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Teargas caused the fire at UNZA in which Vespers lost her life – Shonga informs Coroner

INVESTIGATIONS officer Superintendent Arthur Shonga has disclosed that the fire that gutted rooms at the University of Zambia resulting in the death of student Vespers Shimunzhila was caused by teargas canisters thrown through the windows by police officers. And Shonga says he has not identified the officers who fired the canisters into the rooms. Vespers died on October 5 last year after a riot broke out at the university over delayed payment of meal allowances.

Meanwhile, the coroner heard that Vespers and other members of October Room 25 were asleep and did not participate in the riot. Her cause of death was due to carbon monoxide inhalation. After availing three reports which included the forensic experts, fire brigade, a postmortem report and scenes of crime expert in pictorial form, Shonga gave details of what transpired as asked by coroner Sylvia Munyinya. He explained that the ballistic report covered the examinations that were conducted on the anti-riot projectiles and cartridges that were picked up from the university.

Shonga said this covered both the hand-held and those fired from anti-riot guns. He said the report was prepared by ballistic expert, a Mr Chibesa. As for the fire incident report from the Lusaka City Council Fire Brigade, Shonga explained that the report covers the cause of the fire in the three rooms that were gutted and it was authored by Robert Banda, a fire investigator from the fire brigade. He also availed the postmortem report which contained the cause of death authored by Dr Tadjaimurat Musakhanov.

He said the three documents have been in his custody. Asked by coroner Munyinya on what caused the fire in the rooms, Shonga said it was caused by teargas canisters. He said he depended on the report of the fire brigade and also evidence he got from witnesses in the cause of the fire. Shonga said in the rooms which were affected, there were teargas canisters that were identified. He said the canisters were picked from the rooms by some affected students and some members of staff from the UNZA security.

Shonga added that the canisters were issued out together and were not marked, adding that it was difficult for him to tell where exactly they were picked from because the scene was tampered with because by the time they went there, some students and UNZA staff were already there.

 

He said the projectiles have no special markings. Shonga said they did not keep records on who got a particular canister but that the box has serial numbers. Shonga said what happens is that because of the size of the projectile, they just issue and only count to see how many have been expended. He said the projectiles are not given to officers individually. Asked if he established where the fire started from, Shonga said it was difficult because they went to the scene about 10 days after the incident and this was on advice of UNZA chief security officer Bwalya Kalebaila.

He said they wanted to go there earlier but he was advised that the situation was volatile for them. Shonga said the fire brigade went there immediately after the fire. He said the teargas canisters were fired into the rooms through windows. Shonga said the canisters were fired by police officers. Asked by the coroner whether he identified officers who fired, he said he did not. He said officers went there following riotous activities by students. Shonga said officers were detailed by the then in-charge of the operations a Mr Kunda who was then deputy commanding officer for Lusaka Province. He said he did not get all the names of the officers on the ground at UNZA but he identified officers who were heading other officers from each station.

Shonga, however, said he asked the officers to submit reports and they did so. Asked where the reports were, Shonga said they were not on the file because they were submitted after the record was forwarded to the National Prosecutions Authority. He said the reports were on how they operated on the material night. Shonga said the reports show who was deployed where but as a station and not individually. He said within the UNZA premises, they were three groups deployed and notable among them was a group from Lusaka Division operations and two other groups. Shonga said the officers were using police vehicles and police officers from different stations came with their own vehicles. When cross examined by Laston Mwanabo, a lawyer for the family, Shonga said the task for his team was to establish the cause of the riot that led to the death of Vespers and also to ascertain the cause of her death and further establish the cause of the fire.

He said he was able to marry the cause of Vespers’ death to the happenings on the fateful day. Shonga said there was use of teargas canisters but on whether it was heavy as asked by counsel, he did not know as they only picked 14 expended canisters. He also told the coroner that air was filled with teargas on that day. Shonga added that to his knowledge, there was no firing of live ammunition. He said they were only given empty cartridges for hand held and anti-riot gun grenades by Kalebaila. Shonga said it was recorded in Kalebaila’s statement that on several occasions, he tried to restrain the police from entering the campus.

He said the regrouping of students happened outside the ‘ruins’. Responding to another lawyer Mulambo Haimbe, Shonga said from his findings, there was no regrouping inside October hostels rooms. He agreed that before the hand held grenades and anti-riot guns are fired, there had to be an instruction. Shonga said it was leaders of the three groups of officers that issued instructions that teargas be fired in the rooms. He said there was no arrest of students on that day.

