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.
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 Sire. At Arapai 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…[ ]