Vanished in Uganda
Duncan Laki's father disappeared under dictator Idi Amin's brutal reign. In this excerpt, the terror comes to an end, but there is no justice until decades later.
Eliphaz Laki wasn’t coming home. Duncan knew it. Everybody knew it. But hope was an obstinate emotion. It dug into Duncan like a tick, feeding off the doubts his rational mind couldn’t quite extinguish. There were rumors, third-hand tales told in hushed voices: His father was in hiding, in exile. He’d been sighted in Tanzania. A rebel army was forming there, across the river to the south. The stories didn’t make sense to Duncan, though. He knew his father loved his family; he would have found a way to send word. Duncan heard other, darker whispers, too. Some said Laki had been taken by soldiers and shot. But there was no body, and there’d been no burial, no inquest, no explanation. Eliphaz Laki had disappeared, and his son was left with hope—stubborn, secret, maddening hope.
The end was near; liberation was coming. The rebels said so, in their scratchy broadcasts from across the border. Duncan listened furtively on the family radio. A gentler government scarcely seemed conceivable to him. Duncan was 16 years old. Soldiers had ruled Uganda for half his life. The General—even now, the name felt dangerous to utter—was hulking and powerful, a former boxing champion who boasted that he feared no one but God. He did not seem subject to mortal failures like defeat. But the rebels kept advancing. In his imagination, Duncan conjured a homecoming scene: his father, balding, lean, and battle-weary in a soldier’s fatigues, walking up the red-dirt road that ran through the village of Ndeija, past the longhorn cattle grazing in his fields, under the broad leaves of his banana trees, up to the door of his modest yellow farmhouse.
Duncan was a wiry, studious, inward young man. People said he was very much like his father. Eliphaz Laki had been someone worthy of emulation: a prominent civil servant, a regional administrator known as a saza chief. (Saza means “county.”) Duncan had just finished his exams at boarding school, and the Christmas holidays had brought him home to the family farm, in the cool green hill country of western Uganda. He knew he might be staying for a while. Everywhere, cities and towns were emptying out in a mass reverse migration, as teachers and businessmen and civil servants abandoned their offices and returned to their ancestral lands. A farm was a good place to wait out a war. A new year was beginning, 1979, and a foreboding mood had settled over the country. Visitors to Ndeija brought news of fighting to the east.
On January 25 of that year, the eighth anniversary of the coup that had brought the military to power, the General addressed his troops at a parade in Kampala, the capital. The army’s chief of staff, an officer named Yusuf Gowon, welcomed his commander to the podium. The General’s rumbling voice piped out of radios in every town and village across the country. It was “God’s wish,” he said, that had made him a dictator.
“A person of my caliber—President Idi Amin Dada—is famous the world over. If you try to find out who is the most famous president in the world, look at books in numerous countries and nations and languages in Europe and everywhere else. You are bound to find my name there. Wherever you go and mention Uganda, they will respond by saying: ‘Amin’—and that in itself is a great thing.”
Loud applause clattered over the radio. Then the General quieted his soldiers with a disclosure. The rebels had crossed the border. Even the villagers of Ndeija, gathered to listen from afar, could hear the uneasiness edging into Idi Amin’s usual braggadocio.
"I wish to call on every soldier to be very courageous.... If we are invaded by an enemy we shall fight until we drive them out, until we completely clear them out. I have given this warning to you now. When I give the order to drive out the enemy we shall fight on the ground, in the sea and we shall fight in the air, until we have finished."
In the weeks that followed, the army failed to fight anywhere. Amin’s soldiers, who’d once walked with such swagger, “looked haggard, harassed,” a Ugandan novelist later wrote, “as if they had been fed on poisoned food for a month.” They fell back and waited for the end to come. Ugandans were done with dying for Amin.
