Escaping Uganda

by David Pratt

Until recently I sold cars for a living. I wasn’t very good at it. I don’t possess the right mercenary spirit, cutthroat ambition and proper lack of ethics to take full advantage of people. I have principles. I am all about honesty and equity, and my empathy usually lies with the underdog. The managers at the front desk who came up with all the numbers told us, go ahead, make us the enemy and you be the good guy, make them think that you are on their side. Except I actually was.

How I ever wound up in the business is a mystery, sort of like an anarchist joining the police force with absolutely no intention of undermining or sabotage. I was capable of manipulation and bullshit, but I wasn’t comfortable employing those skills to convince some poor sap to spend too much on a vehicle that he probably couldn’t afford and didn’t really need in the first place. Sometimes my unfiltered honesty got me in trouble with the customers. If I didn’t like them or they were a pain in the ass, I wasn’t very good at being friendly or even accommodating.

But the ones I hit it off with trusted me. They became regular customers and sent in others and always stopped by to say hello when they got their oil changed or tires rotated. I usually found Ruth, every 3,750 miles, sleeping in the service waiting room when I arrived to work in the morning. She was a nurse working the night shift at a Boston hospital and also pursuing her Ph.D.. She was always exhausted, but she was always smiling, and she would always pull herself out of her chair to give me a hug.

I met Ruth in 2010 when she pulled up in her ’99 Altima 5-speed and lavender hospital scrubs. “I want another Altima, a new one. And it has to be a manual,” she said, looking me up and down as though sizing me up, taking my measure with an almost mischievous glint in her eyes. Behind that glint I sensed deep wells of awareness, intelligence and empathy. Ruth only stood about 5’5” but she radiated a quiet, calm power and self-assurance. I was charmed by her instantly. There was something almost Zen about this 69-year-old East African immigrant who had fled Uganda for her life in the late 1990s to come to Massachusetts to start again.

I had to explain to Ruth that Nissan had stopped making the Altima four-door with a manual transmission that year, so a new one was impossible.

“That’s stupid. Why would they do that?”

I stammered out some off-the-cuff explanation about people not buying stick shifts anymore, most people don’t even know how to drive them, not enough demand, while she looked at me skeptically. Why does it have to be a manual? But it had to be and Ruth wasn’t budging on that point. Well, how about a two door? They still make the Altima coupe in a stick. Or what about a Sentra?

“No, I don’t want a two door, and I don’t want a Sentra. You call Nissan and you tell them I want a new four-door Altima with a manual transmission,” she said.

Ruth was only half teasing, a determined woman who did not give up easily. After learning what she had been through and survived, it is no surprise that she didn’t see any reason a little thing like a change in a corporation’s mass production assembly line should stop her from getting what she wanted.

Uganda was still a British colony when Ruth was born in the early 1940s at the tail end of the old Age of Imperialism that culminated in WWII and morphed its form more than it actually ever ended. The United Kingdom placed the area, a region of various tribes and a handful of kingdoms, under the charter of the British East Africa Company in 1888, and ruled it as a protectorate from 1894 until 1962 when Uganda was allowed independence.

So Ruth’s entry into adulthood coincided with the promise of a brand-new self-determining nation but the decades since independence have been filled with tribal and political conflict, presidents being named without elections, military coups and civil wars, including the recent bloodbath waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army, which caused tens of thousands of casualties and displaced more than a million people.

By the time Idi Amin seized control in 1971, Ruth had been a flight attendant for 10 years for East African Airways and was well liked and well respected. She came from a middle-class, relatively prominent family, in a mostly poor country. Her husband was a doctor and her two sons were enrolled in their first seven years of primary school. Over the following eight years, Ruth’s family witnessed Amin’s public executions targeting his political enemies; his bloody ethnic cleansing aimed at Acholi and Langi groups, estimated to have taken at least 300,000 lives; and the economy collapse as Amin expelled all citizens of Indian descent, who comprised a large portion of Uganda’s middle and entrepreneurial classes, In 1972, 580,000 “Asian Indians,” whose ancestors were brought to the country by the British in the 1890s to build the railroad, were now kicked out as part of Amin’s “Africanization” of Uganda.

Amin’s reign ended in 1979 when he invaded Tanzania. Tanzania responded by overthrowing him. Amin fled the country and Milton Obote, whom Amin had deposed in the first place, was elected president in 1980. Obote then began another genocide against the nation’s Baganda people. After he laid waste to the Luwero Triangle, north of Kampala, the National Resistance Army, led by Yoweri Museveni, began its campaign to take over the country. The ensuing civil war resulted in another 300,00 lives lost and the overthrow of Obote who, like Amin,  fled into exile.

Museveni has ruled Uganda since 1986. While he has ended many human rights abuses, officially restored freedom of the press and helped reform the economy, public support is tenuous due to a still weak economy, rigged elections and other corruption, and accusations of misuse of the military. Over the years Moseveni has led Uganda in involvement in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflicts in the region, and he has struggled for years in the civil war against the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been guilty of numerous crimes against humanity in and out of Uganda.

Until the LRA came on the scene in 1990, Ruth and her family survived the turbulence and managed to remain employed through the difficult economic times. Both of her sons went through lower and upper secondary education, completing all their exams. By the mid-1980s, Ruth was Operations Manager at one of Uganda’s 46 airports and her husband head of ER at one of its busy hospitals. For awhile, Ruth’s life was as good as it gets in Uganda.

Until the LRA came. The Lord’s Resistance Army is led by Joseph Kony, a psychopathic Acholie who claims to be the spokesperson of God. The LRA is infamous for kidnapping children, forcing them to fight as soldiers in his army or to act as sex slaves; grotesque mutilations; mass murder; and the displacement of millions of people. In 1995, the Lord’s Resistance Army launched an attack against Atiak in Unganda, committing mass atrocities on its residents and killing or kidnapping hundreds of people. In 1996, Kony’s boy soldiers kidnapped 139 schoolgirls and forced them into sex slavery. Eventually the LRA’s activities expanded into the Congo, Sudan and other parts of Central Africa. By 2012 the UN estimated that the LRA had kidnapped and recruited 60,000 to 100,000 child soldiers and displaced approximately 2 million people

On a beautiful, rather hot morning in 1997, Ruth, now in her fifties, was in the bathroom of the modest home she shared with her husband, adult sons and aging father, preparing for a day at the airport when they came. It all happened so fast, so chaotically. She heard a terrible crash as soldiers burst into the house. She heard something about being under arrest and her husband protesting. She heard shouts, the meaty thunk of a steel machete slamming into flesh and skull and her husband’s screams. She heard the mournful wails of her father, the terribly quiet, soft slump of her sons’ bodies hitting the floor.

Ruth knew what was happening. She didn’t know why they had come for her family but she knew she had to get out fast if she was going to stay alive. They would definitely check the bathroom. They were reaching for the door even now. She clambered out the window and began running toward the tree-line. She heard the shouts and felt the burning pain in her shoulder before she heard the shots. Ruth tripped and fell to her face in the dust. She heard an engine approaching, the gears shifting, felt herself being yanked up and tossed on top of cold hard metal and then it all went black.

Ruth came to, naked, in a windowless room with no furniture. She knew she had been raped. And she felt other pains she had not felt that morning, pain not related to the dirty, bloody bandage on her shoulder. She could hear them talking in the next room. She knew they were going to kill her. Ruth had never been an overtly religious person but after inspecting the bare room and the only door leading to the adjacent room, she began to pray.

It wasn’t long before the door opened and three soldiers younger than her sons came in. Ruth sat up straight and looked them in the eye one by one. The youngest looking one, with the lower half of his jaw cut out, looked away. The other two just smirked. They knew her name. They knew where she and her husband both worked. They said her whole family had been charged with treason and had either been arrested or already executed. They said none would be spared and that this was all according to the Will of God.

The tallest soldier hit her in the head with the butt of his rifle, knocking her on her side. He demanded to know where her nephews were. Her brother’s grandsons were in their early teens and had somehow eluded capture or had already been killed but not identified. The soldiers said her nephews could be spared if they agreed to join the LRA and that she could also be spared if she helped them find the boys.

“I do not know,” Ruth told them. “And I would not tell you if I did. They would rather die than join your army.”

This angered them and all three began beating her with their rifles. They raped her again and, as she lay on the hard floor trying not to weep, they told her, “You do not know now? When we come back, you will know then or it will be much worse.”

