CHAPTER 1: WAR CHILD: Overcoming life’s greatest obstacles
My early years held more horrors for me than anything I have ever faced in my life. Unlike most little boys, who may have been frightened by imaginary monsters under their bed, I was terrorized by the cruelties of war and the innocent bloodshed I had witnessed.
Balimanyankya is a small village in Luweero district of Uganda. The name Balimanyankya in Luanda means, “others will know the next day.” Village history tells of a settler who lived there long ago. Due to the distance between his house and the next village, he claimed that, when he passed on, others would come to learn about his death the next day or days after. According to the village elders, the settler’s prediction came true.
I was born in this village on November 4th, 1979, under an orange tree. Miraculous though it was, this kind of labour was routine for my mother. Veronica bore nine children without medical attention or expertise, beneath various trees in our village. When we were children, she would often say to us, “You were born under that tree and your brother below this mango tree.” But for me my mother would add: “You are Mboy - a ‘miracle baby’ - and you are blessed. So, live your life to the fullest.”
Veronica called me “miracle baby” because I nearly died in her womb. One night, a month before I was born, my father beat my mother in a drunken frenzy, and as he kicked her in the abdomen he screamed: “Let me beat you until the baby you are carrying is terminated.” As Mama fell on her knees to protect her eight-month pregnancy, she prayed that I would remain intact in her womb. To this day I still call Veronica my number-one hero.
Uganda was an unstable nation around the 1980s. By the time I was three years old, the guerilla war, which brought the current Ugandan president into power, was underway. One day, I woke up terrified by the noise and the horrifying gunshots that rocked the entire Luweero triangle. At that tender age, I could just about feed myself but couldn’t run for my life or find safety during war. But miraculously, with the help of my parents, my older brother Tony, and my older sister Noeline, I survived.
“When two elephants fight, the grass suffers” is the African saying. Even at an early age amidst the war in Uganda, I saw all creatures suffer. Men and women, both old and young, and every creature from land animals to birds - all lives are at stake in the chaos. War is like a hurricane, destroying everything in its path without discrimination. But perhaps the most destructive pain humans face in war is uncertainty. The agony of not knowing whether you or your loved ones will make it to the next minute, or the next hour, eats people alive.
Noeline had been my immediate caretaker. When terrified, she would always try her best to comfort me. Even though she was scared, as any ten year old would be, she stood tall. “It’s going to be over soon and all will be fine,” she would tell us. I wondered how life would be without Noeline. Her hope was a source of strength to all of us.
During the months of travelling and running for our lives in the jungle, Noeline stepped on something that looked like a thorn. Her leg began to swell and, days later, the infection took over. As the war progressed, my sister’s health deteriorated. Still, her only worry, it seemed, was for our mother. “What else can I do to make it easier, Mama?” she would ask. “Mama, how are you going to manage carrying Mboy and Mathias (my young brother) all together?”
A few days later, Noeline died in our mother’s arms. Young and frightened, I stood by both my parents and shared in the most helpless and painful last moments of our lives. On that day I discovered to die a painful death is one thing, but to witness your loved one breath their last is unspeakable. No trauma in my entire ordeal during the war matched that of the death of my older sister.
War makes us ask questions that can never be answered: Why would an innocent infant die and a violent criminal live? Why do bad things happen to people? Why does history celebrate war and its so-called mighty warriors, who are responsible for destroying so many lives? History can tell us something about the events and circumstances leading to war, but it fails to justify or explain why a man, or a group of human beings, would choose to bring fear, terror, and death to fellow beings.
The terror I faced gave me a vivid picture of life and death at a crossroads. In those days, people either learned to use what little resources they had in order to survive, or they gave up and died. When the shadow of death looms over everyone’s face, it is very easy for the human mind to betray itself and give in. But the will and yearning to preserve one’s life is an equally powerful motivator. With enough willingness, one can determine to live on in the face of the most horrific circumstances and never give up until the end.
As is often the case in war and natural disasters, asking “why” does not guarantee an answer. In fact, if often yields more questions than answers. Of course, it is good to ask “why,” but we also need something to move us forward. That catalyst is hope. Hope is what gives us the will to go on. It is the ground on which we stand to overcome almost any obstacle. This was my final belief and hope as a young boy, for I had resolved that hope in the creator alone would determine my fate ahead.
Within days of Noeline’s burial, war separated us from our loved ones once again. My brother Tony and I found each other at a military barracks, and as the war intensified, we were miraculously rescued by a distant relative. We would stay with that relative for another three years before we could rejoin our parents after the war ended.
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