Shonga said there were instructions on the teargas canisters that they are supposed to be used in open areas. He said officers were aware of how teargas was to be used. And late Vespers’s roommate Pauline Mbewe, 23, narrated how on the material day, she and her other roommates jumped from the window after police fired teargas in their rooms. Mbewe of Emmasale and a School of Natural Sciences second year student, said she was Vespers’s bedmate and that on October 4 last year, she was in the library when she heard noise coming from the hostels.

 

She said she left the library and headed to the rooms. She said as she was walking, she saw three police land cruiser vehicles each with not less than four officers. Mbewe said when she got to the room, her and her roommates slept. She said she heard noise and when she peeped, she saw a police officer pointing something like a gun to the rooms. Mbewe said few minutes later, there was teargas smoke in their room and they covered their noses with blankets. She said they heard a knock at their door but did not open because the smoke was bad. Mbewe said later, they heard someone screaming that there was fire, so she looked for the keys but could not immediately find them because the room was dark.

She narrated that her and her roommates woke up and their room was full of smoke. Mbewe said they decided to exit the room through the window and Everest Choongo was the first to jump from the third floor where their room was. She said after sometime, they found the keys and went to the second floor where she also managed to jump from the window. She said Everest was first to jump but her and others decided to go and jump from the second floor. Mbewe said after she jumped, she looked up to see if her friend Vespers would also jump through the window but she did not see her.

She said as she looked around, she saw Everest on the ground and looked like she sustained a broken leg. Mbewe said her and Kalaluka Mubita who was also a roommate started running towards Kalingalinga after her friend told her she had a relative there. She said they saw a police van and they quickly ran back to the hostels. Mbewe said after sometime, they returned to the room and found two laptops had been stolen. She said her room did not catch fire but only had teargas smell and smoke. Asked by coroner Munyinya about the last time she spoke to Vespers, she said the time they were looking around for the keys around, after, midnight. Mbewe added that she slept after she returned from the library but already found Vespers in bed. She said she talked to her and the last time she saw her was when they were looking for the keys in a dark room as there were no lights.

Mbewe said after exiting the room, she did not see Vespers again. She said at the point of exiting, all she could think of was herself. She said Vespers did not complain of any illness prior to her death. Mbewe said Vespers was active when they were looking for the keys. She said she was informed later that Vespers died and was asked her to go and pack her clothes.

 

And clarifying on a statement read in court, assistant superintendent Chikonde Mutono, 39 of Chelstone police camp and officer-in-charge at Chelstone Police Station confirmed giving the statement that was read in court. He narrated that on October 4, he received a call from Kalebaila, the UNZA chief security. Mutono said he was detailed to UNZA to quench the fire which the students made on Great East Road. Mutono’s evidence was more of the role he played outside the university of putting out fire. Public prosecutor Miselo read out the statement by another witness chief inspector Mathews Kumwenda, 45, of Kamwala South who was also deputy officer in charge at Chelstone police. And elaborating further on what was read out, he said he received a message on a radio message that there was a riot at UNZA and was asked to rush there to go and verify.

Kumwenda said he went to UNZA and found that the situation was not fine. He said they were outnumbered by the students but were later reinforced. Kumwenda said students were throwing stones and burning tyres outside the campus. He said students were forced back into their quarters and were left to clear the road and after sometime, there was sanity. Kumwenda said later he heard there was fire in some rooms. He told the coroner that he fired some live ammunition to scare the students. Kumwenda said a fire engine arrived to quench the fire but students did not allow the engine to enter and threw stones at it. When asked where exactly he was operating from, Kumwenda said he was detailed to go and verify the riot and he was operating from Great East Road.

He said he did not enter campus and left the place after midnight. Responding to Haimbe, he said the officers he saw entering campus were a crack squad from Lusaka Division and were the same officers in the green van. He said close to 10 officers were in the van and that they were armed but did not know the type of weapons they had. Kumwenda said he was one of those who fired live ammunition. He said he fired three live ammunition and commanded himself.

Kumwenda said at the time he reached UNZA premises, he did not have officers under his command at the scene. He said he was just instructed to go and verify. Kumwenda said the operation at UNZA was coordinated. He said Kunda was the one who instructed the crack squad to enter the premises. Kumwenda said he did not know the other senior police officers who arrived after Kunda at the scene.

Hearing continues on May 6 and 7.

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