I cannot help but smile at the shock on people’s faces when I tell them the story about how my family and I escaped a rebel ambush. I am talking about a real ambush—the kind where people are abducted and/or killed. I realize it is no laughing matter, so maybe the smile on my face is my way to cope with the idea that I might have become some rebel’s wife or even dead, and my story would have been told by someone else.
Let me start from the very beginning.
We had just lost my mom and gone home to Gulu to lay her to rest beside my dad. She had asked me not to take her to Gulu, but there was nothing I could do. When a woman dies, she is supposed to be buried on her husband’s homeland, as long as he had married her or at least paid all her bride price. I told my mom’s brother her dying wish, and I could see that my uncle would have been delighted to take her home to their land, but he respected tradition: “She has to be buried next to her husband.”
We would bury her in Gulu.
In 2002, the war in Northern Uganda was still raging between the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels and the government. The war had been going on for more than ten years and seemed only to be getting worse. More and more people were abducted, ambushed on the roads, and displaced.
My mom had a brother in the army who had organized protection for us both to and from the burial. The condition was that it was a one-day trip: go bury her and come back the same day.
Now, as anyone familiar with anything about African burial traditions knows, regardless the tribe, the family of the deceased cannot just go dump the body and come back the same day. They are required to stay a couple of days and perform some rituals before they return to their normal lives. Alas, this was not going to be the case.
There were no huts for miles around. There were no homesteads or villages. They had all been destroyed by the rebels over the years. The people of Northern Uganda were set up in camps in designated spaces guarded by the army. The few people who did attend the burial were close family members on my father’s side who were escorted to and from the camp. The whole area had been overrun by bushes, but a spot had been cleared for a grave for my mother. The saddest part was that we would not be able to cement her grave—not properly anyway. There was no time. We were literally just abandoning her in a place that she did not want to be in the first place.
The ambush happened when I went with my cousin to ease ourselves in the bush. We were surrounded by soldiers so we felt safe enough. But while I waited for my cousin, I saw movement in the trees about one hundred meters from us. Then I saw a couple of people in the bushes in dark green uniforms different from the ones the soldiers wore. I saw them and they saw me looking at them. Then as silently as they had appeared, they disappeared into the bushes.
A soldier looked in my direction and gestured for me to be quiet, but also to head back toward the rest of the group. I knew then that I had seen rebels. He had seen them too but did not want to start a shoot-out.
The rebels were outnumbered—at least I like to think they were. From the stories I had heard, they had come to rob “the people from Kampala.” They listened to the radio and knew when a procession would be coming up north for a burial so they could waylay the mourners. They assumed that people from Kampala had money they could steal to help their cause. This time though, they probably changed their minds because of all the military power around us.
I did not tell my cousin anything at that point. I did not know what to tell her. I think I was still dazed by the fact that I was burying my mother. I was burying my best friend.
After the burial, we immediately boarded buses and cars to head back to Kampala. This was the most abnormal thing about the funeral. We did not even get to share a meal afterward. There was no time. We all needed to leave the area.
It was now six p.m. This was the time that people stopped moving. Even the night commuters were already on their journey to town. No one wanted to be out and about when nightfall came. I could see that even the soldiers were getting fidgety. They too were afraid of the rebels. They might have had better guns, but they also lost their lives in numbers each time there was a shoot-out.
We had to travel in a convoy complete with an army truck at the front and one at the rear with more soldiers in the buses and cars that made up the caravan. The journey started with all the cars driving at breakneck speed until they got through the “danger zone.” The whole road was a danger zone, but there was a particular section that was very prone to ambushes. That was the real danger zone.
There was no life on this segment. The cars moved extra fast. Anyone who broke down or could not keep up was left behind—no matter who was in that vehicle. This was the sad truth: better a few people were sacrificed than the whole convoy.
When we got to the other side, when we were in a safe zone, we settled down to eat something. It was at this point that news started to go around that the last three cars had been hit by rebels. Everyone tried to remember who might have been in those last three cars, including the army truck.
While everyone was whispering and taking count of their parties, I decided to tell my cousin what I had seen when we went to pee. She almost dropped dead. She asked me why I did not say anything. I was twenty at this time; she was almost forty. Like any grown-up, she would have expected to be alerted when such an incident happened. Now she was shaking like a leaf. If I hadn’t known what she’d just learned, I would have thought she was shivering with malaria. I did not know what to say or do. I just told her that the soldiers had also seen them and instructed me to be quiet.
She said that maybe if I had told someone, our convoy might have escaped the attack, but I was not going to let her lay that guilt on me. I said that if I had told anyone, there would have been chaos, and that would have indeed started a shoot-out.
She thought about what I said and sat still for a minute. She stopped shaking but was now looking around. She wanted to make sure that we had not lost any relatives in the ambush.
Word came to us that the last three cars were independent vehicles. They had not even been a part of the convoy that came for my mom’s funeral. We just happened to be part of the convoy that was leaving the same time as they were. They had been put at the rear because our vehicles were priority.
My cousin sighed with relief. I did too. There was a belief that if there was an accident before, during, or even after a funeral, the person who had died was taking people with them to the land of the dead. Then more rituals would have to be done to appease the spirit of the dead person so that they would leave the living be.
My mother had been a very peaceful and peace-loving woman. I did not want to think that in death she was vindictive. May her soul rest in peace.
That is how we survived the ambush. The more I tell this story, the more I believe my mother’s spirit was looking out for us that day. This is probably the reason I always have a smile on my face when I tell it.
Achiro Patricia Olwoch hails from Gulu in Northern Uganda. She is currently an artist-at-risk in residence at Westbeth. She is an award-winning writer, director, and producer with numerous awards and nominations for her Coffee Shop TV series as creator and writer and Yat Madit as head writer, and for her short films: The Surrogate, The Mineral Basket, and Maraya Ni. She is currently working on a feature documentary, My Prison Diary, due for release in 2023, and she has three feature scripts in development. She is also in the process of completing her late father’s manuscripts, which he left behind after his death in 1994. This is alongside her first novel Sex or Slave, set in 1940s Uganda during colonialism. She also has in the works a memoir about her life as a lesbian in Uganda and her eventual escape. More about Olwoch and her works can be found on her website: www.achiropolwoch.com.