James Pirtle is a trial lawyer and owner of The Sentinel Law Group, PLLC, a Seattle law firm and he is an attorney on the ground for Legal Advocacy Worldwide (LAW), a non-profit devoted to financing direct legal advocacy on behalf of the oppressed abroad, including the state-sanctioned persecution of the LGBT community in Africa. This blog chronicles how his involvement in the defense of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former child soldier in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda, developed into a broad international human rights practice with crusading Ugandan attorney John Francis Onyango. This blog begins with their involvement in the Kwoyelo case and continues with updates and developments in the human rights cases. Read from the bottom up to see how it all unfolds.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Blog Post 20 – The Road to Jinja

I woke up early in preparation to meet with Gabriel Oosthuizen.  I was feeling poorly in my stomach.  I have determined that “goats” don’t agree with me and they are off the menu for the remainder of my time here.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the meeting.  Francis called and said he wouldn’t be able to join us.

I flagged down a booda outside of the hotel and told him where I needed to go.  He asked another booda about my destination and they appeared puzzled.  I had mapped the location and distance the night prior, but I didn’t feel like walking the two clicks in the heat with a menaced stomach.

The boodas seem to come to consensus and I hopped on.  Off we went and in short order I was hassling him as I was sure he was taking me in the opposite direction of where I needed to be.  Thankfully he ignored me as it turns out he knew exactly where he was going and god knows where I would have wound up if we had gone my way.

I met Gabriel and a fancy café in a part of town I have not previously been.  He spotted me before I him.  Gabriel was seated outside in a corner spot.  He appears to be a few years older than I but I have more gray hair.  He actually looks a lot like my brother.  I liked him immediately. Gabriel is currently Executive Director of International Criminal Law Services (ICLS).  Before joining ICLS, he served inter alia as legal adviser to judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and head of a legal unit in the UN’s Kosovo mission.   He has provided consultancy services on a range of issues, including international criminal law, human rights, security, development and international affairs.

We made introductions, I sat down, ordered some tea, and he looked at me quizzically and asked, “How the hell did you get involved in all of this?”  Indeed. 

What I thought would be a short conversation with him as he told me he probably had “conflicts” turned into three hours of the most beneficial and enlightening conversations I have had with another human being in recent memory.

Perhaps it is for the best, but he told me that our conversation had to be strictly off the record.  You see, Gabriel has been here for some time and knows more about the players in this dangerous game than anyone else.  He not only served as an advisor to set up the ICD, he also instructed both the state and (previously unknown to me) the defense on how to handle cases of this magnitude.  I guess I can simply say that after I left that meeting I felt for the first time that I knew exactly what I was doing and how best to proceed from here.  I have my confidence and strategy; only time will tell if that is enough to carry the day.

Meanwhile, back in Francis’s office, he and Annet were preparing my paperwork for the prison ministry so I can back into Luzira to meet with Kwoyelo.  Naturally, there are problems with the paperwork and it will not be processed immediately.  Annet later tells me it is the angry fat woman that is the problem (again).  

Francis and I were invited to speak to an NGO in Jinja (the Source) on Friday morning.  He suggested we bring Annet along and make a day of it.  Not much else to do while my paperwork was getting processed.  We left relatively early on Friday morning and once again I was captivated by what I saw outside of the window and beyond.  This time I brought my video camera so I can replay the scenes to anyone who is interested.

We stopped at the same roadside place with chickens and gizzards on sticks but this time I passed entirely.  Stupid goats.  I want to feel better.

Our audience in Jinja consisted primarily of American and British college students here in Africa trying to save the world.  Francis gave a wonky lecture and power point presentation on the law as applied to minors in Uganda.  It got more interesting to the students when he started talking about child soldiers.  I took over from there and led a discussion on Invisible Children and Kony 2012.  

Afterward, the administrator of the program came up to us to thank us.  But then she said that she is having a very difficult time understanding how it is that we are doing what we are doing.  Namely, how can we defend such a person as Kwoyelo?  Has he not murdered?  Has he not kidnapped?  Has he not helped destroy the lives of thousands of people?  How can we do this?

I have been living and breathing this stuff for long enough now that I get surprised when people don’t readily understand the overwhelming merit and importance of our defense.  Of course she has a point.  I wrestled with these questions when I was first invited to join this team.

I will not forget how Francis addressed her concern:  “Madam, please understand that our client is himself a victim.  He was a child when he was taken from his family.  This government was supposed to protect him.  This government failed to protect him.  This government failed to create conditions to prevent him from being abducted and forced into war.  Now that he is no longer fighting, this same government that failed to protect him now wants to punish him.  This government wants to make him a victim again.  We want to stop this cycle.  We want him to go home to his family where he belongs.”


After that bit of profundity, Francis tried to find some spot for lunch and we wound up lost.  I really don’t mind being lost around here because everything I see is new and interesting.  Particularly when we are off the main roads I get to see how people truly live.

Some time later Francis got flummoxed and said we would just go back to the restaurant from last time (fish heads).  I told him that was fine because it is right on the Nile and is an otherwise perfectly lovely spot.  We ordered some beer, spoke about the law and the case, and had some lunch.  I did have a modest appetite at this point and wound up with some fried fish which was quite good.  Perhaps the “goats” plague has passed.

During lunch a large thunderstorm blew over us.  It was beautiful and captivating.  It rained a lot.  A lot.  This matters later.

Francis asked if I wanted to stay over in Jinja.  I said I didn’t really care.  I’m already paying for my room in Kampala so if we go back I won’t be out any extra money.  He agrees.

I fell asleep on the way back to Kampala but I awoke when the car was wobbling in odd ways.  I rubbed my eyes and it became quickly clear to me that we were not on the highway anymore.  We were on a single lane road (road is a generous euphemism for this strip of something that happens not to have plants growing on it) driving through thick brush.  Concerned, I asked, “What the hell?”

“Ah!  You are awake.  We are going to look at a farm I want to buy.”  Okay.  So we drive and drive.  At some point in the middle of nowhere Francis drives down a hill and stops where there are a few small structures and some crops growing.  Here it is.  We get out to look around but the mud is thick and deep and we are all in our fancy clothes.  I look at the mud.  I look at the car.  I look at the hill.  “Francis, we may have a problem.”

We have a problem.  This car isn’t going anywhere.  The tires are bald and this mud is brutal.  When I try to push the car it just slides.  The tires have no grip at all.  Annet and I fashioned an escape route using mulch to help the tires get traction.  We were feeling quite smart, except that our plan actually worked and while Francis gunned the engine and the tires took hold Annet and I got showered by the red mud spray from the spinning tires.  Covered in the mud of Africa.  At least the car is out.

Francis is clean (and chuckling in the "you just tripped and fell on your face" kind of a way).  Annet and I are grumpy.  It’s a fairly quiet drive back to Kampala while Annet and I pick mud flecks off our faces and flick them out the window.  Back at the hotel, I marched myself through the lobby of gawkers, went straight to my room, grabbed a Nile Special and brought it into the shower with me.

My petition to see Kwoyelo is still stuck at the ministry.  Turns out the authorities decided to take a retreat on Friday so we won’t know if I can get into Luzira to see Kwoyelo until Monday morning.  Of course I fly out Monday night.  No pressure.

I have stayed up too late typing.  Today's paper just slid under my door.

The headline reads, "KONY FLEES TO DARFUR"