Helpless in Africa, a S'porean's tale

Helpless in Africa, a S'porean's tale
He went to Africa to do good, but things went bad.

SINGAPORE - A Singaporean went all the way to Uganda in Africa to do volunteer work, but fled back after police threatened to charge him and another Asian friend with terrorism and spying.

The 21-year-old, who wanted to be known only as Ren, was to spend a month working at a hospital.

But, slightly after two weeks into the trip in April, he was forced to spend four days on the run. His friend, meanwhile, was hauled up by the police and had to hire a lawyer and pay money before the case was closed.

The trip started out innocently enough, with Ren working at the biggest hospital in the region, in a town called Mbale.

His first experience on the night shift was a sobering one. There were about 30 victims from a crash waiting to be treated.

"There was a crash between a school bus and a trailer carrying bricks. Two kids died on the spot, and another four died on the way to the hospital," he told My Paper yesterday.

He would work the night shift from 6pm to 5am, and then turn up again four hours later for a six-hour shift. He would check up on patients, read charts and prepare medical equipment.

Then, one weekday morning, he took his first break from work for a hike in the mountains.

His friend called him from the hospital and said: "You need to pack up and leave town now."

The police had walked into the hospital, asking to speak to Ren and his friend. They examined his friend's phone, saw photographs of the hospital on it, and accused both of plotting to blow up the building.

"I thought: There's no better place to be right now than in the mountains," said Ren.

He arranged for his host, his only contact in the town, to help his friend at the police station. His friend was bailed out after a night in the lock-up.

Meanwhile, the police Googled Ren and found a few online newspaper articles he had written during an internship.

"They concluded both of us were journalists, and they added spying charges," he said.

The police threatened his friend with 24 years in jail and Ren's photo was apparently being distributed.

He fled to another house his host had arranged for him.

Ren then called an emergency contact he had in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

A taxi driver picked him up at dawn. "I told him I cannot be stopped at any roadblock because I will be arrested. He must have wondered what I was carrying in my luggage," said Ren.

From Kampala, he booked a flight home. He wore a cap and sunglasses. The car was stopped at four roadblocks on its way to the airport, with Ren's heart in his mouth.

Finally, he reached the airport and it was time to produce his passport.

"I was terrified. It was all or nothing. I either go through, or straight to a lock-up," he said.

The immigration official was playing with his phone, and paid no attention to him.

It was not till he was in the plane and out of Ugandan airspace that he felt himself relax.

Meanwhile, his friend and his lawyer wrestled with the police for a week. Money changed hands. Eventually, all charges against them were dropped.

But the power of the police left Ren stunned. "It just made me feel helpless, like I had lost all control. Even though I knew I was innocent, it didn't matter to the police who were accusing me," he said.

This September, he will start studying for his degree in political science.

The incident has made him wiser, but there is no stopping his adventurous spirit. He plans to return to Africa again, though not to Uganda.

His tip? "Always have a back-up plan."

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