MOTHER AND I were taken away by some men who wore guns on their backs. When they came, mother had just returned from the well and was giving me food she had warmed. They poured water into my food and commanded us apart.
“Mother here, daughter there”, one man ordered with a croaky voice.
I saw mother cry like I always did whenever she left me home alone, as she went to search for water. She was slapped on the face for being ‘undisciplined and disobedient’. I cried too.
We were taken away from each other: mother with one group of armed and captured people; and I with another group with girls of my age – at least most of looked to be about ten years old.
“What’s your name?” a man asked me with such a terrifying stare that I looked down as I spoke, trembling.
“Aber!” I mumbled almost inaudibly, but his ears were sharp enough to grasp my whisper.
“Aber, come this way,” he said as he harshly pulled me to his side. I craved for mother and kept my eyes in her directions as she drifted away. Amidst the obstructing trees, I saw mother being pushed against her will and being given some luggage to carry; before I lost sight of the whole group.
“Forget about them,” the man told me as he pointed to a different direction for the group to follow.
“My name is Orac – I am bad.” he bent low and stared into my face with such a horrible look. He had scratches all over his face, with his right nose swollen twice the size of the left nose. He had a large scar on his head and this spot lacked hair. His lower jaw lacked three teeth. When he tried to talk, he looked like an angry dog defending the bones it was eating.
“These people call me Commander,” he pointed at boys and girls who held guns all over. “But my name is Orac.”
WE MOVED through the thicket, my fears giving no attention to the grasses that itched and made me lose my peace. The cold nights gave no room for sleep; the cool breeze always awoke me. Orac had told us that coldness was always a result of washing our bodies and cautioned that we should live the animal way. He said that when the ‘Holy One’ wanted to cleanse us, then we would receive rain to “wash away our sins since we cannot wash them away ourselves.” He always told us that he knew what each of us was thinking and sometimes he would pick up a girl or a boy to be stabbed or hit on the head and left to die, while we moved on. Whenever he did this, Orac told us that he read our thoughts and those being killed were thinking of escaping.
One day, after we had had our porridge for an evening meal, I lost my thoughts in wonder. Everyone was quiet, I bet, thinking of what would become of them in the next few hours or days.
“There is someone I know who is thinking about mother!” Orac announced and I felt my heart jump from its position. I definitely knew he had the powers to read our minds.
“Be warned,” he said as he stared before us, “that there is no better place like this, no better home like this, where you get to see animals you had never seen. If ever your thoughts take you back to your filthy homes and your stupid mothers, then you will be…” he ended with a gesture that such a person would be stabbed.
I TAUGHT myself to forget mother, but one day, a dream about her talking to me aroused my memories of her. I dreamed about her welcoming me back home. “Aber! Aber! Welcome back. I ground this millet for your porridge. I saw father and he said he will be here too…” A rude voice awoke me from that deep sleep. Mother’s voice had sounded full of happiness! But only the previous year we had buried father’s remains, after he stepped on a landmine! I did not understand how mother could tell me that she saw father.
“This is your guard”, Orac said as he pointed to a boy who held a knife in his hand and wore a gun around his ribs. He looked thin and always wore a grimy face.
“Obal, take care of her until we reach the High Command and hand her over.” Orac ordered the boy, who looked at me with hatred.
AT ONE TIME the Commander ordered all of us to seat down. He talked to us while those with guns scouted the far end of the surrounding bush. I thought of school back home when I looked around, seated on the shoots of the harsh spear grass. Here the Commander was the headmaster, the soldiers were the teachers, and we who sat down were the pupils. It all seemed perfect for me and I forgot about this bush life for a while, until Orac spoke.
“This is a white man’s catapult”, he said as he lifted up his gun for us to see. “It is not meant for birds, and you know what it is meant for. Our forefathers had their catapults made entirely for goose and other kinds of wild birds. The white man’s catapult is faster than a car. You cannot dodge it. If you must live, follow what we tell you. This catapult has a granary full of bullets.” He rested the nozzle of the gun on my foot. I regretted why I had sat in front, I knew I was losing my leg any time. We were warned never to board any helicopters and asked to pray to the ‘Holy One’ to stop rascals from crossing our roads. “We have catapults that will bring down the helicopter and that will be the end of those on board.” I hated helicopters and feared them, though I never thought of ever flying in one.
