’Matšei Moloi & Ntsebeng Motsoeli
ROMA — The National University of Lesotho (NUL) was on Friday shut down indefinitely after a three-day strike over allowances that left one student dead and more than a dozen injured.
What began as a peaceful protest at the Roma campus on Tuesday had by Friday degenerated into a violent fracas that left a female student dead, at least 14 others injured and some parts of the college wrecked.
The angry students accused the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) of delaying their food allowances.
Tempers started flaring after a group of students that went to the NMDS offices on Wednesday were told that their monies had been transferred into the college’s account.
NMDS director Letholetseng Ntsike had told the students that her department had already deposited a cheque for the NUL bursar’s office to distribute into the students’ bank accounts.
But when the students returned to college the bursar told them that the money was still being processed.
Eyewitnesses said some students attacked the bursar while he was trying to address them.
They hit him with a stone on the forehead.
Officials at St Josephs Hospital said he had a deep gush on the forehead which they sutured.
The students then dispersed but not before threatening to resume protesting if they did not get a positive response by Thursday midday.
Eyewitnesses told the Sunday Express that the protests resumed on Thursday afternoon but the students did not turn violent until they were attacked by the university’s security guards who beat them with truncheons.
Rebohile Seeiso was among the students that incurred the wrath of the security guards.
She said when the attack started she, together with her two friends, took cover in a ladies’ toilet at the campus but that did not stop the mostly male guards from coming for them.
“We had run to the toilets when the security guards started attacking protesting students,” Seeiso said.
“They beat us on the breasts and whipped us on the back.
“I cried all night. I could not sleep because of the pain.
“I was so angry at the men who beat us like we were criminals.”
“I thought they were going to set their dogs on us,” she added, showing wounds she allegedly sustained during the beating.
“They beat us with their lebetlela sticks.”
Another student said the guards “hunted” them down in their rooms and some of them tried to break doors.
University authorities then called the police. Another student said the students started fighting back at the guards with stones.
Several windows were broken in the commotion.
Student Representative Council (SRC) secretary-general Refiloe Phakoe said he was also beaten by the guards.
Phakoe said he was trying to stop the fight between the students and the security guards when he was attacked.
“The fight was getting stronger. Property was being destroyed when the two mobs were throwing stones at each other,” Phakoe said.
“I tried to calm down the security guards but some of them would not listen. One whipped me twice on my back. He said I was the one who had told the students to attack them.”
The police arrived a few hours later but instead of calming down the students they only fuelled the violence, said another student.
The police responded by shooting at the students with pellets — ammunition normally used in demonstrations instead of real bullets.
Eyewitnesses said as the police went on the attack the students started running way.
They said it was during this time that one of them collapsed.
Fellow students claim that she was shot by the police but officials at St Joseph’s Hospital where she was pronounced dead said they suspect that she could have been crushed in the stampede as the students tried to flee from the attacking police.
Still, by the time of going to print, no one could confirm the cause of the death.
The police refused to name her.
By Thursday midnight more than a dozen students had been treated at St Joseph’s Hospital, according to a nurse who added that most of them had wounds or pellets gorged in their bodies.
Police spokesperson Pheello Mphana confirmed that one student had died on Thursday when the police tried to break up the riot.
He however said he could not confirm the cause of death because a post-mortem had not yet been carried out.
“I cannot confirm the cause of death now,” he said.
Mphana said 14 students were injured during the riots and taken to St Joseph’s Hospital.
He added that four of the students were admitted at the hospital while the rest were treated as out-patients.
Mphana said one police officer was also injured during the fracas.
Mphana said the police had gone to the Roma campus because they were told that students were destroying school property.
“We regret the loss of life because it wass never our intention to kill,” Mphana said.
A reporter with a local weekly, the Informative, was caught in the crossfire.
He was shot on the right leg.
The protests continued through Thursday night and escalated on Friday morning as the students set NUL’s Netherlands Hall on fire before pelting more windows with stones.
When the Sunday Express news crew arrived on Friday morning fire fighters had managed to extinguish the flames.
The hall’s interior was extensively damaged.
The area around the main gate looked like a battle ground.
Windows to the guard rooms at the gate had been smashed.
Stones were strewn all over, indicating that they had been a major weapon in the fight.
For a moment it looked like the students and the police were sizing each other up.
A group of police officers stood a few metres from the main gate holding their truncheons and rifles as if waiting for the students to make a move.
The students stood on the other side of the gate, still singing and hurling insults at the police.
Occasionally a student would walk out of the main gate carrying a bag.
It was now official: the authorities had decided to close the school until further notice.
Some students said they wanted revenge.
They said they wanted the police officer they accused of killing their fellow student dead or jailed.
“He is a criminal. He killed a student. He should pay with his life,” said one student.
“The police should not have come here.
“We were not going to harm anyone.
“They are the ones who started this mess. This is not a war but a students’ demonstration.
“We have a right to hold demonstrations when things do not go right.
“If they had not come things could not have gone this far.
“Now one of us is dead. Nothing will ever bring her back.”
The students vowed not to leave until they had avenged the death of their colleague.
Some of the students were circulating a picture of the police officer they accused of killing the student.
In the afternoon the police fired teargas to disperse the students milling just outside the main gate.
NUL communications officer Nthati Moorosi said the university will remain closed until further notice.
“The school is closed until further notice,” Moorosi said.
She also confirmed that one student was killed during the strike.
However she did not know the cause of the death.
She said they were still awaiting a post-mortem report which would ascertain the cause of death.
“We are still to confirm how the student was killed,” she said.
Only international students remained at the campus by yesterday morning.
Yet student leaders said the battle was far from over.
SRC president Carston Thahanyane said they still wanted their allowances.
He said students staying off campus were being expelled from their rented residences because they owed rentals.
“We need our funds with immediate effect,” Thahanyane said.
“We are starving because we used our food allowances to pay rents.”