The day was 18th, November 1972, ten days after President Idi Amin Dada, Field Marshall’s decree of Asian Expulsion from Uganda had come into effect.
I was a 17 year old Indian teenager at the time, running my father’s small shop(Lockup) as well as studying in Soroti town.
I was born there and had never known any other places outside it except Mbale. Government soldiers under the orders of president Idi Amin were hunting and apprehending Indians and sometimes killing those who tried to resist, my dad and elder brother were among those killed. My mother had passed on a year earlier from a strange illness. Everything we had was confiscated; we were not wealthy but had just a little over enough to live on. My father and brother’s death prompted me to plan an exit out of the country with a few others.
We were in the back of a Layland truck hiding behind sacks of beans and posho trying to make an escape to Kenya through Malaba. A friend of mine who had gone there before had told us that Indians were treated better there and since we were young and didn’t have enough money to fly ourselves to the UK, we had opted for the nearby Kenya although we had delayed a bit thinking that perhaps the reigning general ( Idi Amin ) would somehow change his mind and reconsider his agonizing decision.
Our truck broke down Mid-way since we were not using the official route, we had among us about seven Ugandan and two Kenyan posho and beans smugglers. They had said we would only cross the border at night when most of the higher ranking soldiers had gone to sleep, bribing the remaining would always be easy, they had said. Being part of the goods being smuggled, we had no choice. 13 Indians and two Pakistani men, all situated in the middle of the back of the truck and surrounded by about a hundred or so sacks of beans and posho.
The truck broke down
The truck breaking down had proved to be a very nasty emergency, we were not allowed to come out since if any locals spotted us, soldiers would automatically be notified, we had to ease ourselves in empty water bottles, an old man sitting just next to me, about 65 years old kept on coughing and almost everyone hated him, he said he had some problem with his lungs and was not breathing well in that small compartment-who was breathing well anyway?, the place was hot and we were all sweating but that was not a problem to worry about, all we prayed for was to make it across the border undetected, it was becoming difficult as every hour passed, the old man’s coughing rate was increasing. Evening came and it started drizzling, increasing little by little and after about an hour, the place had turned deathly cold.
We were hungry but that wasn’t a problem either, we just wanted the truck to get repaired real quick so we could be on the road and possibly make it across the border before daybreak.
What we didn’t know was that one of the smugglers had gone out in search of a mechanic and had brought one who was working on the truck. The mechanic had heard someone coughing inside but chose to keep quiet for some reason. After the truck was repaired, the mechanic left and the smugglers called us out a few minutes to 10 pm to go for a long call before we could proceed.
I helped the old man through the sacks and out of the truck, we were slow as everyone else went out real quick and by the time we stepped down, they were already coming back into the truck.
As I helped myself in the nearby bush with the old man squatting about three or four meters away, I had a group of men speaking Swahili and ordering everyone to sit down. Sounds of slaps soon graced the driver and his conductor and within seconds, as I raised my head from where I had sojourned, I saw my Indian fellows and the two Pakistanis being let down the truck. They were caught while still trying to enter the truck after the long calls. As I observed a little more, gunshots went off and three Indians and the truck driver fell flat on the ground. The rest were led away on gun point together with the smugglers.
We spent a night in the bush
We ran deep into the bush and stayed under a huge tree overnight, without any additional clothing. There were no blankets to keep us warm, everything had remained in the truck that got driven away by the soldiers. The rainfall had intensified. Coldness hit our cheeks, every second. My teeth started rattling and when I looked at the old man, his shirt socked this time round, I realized his lung problem seemed to have been a severe problem because he looked so skinny. He was shivering from head to toe, and looked terrible. The rains stopped and the weather got even colder. I wrapped my arms around him to warm him up. I hugged him tightly to give him some heat, rubbed his arms, his legs, his face, his neck. I begged him to try to be alive.
I encouraged him. All night long, I kept this man warm this way.
I was tired, and freezing cold myself. My fingers were numb, but I didn’t stop rubbing heat into that old man’s body.
Hours and hours went by, finally, morning came and the sun began to shine. I looked around to see if we were near homesteads and luckily we were not. We then started walking in the bush towards the border, avoiding the road at all costs just so we didn’t get spotted by anyone, not even locals. We planned to cross from a non designated area since being seen by Amin Dada’s army or police would definitely put an end to our lives. As we walked further, we reached a point where we got tired and hungry, it was only 11am but then we had not eaten anything since the wee hours of the previous morning when we left Soroti.
The old man was even weaker, we then went towards the road in hopes that we would perhaps find a garden with something we could steal and eat without being seen. We found a farm full of corn maize, stole a few and ate them raw. After gaining some energy, we resumed our journey passing through bushes until we reached a swamp. Crossing as I thought to be a problem turned out to be a real one when we found bodies of all our colleagues from the truck. They had all been killed together with the smugglers and their bodies dumped in the swamp.
Only me and the old man survived
From that entire truck, only two people survived: the old man and me. For the next few days, we didn’t cross the border and instead, kept roaming around the wilderness like animals, stealing maize like monkeys from people’s gardens. Crossing the border had become dangerous even from non gazetted areas as the army patrol teams ransacked everywhere. It was not until three weeks later that we managed to sneak cross into Kenya but sadly, the old man died just a day after we reached a local centre, his inhaler and medications had remained in the Layland truck. He was supposed to be cremated but being a stranger in a land where nobody knew me, the best I could get for him for a burial was an unmarked grave.
From then life started and the memories are still fresh too, my return couldn’t happen because even as other regimes came in apart from that of Idi Amin, Uganda reminds me of sadness as much as it remains my country.
These days I read the East African newspaper from the comfort of my home in Nairobi and I always smile whenever I see people of my kind making progress in a land that once rejected me. I still love it though.
But then, will I ever return?
Maybe not, but i thank God I am still alive.
Eninu William – 0783 642052
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