A Tale From Uganda
There are frays in this vast, empty hole of nothingness we call home. Fissures, cracks, and fault lines where evil drips down into a well that escapes the judgement of good men and sound minds. A man much smarter than myself once wrote of such terrors with elegant, marvelous simplicity; “So it goes”.
For years, I was in the Peace Corps, and for the majority of that time I was stationed in Uganda. Every day, every night, and every minute was filled with horrors so unreal that they would befit only the pages of a horror novel. Children with hollowed bellies stalked our every move, desperate for food, or medicine, or care for their ailing family members. Most of the time, I would be lucky if I saw those same kids the next day.
Slavery and forced labor are prohibited by the Ugandan constitution, but those laws are not enforced. Child labor is quite common throughout the region. The lucky ones work on Tobacco farms, where their worst fear is devastating health hazards caused by working in those fields. The ones who work as servants are often subject to sexual abuse, and many are simply sold into slavery.
But this isn’t a story of the horrors of Uganda, some of which I am sure many of you are aware.
This is a story about the night of June 3rd, 1998.
It was hot. Africa in the dead of summer is exactly how it sounds; sticky, sweaty, and dangerous. My group and I had staked out an area with a few makeshift buildings, one of which was being used as our hospital. We allowed some children to stay with us at night, especially those who had lost their parents or family. The rate of abduction was high in Uganda, and the military often patrolled the countryside looking for new soldiers to join their ranks. There was no escaping them once they arrived, they usually just shot the children who ran away.
That morning, we had buried a young boy in the soft soil beside our camp. He was eight years old, and he had always asked us to call him Joey, though I’ll never know why. He had been inflicted with malaria, a disease all too common to the poverty stricken region. If the disease is given time to progress, the bacteria from the mosquito bite will eventually travel to the liver, where it will mature and reproduce. Once malaria reached that stage, there was little we could do.
I had developed a fairly strong relationship with the young kid. It’s funny, I had expected there to be vast differences between a child in Uganda and a child in the U.S., but he reminded me so much of my little brother back. He was strong, brave, and unwilling to accept defeat. I would sit by his bed and help him to improve his English, one word at a time. He had dreams of traveling, of leaving this horrible hell hole. His laughter was infectious, even in his last days.
One of the ways we passed the time was bye reading aloud. It was a painstaking process, as I would often have to pause and explain to him the definition of each unfamiliar word. I only had one book with me, a favorite that I had stuffed into my travel case at the last minute. The Natural, by Bernard Malamud. Joey wanted to be a baseball player.
My job for the night was to patrol the camp and warn our group leaders if the military was approaching. It was a risky job, being caught out in the open by Ugandan military is not something I would wish for the faint of heart. However, soldiers would never fire on an American, or really anyone who was light of skin.
The death of a Peace Corps member would almost certainly result in retalliation from the international community, and they were not willing to draw any more attention to themselves than they already had.
So, I patrolled. I circled the camp every half hour, scanning the distance to look for the dirt clouds that came in the wake of the military’s trucks. My mind was admittedly on other things.
That night, as I scanned the distance patiently, I heard a giggle and a loud THWAP in the distance behind me. Frightened, I snapped out of my daze and turned so sharply I nearly fell over.
In the distance and across the field, I could make out a small shape. It was too small to be an adult, so I assumed another child had come to our camp in need of help. Everyone was asleep, so I strode across the field with a quickened pace, nervous that my makeshift Swahili would not be enough to interpret the child’s needs.
As I got closer, the child called out to me in the dark.
“I lost my ball.”
With that, he turned away from me and ran in the opposite direction. I followed him, knowing full well that he was left out here alone all night he would be dead by morning, one way or another.
We ran for what seemed to be a mile. Me behind this kid, wheezing and coughing as he jetted ahead of me. I called out several times, in English and Swahili, attempting to explain who I was and that I could help him. Just as I was about to reach the point of worrying about my own safety, he stopped.
He stood infront of a large hill, a pleateau of sorts, and looked down. As I walked up beside him, ready to collapse, I followed his line of sight down below.
About two miles in the distance was a scene of absolute anarchy. Military trucks lined the ‘road’ of a small village, and they were pulling children out of their homes. I stood there, mouth agape as I watched children cry and parents scream. No gunshots were being fired, which would explain why we hadn’t heard what was happening. Women were simply beaten to the ground if they tried to interfere with the soldiers who were taking their sons. I had heard of this barbarism time and time again, but I had never seen it with my own eyes.
My boy standing beside me let out a deep sigh, and turned to face me. It was Joey.
“Time to go.” He said so quietly and meekly, with a sad smile across his face. I was still in a state of shock, standing there with my mouth wide open, unsure of what to believe. Then he screamed.
So I did. I hightailed the fuck out of there, sprinting back the direction I came. If I hurried, I could make it back to camp in time to get the group leaders to mobilize the children staying with us, and get them to a different location. I frantically stumbled into each of their tents, screaming nonsensical babble as I desparately tried to describe what I had just seen.
An hour later, the military arrived. They asked us politely if there were any children at our camp who were not ill, as they were required to take them a nearby school to begin classes. This was a blatant lie, one that had been told hundreds of times before to ignorant foreigners.
Unlucky for them, the children had been evacuated thirty minutes before. Joey’s early warning allowed the group leaders to load the healthy children into the few vans we had, and get them a safe enough distance away from the military’s probing.
A few days later, I found a baseball on the outskirts of our camp.