ZANZIBAR — Mohamed had just finished a beer at one of the cluster of bars popular with gay men, just beyond touristy Stone Town.
It was around midnight on a Friday in December last year, and he noticed a police officer he knew — Zanzibar is like a small town; most gay men know the local police, and the officers know them. Mohamed waved hello, but the officer ignored him. A minute or two later, another officer approached Mohamed, accused him of being a prostitute, and told him he was under arrest. Mohamed sniffed and handed the officer, whom he’d never seen before, his wallet. “Look in it, and see if it is the wallet of a person who sells himself,” he remembered saying.
At a bar across the road, Mudathir was celebrating his 19th birthday with about a dozen friends. Men were swaying their hips and twirling their arms to live taarab, a soulful orchestra-backed Swahili music, when a group of police officers approached them. The officers were wearing street clothes and, unexpectedly, spoke with mainland accents. “There were a lot of men there [in the club] apart from us, but the police were being shown who to arrest: that one, this one, just like that,” said Khamis, one of the birthday guests. Mudathir, Khamis, and two of their friends were accused of “laziness and loitering” and escorted to a squad car.
By the end of that night, gay men had been arrested all over the island. They spent the weekend in jail, at two different police stations. In his cell, Abdallah, one of Mudathir’s birthday guests, thought that something was off. He had always known he could be arrested for being gay, but expected he would have to pay a bribe and that would be that. But as the hours ticked by, none of the officers made the requisite gesture. Abdallah wondered whether something bigger, something scarier, was happening.
On Monday, they were taken to Zanzibar’s Mnazi Mmoja public hospital — where a doctor told them to crouch on top of a narrow examination bed and raise their buttocks — and forced to go through anal exams. Khamis said the exam lasted for about three minutes, and it felt like he had “gone somewhere and gotten raped.”
The doctor performed the exam, and a police officer supervised. “They just look at you,” Khamis said, indicating with his hands that the doctor had placed his palms on each of his buttocks and spread them. He said he didn’t protest because, with the officer there, he figured raising his voice was futile. “You just follow the way a flag follows the wind. Whatever they told us to do, we did.”