I remember Bery Glaser as a corpulent and friendly old man. With grey hair, bright eyes and a smile, he was born in Belgium and holder of a German passport. He had a protuberance on his face, revealing some sort of sickness, which made me feel sympathetic towards him. Bery said he was a retired health professional and seemed confident and knowledgable. He spoke with both pride and condescension about his work in Uganda protecting young girls from sexual abuse and disease.
At first, I thought Bery was the utter personification of white saviour syndrome. Little did I know, when I sat down with him for tea and biscuits, that he was a sexual offender.
My Trip to Kalangala, Ssese Islands
In 2018, while working in Uganda, I needed a break from chaotic Kampala. I decided to go to the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria for a stress-free weekend. The lodge I stayed at arranged a local guide to show me around. He was a police officer but drove tourists around, in his free time, to make extra cash. Because of his position and network, he told me, everyone in the island knew him well and it was easier to reach hidden spots.
After a day visiting amazing beaches and tropical forests, we stopped for tea at Bery’s Place & Ssese Humanitarian Services. It was a gorgeous place on a hill with views over Lake Victoria. A muzungu (white or foreign person) – Mr Bery Glaser – had founded the place in 2006 and it served as a shelter for young girls who were survivors of sexual abuse. Mr Glaser and his wife housed the girls, provided them with food, paid their school fees and took care of their health.
Bery welcomed me and saluted my guide enthusiastically. He then invited me in. I saw a number of girls aged between 5 and 15 years old around the house and the patio. Some were doing house chores or playing but mostly, they were being curious about my presence. Bery and I sat on the verandah for tea and biscuits that were served to us by a very young girl. Then, he told me his story and the story of the girls he sheltered at Bery’s Place & Ssese Humanitarian Services.
The Girls at Bery’s Place
Bery was brutally graphic in describing the accounts of sexual abuse “his” girls had endured before arriving to the shelter. I felt my arm hair raising almost in pain as he explicitly described rape scenes and the damage girls suffered in their genital area. It made me tremendously uncomfortable. I asked him to tone down his words. He argued that precise detail was important to fully understand to severity of the issue. He also emphasised on the prevalence of AIDS in the island and how unprotected these girls were. When I asked about the girls’ parents, he replied that they didn’t care about them.
Thinking back, there was something disturbingly odd about the whole situation. I remember my goosebumps and how uneasy I felt. I guess I unintentionally refused to think poorly of this old, sick man.
He showed me the facilities in and around the house – the shared living room and the girls’ bedrooms arranged in bunkbeds. Bery introduced me to some of the girls, with whom I talked briefly. They were shy. But, from my experience, many are when talking to muzungus. After this, I made a small donation and said goodbye.
After I left, I remember feeling very distressed by the stories I had heard. I also remember appreciating that someone was caring for those girls. I hadn’t understood why the guide had taken me there, but assumed he would get a share from the donation. For a split-second, however, a horrendous thought crossed my mind and I immediately felt tremendously guilty. I thought about that visit for days with a bittersweet feeling. It looked like a pleasant place, but something was off.
German National Accused of Sexual Abuse
Fast forward 6 months and I read in the newspaper about a foreign sexual offender in Kalangala. My heart froze. Before even reading his name, I knew it was him. Mr. Bery Glaser was accused of sexual abuse and child trafficking. I called one of my contacts in Uganda, who confirmed the news. A number of local organisations and a very few journalists had been following Bery’s case for years. Locals on the island knew about the shelter and what was happening to those girls. The police officer who worked as a tourist guide knew. Politicians knew. Everyone knew.
The accusations started in 2013 when a few girls came forward. They reported sexual touching under the guise of medical vaginal examinations using fingers and other objects. Bery coerced the girls into sleeping with him in exchange for housing, food and school fees. Mr. Glaser was arrested then but, to the outrage of social workers and the journalists following the case, he was acquitted by the court. Bery’s Place was again open for business.
Arrested 6 Years Later
Long story short, after years of reports and denunciations from several victims and witnesses, the old man I had tea and biscuits with was arrested in February 2019. He was charged with “19 counts of human trafficking, seven counts of aggravated defilement, one count of indecent assault and one count of operating an unauthorized children’s home.”
According to the local newspaper New Vision, police found sex tapes, sex tools and erotic material in the bedrooms of the shelter. In addition, a spokesperson for Uganda Police told CNN that the girls had contraceptive implants inserted. A survivor testified that the girls had to sleep with Bery on a rota basis. This included sexual massages to ‘help cure his cancer’ and other types of abuse that he told them were “normal in his culture”.
Mr Glaser used his power and network in the island to bribe police and threaten whoever spoke out. I remembered my guide/police officer. A year after his detention, Bery’s trial has been postponed 8 times as requested by his legal team. He denies all allegations.
Dangerous Power Dynamics
Ever since finding out about the accusations against Glaser, I’ve been following the case closely. I can’t help but remember every single detail of my visit back in 2018 – our conversation about sexual abuse and how uncomfortable he made me feel. Why didn’t I realise? How could I have missed the red flags? Did I purposely ignore my gut feelings because he was an old white man? Did I also succumb to white privilege?
It is dangerously easy for white men to sexually abuse girls in the Global South. And to do so with complete immunity.
Bery Glaser had been running a children’s home illegally without a registration certificate. But white people’s good will is always assumed. Could a local man or woman have done that? Absolutely not. But Bery did it for over 10 years. He used his position of power and taken-for-granted morality to coerce and abuse dozens of vulnerable Ugandan girls, under the supervision of locals and officials.
We need to put a stop to the power dynamics that perpetuate men’s ownership of women’s bodies and allows whiteness to get away with injustice. We need to make a collective effort. Starting with me.