9 December 2012

Uganda: Chloroform Usage in Crime On the High

With stories flying all over the place about people being sedated with chloroform and robbed or raped, I went to downtown Kampala to find out where the thugs get this deadly chemical.

I could feel my heart thumping in my throat as I walked. What if I was put to task to explain why I wanted chloroform? What if they asked for my identification? What if I bought the chloroform and I was caught with it on the way?

But much to my shock, I walked into a chemicals shop at the Energy Centre near the Old Taxi park in Kampala and bought half a litre of liquid chloroform without a hassle.

I had never seen chloroform before, so as I waited, I wondered how it looked like. The attendant brought me a half-litre white plastic bottle labelled chloroform. The bottle was completely sealed with a touch, transparent polythene sheet, implying it contained a dangerous substance.

A chill ran through my spine as I received the bottle whose content was capable of facilitating evil.

This is the liquid criminals pour into people's houses so that it evaporates and the vapour puts the occupants into a deep sleep. The thugs then break into the house to rob or rape the occupants.

The gentleman asked me to pay sh15,000 and gave me his business card in case I wanted any more chemicals or laboratory equipment.

As I left, he casually inquired: "You must be a teacher or scientist." I replied: Teacher". He did not ask why a teacher was buying chloroform when schools had closed for holidays.

My next destination was a pharmacy on Luwum Street. I found a young woman, probably in her 20s.

Her face lit up when I mentioned that she looked familiar. I told her I had a problem: I wanted to make someone sleep, so that I could recover some crucial documents he had stolen from me. She recommended some sleeping pills, which I declined. "I have heard of something called chloroform...", I told her.

She did not seem surprised and she cut me short. "Yeah, it works," she said. "It is out of stock, but I can call someone to get it for you at sh25, 000 a bottle."

She told me to return after 10 minutes, but I did not. All I wanted was to establish how easy and cheap it was to get chloroform.

An anesthetist at Mulago Hospital, who prefers anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, estimates that 10ml of chloroform can make someone sleep either through inhalation or in a drink. And it can be fatal.

This means that the half-litre bottle could have brought down 50 people. The effects depend on how strong the person is, how much chloroform they have taken in and for how long.

According to the US agency for toxic substances and disease registry, 100ml of chloroform can kill. But the report says some people have died from drinking doses as small as 5ml, while others have survived after drinking much larger amounts.

However, inhalation is not likely to kill, especially if the room is well ventilated. The more likely effects of inhaling chloroform are dizziness, nausea, headache and possible drunken-like behaviour.

1 Chlorofom can easily be bought on the open market like any other item. 2 Robbers and rapists then spray the chloroform through windows and ventilators. 3 The victim is sedated. They are are then able to break into the house, rob and worse still, rape her.

Chloroform, rape and sometimes suicide

Maureen Ndagire, a 24-year-old journalist, committed suicide on November 19, about two months after she was sedated with chloroform and raped by four men.

Ndagire was living alone in Kiwanga, Namanve. Immediately after the incident, she abandoned the house and went to live with her mother in Bweyogerere.

"She shifted to her mother's place because she was feeling shamed in the community she was staying in," says Peter Nkulenge, the Kiira division Police boss.

As word continued to spread about the rape, Ndagire could not withstand the stigma. Her situation worsened when her fiancé reportedly left her.

On the fateful Monday, Ndagire's mother found her body dangling on a rope in the sitting room as she returned from work. She made an alarm which attracted neighbours, who called the Police and the body was taken to Mulago.

Rev. Peter Matovu, a psychologist and head of Munange Counselling Centre at Nkumba University, notes that many suicide cases recorded are out of frustrations by rape victims.

"Walking around knowing a group of men forced you to have sex is sickening," he says. Fred Kifubangabo, an official with Hope After Rape, notes that gang raping has become too common.

"As I speak, there is a lady from Nansana who reported to us after passing through the ordeal," he says. "The girls at university and the working are raped by their own friends whom they trust and invite to their rooms or hostels," he adds.

At Hope after Rape, the organisation gives free counselling and psychosocial support to women who have been raped.

Kifubangano advises women to seek medical attention as soon as possible, so that any infections are detected and treated on time.

"Thereafter, you can start the legal process. The challenge is that with rape, it becomes difficult to track rapists, but you report as you also seek counselling services," says Kifubangano.

The Police say due to the fear of embarrassment, many victims report only robbery even when they have been raped.

While there are no particular statistics on chloroform rape cases, deputy Police spokesperson for Kampala metropolitan, Ibin Ssenkumbi, says sometimes the rape is so severe that the victim is found dead in her room.

"We always realize that a woman was raped after doing a post-mortem on the body. This is mainly on girls who sleep alone in hostels and rented houses," adds Ssenkumbi.

There are indications that some rape cases occur when one's house is broken into. According to the crime report, over 1,799 house breakings were reported in 2011 in mainly the urban suburbs of Kampala and Jinja districts.

The report is silent on how many of these breakings were into women's houses.

The Police note that there has been increased use of chloroform. Some criminals spray it through ventilators while others lace women's drinks with the chemical.

The Police say it is aware that chloroform is sold on the open market in pharmacies and clinics, giving an opportunity to the wrongdoers to access it.

"As Police, we have no mandate regarding the custody and trading of such chemicals. They are sold in pharmacies, clinics and laboratories. But other people buy them for personal use. So we still have a challenge on such drugs as Police," Ssenkumbi notes.

He adds: "The culprits always use chloroform to weaken their victims before raping them or breaking into their houses."

He notes that on many occasions, the victims keep silent to avoid embarrassment among their peers. Others keep quiet to protect their relationships. "Those who come out to speak will always be stigmatized.

Sometimes they keep silent for security purposes since it is hard to tell who did it to them. Others are rejected by their lovers and relatives," he says.

The Police want the Government to come up with strong policies and regulations on the dealers and custody of chloroform on the market.

"There is need for proper regulations on all those who sell such sensitive drugs. Otherwise the wrong characters will continue using them to commit crimes," says Ssenkumbi.

However, Frederick Ssekyana, the spokesperson of National Drug Authority, says only licensed pharmacies and qualified medical professionals are allowed to trade in chloroform.

He warns that those dealing in it will be dealt with severely.

"Those are the people expected to be selling such a drug. We do not expect them to sell it to every Tom and Jerry. Those who do it are unprofessional. It is supposed to work in hospital theatres. What would a common person use chloroform for?" he asks.

What's your say?

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