her consent while working in Oman.

At the cremation ceremony for Nambereke, much of the anger of hundreds of mourners was directed at Ugandan authorities. Officially, Uganda has banned its citizens from seeking work in most Middle Eastern countries — barring Saudi Arabia and Jordan — because it doesn’t have any diplomatic agreements on workers’ rights with those nations, says Uganda’s minister of gender Janat Mukwaya.

That ban, though, rarely works as a deterrent when there’s a promise of significant economic gain being dangled before the downtrodden, experts say. Uganda has a per capita income of $604, so Nambereke was promised three times what the average citizen earns. It’s also no surprise that the markets where illegal traffickers find women they can dupe or buy are predominantly in eastern Uganda. It’s a part of the country that has seen far lower poverty reduction than other regions, according to the World Bank, with electricity available to only 6 percent of families, compared to 32 percent in the country’s central region. To get around the ban, traffickers take the women across the border into Kenya after fixing up their passports, and then fly them to the Middle East.

Because they’re traveling to countries they’re barred from legally working in, even those women who initially went thinking they were getting employed are scared to try and reach out to authorities, experts say. And their host countries — in a region not known for its defense of human rights of migrants — have little incentive to prioritize concerns for these slaves over those of nations that legally send workers there. And so the slavery mounts — as do the deaths. Like Nambereke, Kezia Nalwanga returned to Uganda from Oman dead in April, with medical reports indicating that she died by strangulation. Authorities are also recording cases of abuse from countries where Ugandans are legally allowed to work such as Jordan, Juliet Nakiyemba died at the age of 31 in October. A postmortem showed her kidneys had been removed prior to her death.  

Some, like Stella Namazzi, who escaped from her masters in Jordan, return with tales of horror. “We were lined up in a big room,” she recalls. “Those who wanted to buy us came and pointed out who they wanted to buy. We were sold as if we were domestic animals.” For the traffickers, there’s big money involved: The women bought for $14 are sold for as much as $10,000 in the Middle East, authorities say.

When Zubedah Nakitende complained to her Jordanian employers that her hands were aching from work, her boss gave her what she thought was water to wash her hands. It turned out to be an acid that ate up her fingers. Unable to work anymore, she was sent back to Uganda — where she had to have her fingers amputated. “We should support such girls when they come back so that they go back to normal life,” says Sophia Namutebi, a respected philanthropist and traditional healer who helped Nakitende. “We should also support families of those who die while there.’’

But what about prevention and law enforcement? Uganda police spokesman Fred Enanga says they plan to raid the eastern Uganda markets where girls are being sold and arrest both the sellers and the buyers. John Mugisha, the probation officer in Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, says they’ve sent an investigation team to the country’s east to probe the slave trade. The ministry, Mugisha adds, has also requested a budget of 34 billion shillings (nearly $100,000) to help tackle the growing crisis and rehabilitate the children bought in the markets. 

Zubeda Nakitende fingers were amputated after her boss put chemicals in water she was using to wash clothes.

Meanwhile, the government is passing the buck around and hasn’t been able to stop the practice. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Henry Oryem Okello says the ministry of labor needs to act to arrest traffickers. Mugisha says the ministry of labor has asked local governments to step in with legal remedies. And the country’s labor commissioner, Lawrence Egulu, concedes that Uganda’s law against human trafficking is routinely violated but has no clear answer as to why the government hasn’t been able to put a stop to it.

Still, the open nature of the slave trade markets is leading to spiraling pressure on the government to act. “That is unacceptable and should stop,” Atim said in Parliament earlier this month. Herbert Ariko, the MP of the eastern Uganda region where most of these slave markets are located, says he’s drafting a law aimed at enhancing the punishment for human traffickers — currently 15 years in prison. Nonprofits such as the Uganda Association of External Recruitment Agencies are demanding that the government enter into worker-safety agreements with all Middle Eastern countries. The archbishop of the Anglican Church in Uganda, Stanley Ntagali, is also critical of the government’s inaction. “The government should ensure that the rights of children are respected and the act of selling them in markets is brought to an end,” he says.

Until that happens, more women are likely to return to Uganda as corpses, defrauded and enslaved in a foreign land.

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