From the onset, they were only muffled voices as victims of persecution feared to speak out. Nonetheless, word always seeped from deep within the hills of Kassanda district, of horrific tales of torture at the hands of what has now become hostile security agents, notably among them, officers of the police minerals protection unit (PMPU).
While appearing at a press event organized by the Africa Centre for Energy & Mineral Policy on 23rd June 2020, a couple of victims testified on camera how they had sustained grievous injuries at the hands of the officers. One had a huge scar running down the side of his head and four others had scars on different body parts.
"People are being caned - old people - in front of their children," Emma Kibirige, the secretary of the Mubende United Miners Assembly, said.
Another said: "An army man hit me with a stick on the head and left me bleeding, he just walked on caning other people."
Following the 4th August 2017 eviction of artisanal and small scale gold miners from Kitumbi sub-country in then Mubende district, small pockets of miners sought refuge within the surrounding villages as most had lost entire livelihoods and had nothing to return to. Many swore they had never known any other income generating activity besides mining and stayed behind to try their luck even after the mines were sealed off.
The PMPU, whose mandate and irregular constitution has been questioned by Members of Parliament, was put in charge to secure the area. However, it was not long before stories of armed men engaged in illegal mining under the cover of darkness started circulating in the media prompting an investigative story by television broadcaster, NTV.
Illegal mining on its own is every bit dangerous as it comes with a cocktail of problems including rampant accidents that are not reported for fear of reprisal, ruthless and cheating middlemen, and inhumane working conditions. When you factor in armed people then it completes a recipe for disaster, which is the current situation in Kassanda.
Those who have braved the hard times to make ends meet at all costs have cited torture, extortion and untold suffering at the hands of the security personnel there.
"We are required to pay as much as two million shillings daily to access the mines and work even when you are not sure you will get anything," a miner who chose to stay in the area said of the harsh conditions.
Unfamiliar faces and vehicular movements around the mines are treated with suspicion owing to the illegal operations there and will usually catch the attention of security personnel scattered all over. An attempt by a team from ActionAid on a working field visit to the area in 2018 drew fury from officers manning the quarter guard that gave express orders to vacate immediately.
Local government authorities have real hard time accessing the area that was once a generous source of much needed local revenue from businesses in the gold production and supply chain.
"We used to collect at least two hundred thousand shillings daily from markets because these miners used to spend money, that is no more," Mubende natural resources officer, Anthony Kinene said.
Reminiscent of the Mubende evictions, another group of over two thousand miners have recently fallen victim of complex wrangles in Kisita mines where warring parties are wrangling over a gold mine.
The ASMs, working for one of the business partners in the licensed area were stopped from working by the minerals protection police and chased out of the mines as an ownership dispute rages on. There have also been tales of harassment and torture by the PMPU.
There seem not to be an end in sight to the intolerance and harassment of ASMs by big players in the mining sub-sector; mistreatment and persecution by security personnel; and exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous businessmen with powerful political and security connections.
The leadership representing the evicted miners of Mubende are still counting huge losses - estimated in billions - they incurred in cash and property, including expensive machinery at the hands of ruthless security forces way back in 2017. Efforts to receive any compensation from government have never yielded fruit.
Sarah Opendi, state minister for minerals development, recently revealed how she has received death threats over the wrangles at Kisita, citing mafias bent on benefiting from the chaos in the sub-sector.
The development sets a rather absurd precedent as government is in the process of formalizing the ASM sub-sector. Speaking at a press event condemning the anarchy, Don Binyina, the executive director of ACEMP, said the country's mining sub-sector continues to under-perform despite having immense potential to greatly contribute to the national resource basket.
Francis Mwijukye, Member of Parliament for Buhweju County and also member on the Natural Resources Committee of parliament questioned the irregular constitution of the PMPU and called on the Internal Affairs minister to address the same.