— By Clare from Uganda
We are having breakfast at home, in Mpondwe, at the border of Uganda and Congo. The environment is so quiet, and all we can hear is our conversation and the sound of the birds in the trees surrounding our home. It is 1996 and I am only three years old; my elder brother Ronald is five and the younger one Kenneth, only one year old. Our parents are at school in Kampala, which is 346km from home. We are under the care of the house help, Betty and a cousin Janet, who are 20 and 17 years old.
At the time, there is an insurgence in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is said that the Allied Defense Force (ADF) rebels are planning an attack on the government of Uganda. Our home, being at the border of the two countries, is a potential target for the rebels.
As we enjoy our breakfast, Betty is telling us stories of how the rebels raid places. She is a refugee from DRC, who settled in Uganda. She tells us about how rebels attacked her home in Beni, in Eastern DRC and burnt their house to ashes. Her story is cut short, as we hear a loud bang in the back yard.
Within no time, unknown people surround our home. Some are dressed in leaves and others in rugs. Around their necks, they carry guns and other machines. Betty has been through this kind of situation before, so, she shouts; “Nibarebo!” meaning “They are rebels!” I am so scared to the teeth that I pee in my pants. Janet and her carry us to the house and tell us to hide under the bed in the master bedroom. As soon as we get there, the rebels start firing gunshots to our end. Some of the bullets land at our feet, but we cannot move an inch. A few minutes into the firing, Betty orders us to move to the next bedroom. The gunfire is intense outside the house, but the rule is no crying nor getting hungry.
It goes on for hours, but we just hang in there. Janet tells us to pray; but we tell her that the rebels will hear us. She insists that rebels are against God’s will, so they will not hear us when we pray. We start reciting the rosary. Within no time, darkness has fallen. We cannot sleep, but the light rays striking through the window indicate that it is a new day. Phewww! Thank God we are alive.
The goats are bleating and making big stamps, as if being released from their shed. Betty and Janet peep through the window and watch them being taken away. “One of them has a knife; he is slaughtering the fattest of them all.” Janet whispers to us. “Oh yes, that is the one which recently gave birth to twins!” Betty reacts. “Are they going to give us some meat?” my elder brother Ronald asks. We are very hungry, and Kenneth cannot hold it any longer. He crawls out of the bedroom. We try to pull him back, but he insists and returns with a dish of left over rice from the store next door. That is like finding water in the middle of a desert. We all take a bite and get some energy to keep us going. But while we eat, one of the rebels outside shouts “I think they are still alive!” We then hear a loud bang on the roof, this time it is louder than before. The next bedroom is on fire. There is so much smoke and we are all chocking. The place gets quiet again. We are wondering; “Should we move out of the house and surrender to these beasts?” “No we cannot!”
The wait is too long, we are anxious, so we decide to move out. The roads are filled with burnt tires, bullets and ash. We begin to trek, but where are we going anyway? We are not even sure whether it is safe to even walk around. As we walk through the empty streets, we find an old man seated by the roadside.
“My children, where are you going?” He says to us.
“We do not know where to go, but one thing for sure is, we want to go where other people are” says Betty to the man.
“I do not have the strength to walk, like you young people do. Because if I do, I will die, so I have decided to sit here and wait for the rebels to shoot me dead. But since you are young and energetic, please go to Kasese town. That is where everyone ran to when the rebels came. When you get there, pray for me also, as I pray for you my children” He said.
He hugs us and off we go. At that time, all I feel is joy and renewed strength. Kasese is about 55 kilometers away. We start our journey, as Betty narrates to us stories. She says you can never realize how long your journey is, if you converse. It is quite a peaceful journey until we reach the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Here, darkness begins to fall, and we wonder how we are going to walk through this danger zone filled with wild animals. As we wait in the dark for another morning to come, we notice a car approaching us from a distance.
It is our parish Priest Fr Augustine Kithendere. He asks us to enter his truck and says to us “I was with your father today; he is very weak because he thinks the worst happened to you. Oh thank you Jesus for keeping these angels safely.” Fr Augustine then takes us to the church in Kasese town, and we are reunited with dad. Dad has lost so much weight, but the joy of reuniting with his children surpasses everything. He cannot believe that he is seeing us again. To date, dad says it was because of patience that we survived.