ANOTHER time we entered an ambush and a bombshell was thrown towards us. The sound of the explosive sent us dispersing. I ran in hope that I had escaped, before I realized that my guard was on guard.
“There is no better place called home than this forest in which we have stayed.” I remember him telling me when he found me washing my face by River Aswa. The sound of bullets had almost turned into an echo in a dream. I felt divided into three worlds – of my mother’s and home; of the rebel group; and of this, where only the two of us seemed to exist.
“For the years you have stayed with us, you have never been sick and have even grown up. See!” he said as he touched my little breasts. I pushed his hand off in resistance. I felt ready to fight in case he meant to kill me.
“Choose either sleeping with me and letting you go free or drowning you off.”
“But we have been sleeping in the same place in this wilderness for all these years,” I told him but he responded with a jeer. He looked far beyond my back and grimaced with a gesture in that direction, far in the bush. I turned with curiosity but my eyes caught no new sight. I turned to face him again. Suddenly, he threw sand in my face and I lost clear vision. Between my struggles to rinse my eyes with the back of my fingers, I saw Obal put down his gun in a hurry, and pull down his trousers. He shoved on me and we were both down on the ground. I fought back, and then he bit my left breast hard. I felt paralyzed. My chest pained each time I heaved. The rough ground scratched my back as I struggled to breathe because by now this man had stacked a piece of cloth in my mouth and put his hand on it. The edges of my mouth, I felt, were close to being torn. He tore my skirt with his knife and scratched my thigh in doing so. I felt his harsh and rough hands touch my urinal tract, before a sharp pain struck me there. I lost knowledge of where I was for a while…
The bright rays of the sun that pierced through the leaves aroused my senses and I saw Obal point a gun at me, with his right hand, while his left pulled up his trousers. He ordered me to stand up or else he shoots at me. I stood, bleeding and blood trailed between my thighs, down to the ground. The cloth he had used to gag my mouth lay on the ground, mixed with my saliva and blood that was already there.
“What are you crying for?” he growled. “You are dead if you cannot keep quiet. You are more dead if you tell anyone” he warned me. He ordered me to walk on towards the river and not look back. When I reached where the water was knee-high, I stopped. He commanded me to move on, lest the white man’s catapult deals with my head. He cocked the gun. I moved on slowly, with the water level increasing, and the water around me was losing its color to my bleeding. And then – the sound of a bullet saw me fall. I struggled with water but I had drunk too much of it. I saw Obal fall down, before my eyes blurred.
* * *
WHEN I re-opened my eyes, I looked through a glass and saw that everything below me was green. One soldier came to me and told me that I was in a helicopter being flown to a place called GUSCO. I cried to be taken back to the bush. “The Commander forbade us from flying in a helicopter. He said the white man’s catapult will bring it down,” I yelled. But instead, one soldier-nurse came to me with a cup of cold milk.
“He lied to you,” the nurse said.
“He has all the powers,” I blurted. “He said you are devils, that whoever flies in a helicopter is a devil. Put me down!” I cried endlessly until one soldier came and spoke to me.
“This is a Uganda Flag” he said as he showed me a badge on his military uniform. “We are taking you home with the rest. We are not devils.” I looked around and saw my fellow age-mates tied with white tubes that came from a bottle that hung from the helicopter roof. The soldiers said those were on drip…
I SEE the Commander in my dream always, beckoning me to go back to him. He says there is no better place called home than where I have been with them. Recently, I saw him before I woke up. He said he is coming for me.
And Obal insists that he is still my body-guard – that he is within my body. He says that we should sleep together again and promises me that this time he will not do it harshly. But all fighting men speak when their guns are pointing at me. I can not speak in my dreams…