‘Escape from Uganda’
By Rashmi Paun
“I had a dream last night.” President Amin told the sea of khaki in front of him. The setting sun was behind him and an aura, long shafts of bright rays, seemed to spray from his body, his large bulk a messiah-like silhouette against the light horizon to the new military recruits sitting on the ground in a camp in eastern Uganda.
“God spoke to me in my dream. He told me to throw the Asians out of Uganda. When I lived in Jinja barracks and often went into the town, I used to ask myself, ‘How come every business here is owned by Asians?’ It was like going into a town in India.” The president paused and surveyed the scene in front of him. The field behind the troops was a mosaic of green expanse of grass with patches of bright red earth. A massive mvule tree near the edge of the field cast a long shadow on the wood behind the field.
“Now I often go to Kampala town centre and it is the same there. To get here I drove through Iganga, Bugiri, and Tororo and it is the same everywhere. Asians run the commerce in this country. Factories as well shops. They are rich. They exploit us Ugandans. They are like leeches. And they sabotage our economy. So I make this announcement here that I want every Asian out of Uganda in three months. They have exactly ninety days to leave Uganda.”
There was a loud applause and cheering while the president took out a big white handkerchief from his trouser pocket to wipe the fine film of perspiration from his face. When the applause faded he continued:
“I want every Asian out. If you are an Asian, you leave Uganda in ninety days. Even if you are born here. Even if your parents and grandparents are born here. Out!” He jabbed the air in front of him as if admonishing a miscreant as he shouted the word ‘out’. “If you are a businessman. Out! If you are a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer.., whatever. If you are an Asian, out! I am the President of Uganda for Life; Conqueror of the British Empire, King of Scotland, Field Marshall Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC and I command you to leave the country in ninety days.”
His announcement was too late for Saturday’s Uganda Argus but was reported on the evening news on radio and television.
And that was Day One.
A hornbill flies across my vision. Its bright plumage glows in the red rays of the setting sun. Normally I would have pointed it out to Savita and Lalita, but just as we navigate a wide bend I notice yet another roadblock. Savita has noticed it at the same time and reaches under the seat. She takes out a large packet of bank notes wrapped in a paper bag. She looks at me and I nod my approval. The small packets have been adequate for the unofficial roadblocks, set up by the low ranking army personnel. But this looks more official than the last one because the soldiers have erected several tents in a clearing in the Mbira forest by the side of the road. This is the fourth time in one hour that we are being stopped and once again I fervently hope that there will be no problems. I notice Savita murmuring with joined hands, “Please God, help us get through this safely.” I look in the rearview mirror and notice that Lalita has slid down on the seat, her forehead glowing in the red sunlight. Her eyes are shut tight and I am sure she is also praying.
I slow the car right down as we approach the soldiers. There are two of them in the middle of the road with AK47s at their hips pointing towards the car. One of them waves us to the side of the road and motions us to stop in a space near the tent. He is a young man, slim and tall, and very likely still in his teens. I switch off the engine and get out of the car. The second soldier, who is short and built like a tank, approaches me with his gun pointing at my head.
“I have a gift for your commanding officer,” I tell him and give him the packet. He grabs the packet with his left hand and tells me to turn around and stand with my arms on the car.
As I turn, he gives me a heavy shove, which nearly knocks me down.
“Wait there.” He has a surprisingly high-pitched voice. Almost a whine.
He goes to a green camouflage army tent. I had not even noticed that tent as it is pitched right back where the foliage is cleared in the tropical undergrowth amongst the trees. I can see Savita looking at me anxiously and I smile at her. I expect it is a wan smile for she continues to look worried. Lalita has slunk as low as she can in the back seat.
I keep my hands on the car. The sun is warm on the back of my neck. There is the usual background of insect humming punctuated by an occasional sharp birdcall. I see the soldier is walking back with someone who must be his commanding officer, a man of medium height with three parallel slashes of the Kakwa tribe on each cheek. He is in his khaki uniform but is not wearing a jacket. His hat, similar to the one Amin wears in all his pictures, sits askew on his head, giving him a jaunty look. The officer strides ahead and the soldier shuffles a respectable step behind his superior officer. He reaches into the bag and flicks through the notes as he walks towards me.
“Where are you going to?” he says in English in his deep voice.
“To the airport.” Of course he knows where we are going. The only journeys Asians undertake now are either to drive to Kampala to get visas from foreign embassies or to the airport to flee the country. At sunset, the embassies are closed, the airport is the only place we could be going to.
“Your papers.” I grab the papers on the dashboard with one hand, keeping my second arm still stretched out on the top of the car.
“Everyone, out of the car,” he says without looking up as he flicks through the papers.
Savita and Lalita climb out and stand near me.