She lay there for a long time, waiting for them. When she finally tried to stand so she could urinate in the corner, her left leg would barely support her weight. She was dizzy and the cracked ribs made it difficult to breathe. Ruth shuffled across the room slowly, moving cautiously toward the door. She listened, trying to hold her breath, but it was quiet on the other side.  Ruth said another prayer and leaned against the door, listening, for what must have been an hour.

“Well, if they are going to kill me let them kill me and get it over with,” she finally said and reached for the door handle. It was not locked.

The outer room was empty. A card table with some papers on it, two foldup chairs, three empty M16 magazines in the corner, and a machete covered with dried blood, hair and bits of flesh leaning against the wall were the only signs of the soldiers. Ruth was still naked and there was not even an old blanket laying around, but she had to go out the front door.

“It was the only direction to go,” she told me.

Outside it was quiet. The sun was beginning to set. Nobody in sight. A large military truck with a high-sided bed stood in front of the building. The window of the cab was taller than Ruth so she had to open the door to look inside for something to cover herself. There was nothing, but the keys dangled from the ignition. Ruth knew she probably wouldn’t get very far in the truck but her only other option was to move down the street on her bad leg past the buildings, out of any one of which might pop an LRA soldier. At least the truck was fast. She shut the door quietly and moved to the back of the truck to look for clothing or a blanket before starting the engine.

At that moment the three soldiers came out of the next building and headed in Ruth’s direction. They had not yet noticed her. Ruth climbed up into the truck’s bed as quickly as she was able. She only paused for a split second before crawling onto the pile of dead bodies. She slid underneath what was left of a young woman in her twenties and lay quietly.

The soldiers stood outside the truck, still talking about the exploits of the day. Then one of them began doing something under the hood, as the other two joked and laughed at his ineptitude. Ruth lay under the dead girl’s stiff body, surrounded by the stench of rotting flesh, for another hour before the truck’s engine finally started and the truck drove away. It was dark by now but Ruth waited until the truck was well out of town before dropping off the back into the thick bush lining both sides of the unpaved road. She watched the truck drive away for a minute before crawling deeper into the bush.

Ruth walked all night in increasing pain and with increasing difficulty but she kept going. As dawn broke, the bush began to thin out and she came to a grassy plain cut through by a paved two-lane road. About 500 yards away, across the road, a white van was filling up at a lonely gas station. A small pride of lions relaxed peacefully in the grass between Ruth and the edge of the pavement.

“What did you do?” was the obvious question.

“What do you think I did? I couldn’t go back. Even if they didn’t catch me, I would never make it. I didn’t even know if I could walk another 500 yards,” Ruth told me. “I said, God, I know I never talk to you that much but I am asking you now to help get me across that road and I don’t think that’s asking you for too much.”

“What happened?”

“I took a deep breath and walked right through those lions and across the road and they didn’t even yawn,” Ruth smiled shyly, almost sheepishly, as if she had been caught in some minor transgression.

To further strain my credulity, Ruth went on to claim that the van was full of Catholic nuns who were also nurses. They took her in, took care of her wounds, and drove her across the border to safety. Ruth stayed with the nuns for months while she healed and then they helped her relocate across the Atlantic to Massachusetts, where she decided to become a nurse herself, though not a nun.

After Ruth earned her nursing degree, she learned that her great nephews were still alive, the sole survivors of her immediate family. Since then she has worked to bring them to America. When I asked Ruth what kind of politics or immigration rules were making it so difficult, she just waved her hand at me and said, “The government is stupid.” A couple years ago Ruth returned to Uganda to try to cut through the red tape and she was almost not allowed to return to the United States. But after two months they stamped her visa and she came home, albeit still without her nephews.

I saw Ruth recently in the supermarket. She rushed over to me and gave me a big hug. Uganda was going to let her nephews come to the United States, She just had to arrange and pay for their visas and plane tickets. She had taken a second job to help raise the money.

“Ruth,” I exclaimed. “Aren’t you still working on your Ph.D.?”

“Yes. I have one more year.”

“How the hell do you have time to hold down two jobs and get your Ph.D. plus deal with all this bureaucratic nonsense?”

Ruth just shrugged and smiled up at me.

“What else can I do? You do what needs to be done.”


words and image copyright 2015 by david pratt