Amin was the one who had started this war, a few months before, by launching a plundering incursion across the border into Tanzania. The bullying General had expected little resistance from the Tanzanians, who were ruled by a civilian president, Julius Nyerere, whom Amin had publicly derided as a weakling with “gray hair and female traits.” Uganda’s neighbor, however, had responded to this provocation with an unexpectedly potent counterattack. Fighting alongside the Tanzanian army was a growing force of Ugandan rebels, who recognized Amin’s tantalizing vulnerability. In mid-February 1979, the liberators’ northward advance reached Mbarara, the western provincial capital, 25 miles from Ndeija. Those fleeing the battle told of a fearsome artillery barrage—three-quarters of the town’s buildings were leveled or damaged—and of the jubilant scene when a detachment of Ugandan rebels marched in. Among the fighters were some prominent exiles from the area, friends of Duncan’s father who had similarly disappeared. They had been given up for dead and resurrected as liberators.
One evening, Duncan and some friends were sitting around a fire near Ndeija’s main road, heating long, fibrous blades of omutete grass, which popped when burned like natural firecrackers. A Land Rover pulled up, loaded with camouflage-clad Ugandan government troops. Ndeija was nestled in a strategic valley, along a river that ran between the two tallest hills in the county. The soldiers set up camp at the base of the far hill, near the pasture where the Laki children grazed cows. Many others soon joined them, on the retreat from Mbarara. They dug deep trenches and waited for the rebels and their Tanzanian allies.
Duncan’s frightened mother moved the family away from the soldiers’ encampment, to a small mud hut hidden amid the banana groves. But Duncan refused to abandon his father’s house. He slept there, alone, as the battle drew near. The invaders were armed with Katyusha rockets. The missiles took flight with a high-pitched whine and landed with a percussive boom. Duncan felt the explosions grow closer. Then Amin’s men were out of their trenches, running for the high ground. Some dropped their rifles as they fled through the Laki family’s fields.
At daybreak, the liberators marched into Ndeija in boots caked with orangey mud, their Kalashnikovs slung jauntily over their shoulders.
They were Tanzanians, mostly, sober socialists from the south. The villagers greeted them with nervous hospitality. Everyone came out to watch them march through: women wearing headscarves and color-splashed wrap dresses; gray-bearded elders, leaning on intricately carved wooden walking sticks; boys and girls in their starchy school uniforms. But there were no cheers, no flowers, no celebrations. Fear didn’t ease all at once. On their advance, the liberators had found written messages tacked to trees around wells and watering holes, begging them not to leave until Amin was finished off. The notes were always anonymous.
The newcomers weren’t like Amin’s men. They didn’t rape or kill anyone in Ndeija, or loot the wooden grocery stalls along the main road. Even their Swahili was soft and lyrical, so different from the harsh dialect of the Ugandan soldiers. Duncan met their commander along the road. He was a well-spoken, polished Tanzanian officer. The commander wore a pair of field glasses on a strap around his neck, and when Duncan asked, he let the teenager look through them. Duncan held the binoculars to his eyes and surveyed the war. Along the main road, trucks and tanks were trundling in from Mbarara. Up in the hills, the liberating troops were advancing on the enemy. They marched in perfectly disciplined lines, like safari ants, Duncan thought.
Duncan was happy. He was free. But he didn’t see the man he was looking for.
Other kids from Ndeija were running away to join the swelling liberation army. It seemed like they all wanted to fire one of those devastating Katyusha rockets. One of Duncan’s friends, a boy whose brother had been killed by Amin’s men, had joined up, saying that it was time to strike back. But Duncan wasn’t interested in revenge. He wanted something else. He was going to the university; he was planning to study to be an attorney. Soldiers had taken his father away. Perhaps the law could bring him home.
From the book, The Teeth May Smith but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda by Andrew Rice. Copyright © 2009 by Andrew Rice. Published by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.
Andrew Rice’s first book, The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda, was published in May by Metropolitan Books. He is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. Between 2002 and 2004, he lived in Uganda as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, an American nonprofit foundation.