“So, you are Devji Mitani. She your wife?” he says pointing at Savita. I nod. “And that your daughter?” he says taking a long hard look at Lalita, who steadfastly stares at the ground.
“No, sir, she is my sister.”
“Stay where you are,” he says, walking back to his tent.
A couple of long minutes pass. The two soldiers come back from the tent. Without a word, they grab Lalita’s arms and they start frog-marching her towards the tent. She is struggling to free herself and I try to pull her away from them. The nearest soldier lets go of her and swings his rifle at me. The butt glances the side of my head and knocks me to the ground. The pain is excruciating and I feel faint but I manage to grab the soldier’s leg to stop him walking on. He yanks his leg free of my grip and kicks me hard on my shoulder. The pain makes me groan but I grab his other leg. “Stop. I can give you more money,” I barely recognise my own voice, which seems to come from far. The soldier lets go of Lalita and lifts his rifle ready to swing at me.
“Wacha dugu yangu. Mimi na kuja pamoja wewe.” (“Leave my brother alone. I am coming with you.”) Lalita’s voice is firm. She has mainly used Swahili to communicate with servants and is used to speaking in an imperative tone.
The soldier turns from me and takes Lalita by the arm again and the two soldiers continue to walk her to the tent. As I lie on the ground, I can hear three sets of footsteps crunching on the gravel. The sound fades towards the tent and then there is just the drone of the crickets. I feel tears of pain and hopelessness sting my eyes. “She is my little sister,” I say, as I lose consciousness.
I have no idea how long I have been out. I become aware of a jolting movement. My head is spinning and a memory swirls in my head. I am transported back fifteen years to India. I am in the sparsely furnished living room of my parents. My mother’s kind and loving face stares at me, her greying hair piled in a loose bun on top of her head. I am trying to put her mind at rest. “Lalita is my dear little sister, Ba, and you know I will do all I can to ensure her happiness.” My mother says nothing, just smiles in response. She trusts me enough to let her little darling leave home to join me in Africa.
Surprisingly, the throbbing in my head is less acute than the pain in my shoulder. I try to think where I am and suddenly remember the events before I passed out. I open my eyes and find I am lying in the back of the car with my head in Lalita’s lap. I try to sit up but am still a bit groggy and fall back. Savita is driving the car and it is dark outside.
“He has woken up,” Lalita says as if I was just having a nap. Her voice is flat.
Savita is silent but gives me a quick glance over her shoulder.
“Are you …..are you ….,” I stutter. I want to ask Lalita if she is all right when I know she is not. I cannot think of the right words.
“I am alive,” she responds. “And so are you. Thank God.”
I prop myself on my elbow and gently sit up. There is a bandage on my head, the long end of which dangles on my shoulder. I recognise it as the blue silken material from Savita’s sari. I realise we are in a town because the orange glow flashes and fades as we drive past the lamp posts.
“Are we in Entebbe?”
“No, in Kampala. We’re going to Mulago first.”
“Forget Mulago. There are better hospitals in UK.”
“But we’ve to get you treated first.” Savita says.
“I’m going to be all right. We can’t afford to miss the flight. Just go to Entebbe.”
Kampala is about thirty kilometres from Entebbe and we come across two more roadblocks. At each one they shine their torches in, notice my bloodstained bandage, Savita hands over a small packet and they wave us on.
In the airport lounge we recognise several families. They gather round us to enquire what happened and if we need any help. We have not rehearsed our stories but it all comes out the same. Soldiers at the roadblock in Mbira forest attacked me. I passed out. Savita drove us to the airport. No mention of Lalita’s ordeal. Not now, nor ever, I expect, unless she needs to talk about it to heal her memories. But I doubt she will ever mention it. I watch her reactions. The chandlo on her forehead is a red smudge and draws one’s attention away from her expressionless eyes. She is grim-faced but then so is everyone else until the plane takes off and there is a sudden release. It is like an interval at a music concert. Everyone suddenly starts talking. The envelope of voices is punctuated by some youngsters actually shouting out “yippee”. There are smiles on faces. The old lady in the aisle next to me has her eyes shut tight; her wrinkled hands are folded as she thanks God.
We get a last glimpse of the land which was our home before the plane ascends above the fluffy clouds into the starry sky. I look at Lalita, who is sitting between Savita and me. Her eyes are closed and two big teardrops roll down her cheeks. I notice Savita is also looking at Lalita and she is crying too. We each hold a hand of Lalita. She gently presses our hands, opens her eyes and smiles at us through her tears.
I have not cried since when I was about five when once my elder brother told me to ‘stop crying like a girl”. For the second time in one day, tears well up in my eyes. I failed you, little sister, when you needed me.