There are things you don’t easily forget, as in growing up in the shadow of crude men in uniform. Soldiers of my childhood were a dark and a frightening odd bit, coarse, bullies and devilish. It didn’t take much work before I was decided not to have any affection for their trade. Moreover, that they mostly spoke Swahili, a coastal language unfamiliar closer home and more attributed to kondo (robbers), didn’t help matters.
My memory of my first face-to-face encounter with a soldier goes back to my first roadblock in life. I must have been somewhere about 5. Heading home, my old man was driving along Gayaza road, and then we were stopped. The men in uniform hoisting rifles shoved him out of the car to do their bit. I couldn’t figure out why, but later I would piece it all together- an attempt had been made on then-President Obote’s life and there was a state of emergency. But the way they went about the search, so crude, left a sour state.
Then came this gangling soldier who finally overthrew the Obote 1 government; after all, he is the one who had helped him seize power. Amin was a towering larger than life character, seemingly genial as he moved about, often dressed in battle camouflage, a pistol visibly hoisted around his belt. At school, we heard all sorts of stories, about how he could aim that pistol on anybody, including his own! Beneath that deceptive genial smile was a monster of epic proportions. That all came together when one day we heard the father of a classmate, Peter, called Ben Kiwanuka, the nation’s first Prime minister, and then Chief Justice had disappeared, never to be seen again. We all remembered that pistol.
The Amin regime was a time for soldiers. They swelled with power and they were all over. If you run into one and dared upset him, then your life was but a toss.
This became obvious once when an aunt of mine picked me up for a holiday away in Mukono. The Amin regime was always nervous of an attack from its many enemies, especially guerrillas from Tanzania. So roadblocks were a common nuisance as an attempt to smoke out enemies. Seated in a packed bus on the way to Mukono, just before we approached Jinja Road police station, some soldiers waved and ordered the bus to stop. Then the screening started as they shouted in coarse Swahili. “Kitambulisho ni wapi?” (Everyone raise your ID!)”
My primary school had not given us ID. In front of me, I saw those found without IDs being crudely dragged out and forced on their knees. A soldier walked up to me. My 12-year-old knees were now knocking badly. How was I going to explain that I was but a pupil? Should I speak English! But these soldiers I had heard hated English. Then my aunt stepped forward and pleaded my case. “He is my nephew and I am taking him to my home for the holiday.” The soldier gave me a long and hard look. Finally, with a scowl, he motioned I to resume my seat on the bus. And when the bus finally left, they were about half a dozen passengers left behind, still on their knees and crying for mercy. I have no idea what became of them, though I hear a lot would end up in nearby Namanve forest in mass graves.
The children of soldiers I studied with could be just as terrifying. One who joined us in the middle of a school term, at Savio Junior, was said to be the son of Vice President General Mustapha Adirisi. He was a far bigger boy than most of us. In class he seemed absent-minded, perhaps regretting the cozy life he had left behind at home. He had been allowed to come with a long suitcase full of sweets and goodies, unlike most of us One hungry boy made quick friends with him. But he was mostly alone, brooding. Then one day a jeep full of soldiers came and picked him up, after an incident that seemed like an attempted kidnap. It seemed the school had been on tension with him around and there was visible relief with him gone.
And then in secondary, at St Henry’s College Kitovu, there was this son of a General, with some of Amin looks, clearly from his region. He walked swelling with power. One day he found us kids in the dining mess not respecting the queue. Suddenly without warning, he pulled out his belt. He started whipping us kids into line, as helpless teachers looked on. He was the son of a General.
There is a scene I would never forget. Once the Amin regime fell, I jumped up and rushed to the city center to join in the looting, against the protestation of my parents. On the way to the Industrial area, where I was told cartons of goodies reserved for soldiers lay waiting, I saw a mountain of corpses of soldiers killed in the fighting. Their dark and mangled bodies were piled all over each other, covering the lush green of the Kampala golf course. I eyed there once and something hit me. The power of soldiers was gone.
That fleeting joy did not last long. There is an episode that shook me to the core in the days that followed, now under Obote 2 regime. Once I picked up a ride in a pickup of an officer, for reasons I vaguely recall. I was at the back enjoying the breeze with the officer’s armed guard. As we drove up towards Makerere hill, past the Law Development Center, a matatu taxi in front of us lost control, forcing our pickup to run into it. It screeched to a stop.
All passengers jumped out, glad we all had luckily survived. But not the armed soldier. Simply, he cocked his gun and went straight for the driver of the matatu. He aimed and shot. To this day I still see the poor driver fighting for his life, blood spurting everywhere, like a chicken with a slit neck.
When I joined Budo for A’level there was a case of a son of a General, linked to Oyite Ojok, the Army Chief of Staff. He looked a bit moody, just like the Mustapha Adirisi chap. Once he run into a classmate, he assumed was from Amin’s region, and suspected had had a hand in once causing the misery of his benefactor. Feeling the power, the soldier’s boy tried to settle matters in school with savage blows. But the genteel Budo community around calmed him. You could see how disappointed he was.
Under Obote 2 regime soldiers ruled the streets. Occasionally they would descend upon us in a truck dubbed as panda gari. They were scouting around to pick up any young man suspected of supporting guerrilas, the site of which would be followed with gunshots, if one dared flee. All I know is young men who unfortunately got on panda gari, that was the last sight of them.
One time my old man drove us to Kiboga, for a family wedding party, down in the epicenter of the Museveni-led bush war. We got back to Kampala late, and it was getting dark. Approaching Nankulabye we run into a roadblock with soldiers scattered everywhere looking out for guerrillas. I saw a parked panda gari truck, which made my heart leap. Finally, for Dad, to get through, he passed on a wand of cash and a soldier grimly waved us off.
Soldiers were so terrifying as I grew up that the last thing I could ever think of was a career as one. So, when the other day a friend challenged a number of us in a career talk to consider our children having a military career, as he had, all that dread came back.
I must say the soldier of today is not as crude as of the past. He has a human face. During the last national general elections, I saw a column of them saunter through my neighborhood without terrorizing anybody. But for all the progress, I am also aware that behind scenes, somewhere in a dark cell in a barrack, the old soldier looms with his club. These days it is also very clear soldiers run the police. I hear all government construction contracts will now be managed by soldiers. The soldier has never left us here.
All this brings me to wonder how long will the soldier’s apparent return to civility last, before his old nature surfaces back in public? The power of the soldier is the gun. Once the soldier knows he has that full power against a defenseless population impunity kicks in. Perhaps the greatest boon of the Museveni regime was to neutralize the gun by making citizens access it. But how it will all end, whether back to the old soldier, where even soldiers’ children terrorize, or the new one, who respects the law and lets civilians run the show, that, my friend, only time will tell!
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