My mother used to talk about him; my Uncle Oryema. How she begged him not to become a soldier. “He didn’t listen,” she always said and swallowed hard like she never forgave him for disappearing from our grasp like raa smoke. He was so far away from home, somewhere in the jungles, holding his rifle when death beckoned. A man brought the news to my grandma. Said the gunfire had been heavy. Her son had been shot in the stomach. That he had tied an old green army uniform to hold his bowels together and fled for his life. The man offered to go back to search for our Uncle Oryema with another uncle who later joined the army, to fight the demons of his brother’s death that haunted him. They combed Kituba trees where they say spirits live, the long grasses of the blazing Kitgum wilderness with scorpions and snakes. Uncle Oryema would now remain a memory in our hearts. On his “grave” grandma laid four large stones to show where we should have laid his body.
Of the many things about him, it’s the toffee sweets he brought me when he returned from college and told Ma he was going to fight that I remember most. That day he took me to the cinema–my first time ever to see a motion picture, with images the size of our city council house.
I went to the family cemetery yesterday. There was Ma lying beside Uncle Oryema; she joined him seven years later. At least she had not been struck on the head with an ax or set ablaze in a hut. Meningitis took her.
Worry had drained Ma’s spirit. When she followed Uncle Oryema into death, I wished that perhaps she would learn to forgive him. She would learn not to worry about this war. But she had died knowing we would never go to school because it was always bullets and bombs. Our virginity would fall prey to wicked savagery. We would be abducted and forced to fight. Our bodies would be food to vultures.
The 1986 war against the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda started as only a joke, but it has eaten away the Acholi tribe, who live in the north of the country. It’s like an imaginary tale. Children are trained to be lethal massacre weapons. Sometimes they flee back home to seek what was taken from them, but they discover they cannot stay because their minds think of blood and killing only. They tell of the urine they drank from the unbearable thirst. The young girls, our former schoolmates, have been sex slaves and loathe male company. We will never know what happened to many of them.
Memories of nights in rain and gripping fear creep to our dreams. Sleep should be the one place where there is no worry. It should be dreamland, hopeland. But in our sleep there are ghosts of dead friends and relatives. The ones we watched pangas hack. Those we heard from our hiding places being flogged to death. Those we see headless, limbless, noseless, lipless when we blink.
It’s sad that the situation is hopeless, and there is nothing much that those of us without power can do. Our government has been fighting futilely for sixteen years but they will not talk serious peace. Our president, Y.K. Museveni, compares Joseph Kony, the rebel leader, to a tiny jigger, the parasite that lives in feet and can be dealt with in an instant. But the numbers of Acholi civilians dwindle in cheap talk. They say in every news bulletin, “The war will end real soon”; “soon” has become sixteen years.
We have learned to seal our lips and pretend we know nothing of what goes on. We cannot trust anyone. The rebels do not care whether we live or die. We do not know why they fight. We know nothing of treaties signed by important men. We do not know what words like terrorists, victims and universal declaration of human rights mean. But we know that we are going to die, from bullets, hunger or hopelessness.
The low-ranked government soldiers, who are sent to protect us, run and hide in their brick-walled barracks to protect themselves when the rebels come. They return when it’s calm to rape our grandmothers, light our huts for pure pleasure, and in the evening we hear the radios say, “Look what the bloody rebels did again. Take heart, brothers and sisters in the north, and try to understand that the government is liberating you.” But we cannot try to understand, there is nothing to be understood.
For the army majors, as long as the war goes on, there will always be countries willing to donate large monies. Then they can buy banks, government property and own the entire nation. Their wives can own massage parlors and designer boutiques to serve foreign diplomats in the Sheraton, Equatorial or Grand Imperial hotels; their children can go to international schools and play with Barbie dolls.
When heaven seems so far sometimes, we dream and wait for miracles and look in the stars. The immortal stars whisper to us that they watch over us as we await our fate. So we place our hopes, not in the rebels or our government or the United Nations, but in the night sky.