Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Wake up! Wake up! Rebels!” For more than a dozen years, hearing these words in the middle of the night would send us scrambling from our thatched huts into the bush.
Exhausted by the constant fear of attacks by rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, children often had water splashed on their faces before being dragged from their beds to what we saw as “safety” – usually just an area of brush or deep grass not far from our village, east of Gulu, a town in northern Uganda.
I remember running into our garden with my cousin one night. We hid among the potato plants and slept in the dirt, with only our arms to cover ourselves.
I didn't want to breathe because I was afraid that in the still of the night, just the sound of my breathing would be enough for the rebels to hear. That, and the chattering of my teeth from the damp chill, kept me awake. My heart was pounding so hard that I thought it might jump out of my chest.
Such nights seemed like they would never end.
As we sneaked back home every morning, we would see others emerging from the bush, similarly half-dressed or with their clothes inside out. In the rush, it was hard to tell whether one’s clothes were on the right way.
Only babies had the luxury of blankets, and these were often no more than a tiny piece of cloth that their mothers had managed to grab as they rushed from their hut.
I was lucky that night, since I only suffered a stubbed toe. Many others, however were bruised from the thorns and tree stumps. Ironically, those who frequently fled to the bush didn’t notice their injuries, since extreme fear is an excellent anesthetic.
I will never forget my first night in the bush, back in 1993, when the gunfire roared loudly, unlike anything I had ever heard in my young life.
We lived in the village of Layibi, just three kilometres from Gulu itself, where urban residents rarely experienced the kind of fear that we villagers did.
The following morning, I heard reports that the LRA had abducted many people from villages just ten km away.
At that time, my cousins had come to visit us from south of Kampala, and were due to attend school with us. But after several nights in the bush, that plan was aborted. The cousins were taken back to their home in Entebbe, where they would only hear about the rebellion in the north without having to experience it.
We were not so lucky.
Initially, we didn't have to sleep in the bush every night. Yet it was still difficult to get a peaceful, sound sleep, since you had to be constantly on the alert for the sound of gunshots, and ready to dash into the nearby bush.
Eventually, we learned that if we heard shooting, it was already too late. The rebels only fired their guns in the aftermath of a raid, when they were being pursued by the army or paramilitary forces. We realised that by the time we heard gunshots, the rebels had already captured civilians, looted property and set huts ablaze.
One night, when we were still under the illusion that the situation was calm, the rebels came and abducted some people very close to our home. The next morning, we found clothes scattered along the footpaths used by the rebels.
Then, just 50 metres away from our hut, I noticed something I recognised – a t-shirt belonging to a neighbour. I froze with fear. I later learned that the rebels had come and gone without firing a shot or burning a hut.
Two of my cousins who were abducted during that attack were killed, one because he stammered and couldn't express himself easily. The other was killed because her leg was swollen and she couldn't move as quickly as the rebels wanted, so the rebels said she would be left to “rest”.
One abducted girl was released. But another boy who was taken during the attack never returned, and no one knows whether he is alive or dead.
The situation got much worse three years later, in 1996.
With growing threats from rebels that we would soon all be wiped out, we abandoned our huts, and the bush became our nightly home.
We made small shelters of grass, just big enough for us to crawl inside, so that they could not be seen from afar by the rebels. Sometimes an entire family would pile inside one of these grass huts, presumably preferring to die together if they were found.
These were the hardest days of my life during the LRA rebellion.
I felt dead, and it seemed as if the rest of the world was dead as well. The bleating of goats had gone and roosters didn’t crow. In the wee hours of the night, the birds in the bush rarely chirped. Maybe they were protesting against our intrusion into their territory.
The nights were strangely quiet, and seemed much longer than normal in those years. And the nights deeply affected how we lived during the day.
There was no supper because we had to be on the alert by 4 pm, long before we could even think of going to our beds in the bush. Food cooked after that time was often left uneaten, and hunger seemed to be our constant condition.
In the bush, silence was strictly enforced. It was common to see an elder swat a snoring child to interrupt the sound, which might have alerted the rebels. Children who coughed had their mouths covered with cloth to mute the sound.
Adults who snored or coughed were avoided like the plague, and ended up sleeping alone or with just one or two others. Even those who never snored but simply slept too much, were reproached in the morning. Sleeping almost became a taboo.
The bush shelters were kept secret and were abandoned immediately if someone else discovered them. No one trusted anyone outside their family.
If someone was spotted running, many would follow without bothering to find out what was going on. Just the sight of a person carrying luggage and heading towards town signalled danger. We would immediately pick up our bags and hide them in the bush. No questions were asked.
Fear can do strange things to people. For example, those who still slept in their homes would often swap huts with their neighbours, as doing so created the illusion that they were somewhere other than home, and therefore more safe.
Misinformation and rumours were common, but even those who knew better would not challenge bad information, in case they proved wrong and this caused someone’s death. It was all about fear and never wanting to take chances.
I have an extended family, and my aunt in Gulu eventually agreed to house the younger children, who often caught cold outside in the night chill. So every evening, they would walk the three kilometres from the village to our aunt’s home in town. The rest of us, who were considered big enough to run, continued to sleep in the bush.
Our clothes and other valuables were kept packed in bags or wrapped up in large scarves. Every evening, they would be stashed in the bush near home, and then collected again in the morning. Sometimes these bags and bundles would be left in the bush for weeks when it became too much trouble to collect and move them each day.
The most valuable property was kept in town with friends or relatives.
Schooldays weren't much fun. We normally arrived late because we had to get out of the bush and go home first, before setting off to school.
After school, there was no time to do our homework because we had to bathe, eat and pack away our uniforms and other things to be kept outside the house.
Once night fell, no lights were allowed. Even if I was awake all night, I couldn't do any school work.
The only time I could do my homework was during breaks at school, when I could make up for the lost time.
Our school uniforms were often dirty and damp from the night. I was consoled, however, when I saw my classmates with the same dark stains on their uniforms, and I knew they were living in the bush as well.
Eventually, my aunt grew tired of helping the younger children, and the kids were complaining as well, so they too, began sleeping in the bush again whenever things got bad with the rebels.
Some children were forced to sleep at “night commuter” centres in Gulu, where thousands of children could find a safe place for the night. This, too, had a downside because it was difficult for them to come home from school to eat, if they then had to turn around and go back to town for the night shelter. As a result, many children were constantly late for school.
Somehow, I survived. I passed my high school exams and was allowed to attend university in Kampala. I knew I could finally have the time I had always wanted, to sleep without fear of being attacked or abducted. I definitely did.
Caroline Ayugi is an intern with IWPR in The Hague.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight