On Friday we announced that Nightmare Along the River Nile: Abducted by the LRA by Suzanna E. Nelson is our Thriller of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the thriller, mystery, and suspense categories: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt:
by Suzanna E. Nelson
Elated after finishing high school exams, Edgar and his longtime friends are excited about their future and looking forward to their long vacation. Unbeknownst to them fate has other plans. Edgar’s life turns into a living nightmare when, on his way home, his bus is stopped by the LRA rebels in northern Uganda. Along with other passengers, most of whom are students, Edgar is abducted and taken to the rebel headquarters deep in the mountains of southern Sudan. Things turn even worse when, instead of being forced to become a soldier, he is sold into slavery. His life is changed forever.
Edgar’s friends learn of his fate and embark on a very difficult and unpredictable rescue mission. With the help of a fellow captive, Edgar attempts a daring and dangerous escape, knowing that his re-capture would end in a fate worse than death. But will he succeed? The dramatic finale awaits you as you follow Edgar while he is being chased down by warlords whose mission is to return him to the slave owners and collect a large reward.
The story gives readers an insight into the pain and suffering that Edgar endures at the hands of his captors; and his unshakable faith and hope of eventually being free. Through Edgar’s story, the reader will come to understand the resilience that human beings can exhibit under extreme circumstances, the power of faith and the meaning of true friendship. Looking collectively at the people who are involved in Edgar’s captivity and the ones who assist him, we are reminded that people are capable of good or evil, regardless of color or creed.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Al-Hajj Abdul Asuman welcomed back one of the men he had sent to investigate the slave camps. The two met in a little restaurant at the edge of Nimule town, located in southern Sudan, near the northern border of Uganda.
Al-Hajj Abdul was a tall, distinguished man with a full head of gray hair and a very dark complexion. He was from the Nubian tribe and looked about sixty-five years of age but no one knew for sure.
Rashid Omar, a small-time trader, was about twenty years younger. He occasionally conducted some business for Al-Hajj Abdul. The two men had known each other for many years.
‘So how are you, Al-Hajj?’ Rashid asked as they hugged one another.
‘Oh, Rashid, you don’t know how long I have been waiting to hear from you. How long has it been?’
‘Almost three months, but I assure you, my friend, the journey was worth it. I learned some information about what you wanted and also managed to acquire some camel skins,’ Rashid said with a big grin on his face.
‘That’s good news, Rashid. Come, let’s find a quiet place where we can talk in privacy,’ the older man said as he led his friend to a table in the corner of the restaurant.
Al-Hajj Abdul ordered some tea with special herbs and then examined his friend closely. ‘You look very good for a man who has been traveling this long, Rashid. So tell me, what did you find out?’
‘Well, Al-Hajj, where should I start?’
‘Just from the very beginning,’ Al-Hajj Abdul replied excitedly.
Rashid breathed in deeply. ‘Okay. When I arrived at Imela, I found transportation to the slave market. I went there, hoping to learn something. The name Isa Faquil was mentioned as one of the men who bought slaves and I was told where he lives. I managed to get on a truck that was heading west towards Rokon, but I got off a few towns after we crossed the Nile because I needed to go north. I spent days in one small town looking for transportation northward. I finally found some traders who were going in the same direction and we started talking. I told them I had heard of a businessman named Isa Faquil who dealt in camel hides at a good value, and the hides were in demand in the south.’ Rashid paused to drink some tea and quickly light a cigarette.
‘You know, smoking weakens your speed like an old mare. I thought you would have stopped by now,’ Al-Hajj Abdul commented.
Rashid smiled and drank some more herbal tea before he continued, saying, ‘Old habits die hard, my friend. Anyway, one thing led to another, and these traders decided to show me a marketplace where I could find Isa Faquil. It took us two days to get there. On the way, they complained that business was slow because of the impending guerilla war; and the only safe times to travel were the early months of the year, which were rough because of the rainy season.’ He paused to sip his tea.
‘We finally arrived at the marketplace. I thanked them and offered them money for letting me ride their horse, but they refused, saying, “Men meet one another but trees don’t.” I still haven’t figured that one out. Anyway, they left me at the market—’
Al-Hajj Abdul cut him short. ‘Rashid, I hope you didn’t go through all these towns asking a lot of questions.’
Rashid puffed on his cigarette and smiled before answering, ‘Al-Hajj, you know very well that the one thing one doesn’t do is rush an Arab trader.’
Al-Hajj Abdul smiled and nodded in agreement. ‘Please continue.’
‘At this marketplace, I happened to meet a man who was selling a good stallion for forty thousand . He finally took thirty-eight and sold me the beautiful animal. I changed my story, of course. I told him I needed the horse to deliver a message to a Sheik Nadim, but first I would have to see a man named Isa Faquil, who would tell me where to buy some good ornaments, since I wasn’t interested in the garbage they were selling in that market,’ Rashid said.
The older man smiled. ‘I knew I needed a smart person like you to accomplish a sensitive mission like this.’
‘Well, this trader knew of another trader who came from the area, so after the market closed down late in the afternoon, he took me to this man, who was selling camel and donkey hides. His business was slow that day and he wanted money, so we came to an understanding. Again, I was fooled. I thought the journey would be short, but it turned out to be a day and half. I was glad he was with me because I wouldn’t have managed to make it alone, not knowing the little makeshift bridges and paths in the area. We finally got to a small town about fifteen miles from Isa Faquil’s residence. I thanked the man and made plans for my next move.’
Rashid lit another cigarette. Al-Hajj Abdul waited patiently for his friend to continue the story.
‘Al-Hajj, do you remember the cheetah hide I tried to sell to you and you declined, saying you didn’t deal in animal hides anymore?’
Al-Hajj Abdul thought about it for a moment before he nodded.
‘Well, after a couple of days and after finding out where Isa Faquil’s place was, I decided to go there with my stallion, which was already well rested. I found Isa Faquil in the process of cultivating some land near his residence. Apparently, the man had become prosperous since he got into the hashish business. Nevertheless, I pulled out my cheetah hide and tried to sell it to him.’
Rashid glanced at his tea and then took another sip. ‘Al-Hajj, you gave me instructions, and I had already spent too much money with nothing to show for it.’
Al-Hajj Abdul interrupted impatiently. ‘Don’t play with me, Rashid, just tell me everything. You will get your money.’
Rashid nodded and resumed his story. ‘There were a lot of slaves working in his fields. When Isa left to get the money, I took a good look at the slaves and saw your young man talking to another slave. I remembered him from the picture you showed me. After a while, Isa came back from his tent and saw me examining the slaves. He laughed and asked me if I wanted to buy any. I said I was interested in only two, and I showed them to him. He said that those didn’t belong to him but he could sell me any of his. I shook my head firmly and threw him off-guard by accepting two camel hides in exchange for my cheetah hide. I rode back to this little town and made plans to visit Mullah Sadiq Bin Fahad, who owned the two slaves. A few days later, on my way to see Mullah Sadiq, I saw army trucks packed with slaves, so I turned back to find out what was going on.’
Rashid puffed on his cigarette. ‘I went back to Isa’s pretending to want another hide. Incidentally, I met your friend, the Arab trader from here, Saleh Salim, who was there trying to buy some ornaments. A few questions later, I found out that all the able-bodied slaves, including all of Mullah Sadiq and Isa Faquil’s slaves, had been taken away to work in a town outside of Juba.’
Al-Hajj Abdul shook his head in despair. ‘By Allah, that was a missed opportunity,’ he said.
‘I pretended I wanted to buy something. Saleh got up to show me some things, and I walked outside with him. Since I had seen him with you numerous times, I knew he was working for you, so I told him where I was staying and made an appointment to see him later. He said he would pay Mullah Sadiq a visit before we met.’
Rashid looked at Al-Hajj Abdul and asked, ‘Shall I continue?’
Al-Hajj Abdul’s eyes opened wide. He knew it was about money. Traders were predictable. ‘Rashid, you know me very well. Have I ever gone back on my word?’
Rashid shook his head. ‘No, of course not, Al-Hajj, I will tell you everything.’ He paused. ‘Anyway, Saleh paid a visit to Mullah Sadiq before we met. He then told me that hundreds of slaves had been taken to unload heavy equipment to be used in the oil fields and other places where they had discovered more oil. I convinced Saleh to follow the trucks and see for himself. I figured he wouldn’t have the same problems I would, considering the fact that I am only half-Arab and dark. So Saleh left and followed the truck route.’
‘Did you see Saleh again?’ Al-Hajj Abdul asked.
Rashid nodded. ‘Yes, I saw him about three weeks later. He had come to buy other merchandise to take with him. He told me that when he reached the trucks’ destination, he crossed a bridge and saw a large ship being unloaded by the slaves. He stayed in the area doing some business and finding out more information. He had taken clothing items, which he sold to some soldiers. He heard the soldiers saying that the slaves would be moved soon to begin digging trenches for the summer campaign against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army—the SPLA. Saleh told me that it would probably take about two weeks to unload a large ship like the one he saw.’
Rashid paused to drink some more tea from a fresh pot. ‘I thanked him and gave him all the money I had left; all fifty thousand pounds,’ Rashid said, shaking his head.
Al-Hajj Abdul had not become wealthy by accident. He knew that the price Rashid was quoting was of course exaggerated, but there was a life at stake. If he paid Rashid well, word would go around and people would rush to work for him.
‘Tell me, Rashid, how much did you spend altogether?’
‘Well, I bought the horse, which—’
Al-Hajj Abdul cut him short. ‘Don’t tell me the details of horses and meals, Rashid. Just tell me how much everything cost and give me the information you wrote down.’
Rashid reached for his bag and unzipped it, taking time to look inside carefully. He finally pulled out a lot of papers on which he had written all the information he had gathered.
‘Here is the account of what I have been doing for you since I left,’ Rashid said as he handed over the papers.
Al-Hajj Abdul took the papers and slowly perused the details on every page. It was an eleven-page, handwritten report, and it took him about thirty minutes to read it.
‘Good work, Rashid. I appreciate this, and I won’t hesitate to call on you when I have more work. Now, how much did you use in addition to our agreement?’ he asked.
Rashid removed another piece of paper from his bag and made the calculations. ‘The final figure I come up with, Al-Hajj, is two hundred and forty-five thousand pounds,’ he said humbly.
The older man reached into his small, unique-looking, brown camel-skin bag, counted five hundred thousand Sudanese pounds (two hundred dollars), and handed the money to Rashid, whose eyes opened wide with surprise. He knew that traders like Rashid made less than half of that money in a month.
‘You see, Rashid, not only do you get your bonus, but I’ve added more for your patience and good work. May Allah be with you, and don’t hesitate to call on me anytime you hear anything,’ he said, getting up and patting Rashid on the shoulder before walking out.
* * *
Al-Hajj Abdul reached his residence as the sun was starting to set. His daughter brought him a light meal.
‘Aisha, where did the young men go?’ he asked her.
‘They went to play football.’
‘Football!’ Al-Hajj Abdul echoed, laughing himself hoarse. ‘When did this start?’
‘They started a few weeks ago. They bought some sneakers and a ball and took Ghani and a few other boys to play. I believe they have a team now,’ she said.
Al-Hajj Abdul continued laughing as he stood up. ‘I will go and lie down. When the boys come back, you wake me up, Aisha, you hear?’
‘Yes, Papa,’ she answered humbly as he walked to his room.
When the boys got back, Aisha told them that Al-Hajj Abdul was looking for them. They quickly took showers and changed their clothes before dinner. It was a custom at Al-Hajj Abdul’s residence to eat their evening meal exactly at eight. They joined Al-Hajj Abdul at the dinner table and greeted him one by one before taking their seats.
‘So, young men, I hear you were playing football. Did you win?’ Al-Hajj Abdul asked with a smile.
Ghani nodded affirmatively. ‘Yes, father.’
‘It is good you boys have found something to pass your time while you are here,’ he said as they started eating.
It was a local custom to eat first and talk later, so they ate silently until they finished. The ladies removed the utensils and bowls, but Al-Hajj Abdul stopped the boys from leaving.
‘Young men, don’t leave yet. Ghani, please make sure the camels and the donkeys are all in good shape,’ he said. Ghani left and Aisha brought some tea, which she served and then left.
‘How do you like the tea, boys?’ he asked.
‘It is the best black tea I have ever tasted,’ Wilbur responded.
Al-Hajj Abdul sipped his tea slowly before he spoke. ‘I have some good news for you. Our quest has not been for nothing, and I hope Allah will give us more success,’ he said slowly.
All the boys put down their teacups and turned their eyes on the older man.
‘You remember I sent a few people to investigate the slave camps,’ he said as he poured himself more tea.
They all nodded.
‘Today I met with one of the men I had sent north, and he had some news. Your friend Edgar is indeed alive,’ he stated.
The boys couldn’t control themselves. They jumped up and down hugging one another.
Al-Hajj Abdul interrupted their cheer, saying, ‘Young men, cool down—we still have problems. Before my man Rashid could get Edgar released, all the slaves were taken away to unload equipment.’ He then told them the whole story, including what his other man, Saleh, had witnessed. Nevertheless, the boys were smiling.
‘Young men, I want you to understand that the struggle continues,’ Al-Hajj Abdul stated. ‘There is one problem that we have right now. Last week I got information about a rebel build-up, suggesting that this summer there is going to be a military offensive here in southern Sudan. This means traveling from one area to another will be very dangerous in the coming months,’ he concluded.
‘But, sir, isn’t there a way we can smuggle him out or even buy him back?’ John asked with enthusiasm.
‘No, what you are suggesting would put your friend in a lot of danger. I have learnt that the slaves will be taken to the front line to dig trenches sometime after they finish unloading the ship. I want to send Ghani to see Al-Hajj Musa Lara to find out anything he can about this coming campaign … Don’t worry about this now. I know you boys need to celebrate the news, so why don’t you go to town and enjoy yourselves. Remember, however, we still have a lot of work ahead. Don’t lose hope. I will talk to you tomorrow,’ Al-Hajj Abdul said, dismissing them.
* * *
All three of them bowed to pay their respect to Al-Hajj Abdul before going to their quarters to prepare themselves for the night out in Nimule town.
‘I will go and talk to Ghani. He may be able to suggest a good place in this town,’ John said as they neared their rooms. Shortly after, Ghani and John came back.
Surprise and confusion was written all over Ghani’s face. ‘Guys, are you sure that my father gave you the go-ahead to go out and celebrate, at night?’ he asked, still not believing what John had just told him. The boys nodded.
Ghani shook his head. ‘This is the first time I have seen my father do this. Okay then, I will show you the town, but first I have to change,’ he said as he rushed out.
‘Well, boys, let’s be thankful that we know where Eddie is. Remind me to cross over the border tomorrow to call my uncle with the good news,’ Wilbur said.
‘Now let’s paint the town red, gentlemen. Are you ready?’ Sam asked as he led the group through the hallway.
Ghani soon caught up with them, and they walked cheerfully towards the town. ‘Nimule is a small town with all kinds of people, but it is relatively safe,’ Ghani said with a smile. They walked through the town very relaxed.
* * *
As they walked, John thought about the last time all three of them were this happy. It was three months ago, while having drinks with Edgar. Before John realized it, he was in deep thought, reminiscing about old times with his three friends, especially Edgar.
I was feeling relieved after my high school exams. I also felt confident about my performance, though I tried my best not to show it to my fellow students. Education hadn’t been easy, especially for us students from northern Uganda. Endless wars that brought about untold misery and poverty had been going on for as long as I could remember. Fortunately the constant encouragement by my mother coupled with the fear of disappointing her transformed me into a good student.
I always remembered my mother saying, ‘Edgar, your father worked hard but had no education, and look how he ended up.’ She would pause and then continue, ‘Mark my words, son. With education, people may not like you, but they will respect you.’ She even insisted on fetching water herself from the borehole a mile away so that I would not take time away from my studies. Luckily for me, I had been given financial support by the Catholic church to fund my education.
All these thoughts went through my mind as I walked towards the nearest pub with my three best friends: Wilbur, Sam, and John. We had decided to celebrate the end of the final exams by having drinks.
‘Eddie, you are too quiet. What’s the matter? Aren’t you happy we have finally completed the exams?’ Wilbur asked me.
My friends called me Eddie most of the time. Wilbur, or Willy, as we called him, was very carefree. His family was well-off and lived in the capital city of Kampala, so I wasn’t surprised by his easy attitude. At six feet, Wilbur was the tallest of the group. Sam, John, and I were about an inch shorter, but Sam and I were bigger in size.
I smiled and patted Willy on the back. ‘Relax, Willy. I am coming to the pub with you to celebrate, aren’t I? And here we are.’
All four of us were joking and laughing as we entered the pub. At my insistence, we chose the booth farthest from the door. I didn’t want any of my teachers to see us in a pub. I still respected them even though I had finished high school.
Wilbur ordered some beers, and we started drinking and talking about everything else but school. This went on for a while as Wilbur, good on his promise, kept our bottles coming. We talked about our plans for the next several months while we waited for the exam results.
I slowly realized that out of all my friends, I was the only one who didn’t have any plans for the immediate future. Wilbur Ochom had a job with his father waiting for him in the city. John Kimuli had already started working at his uncle’s gas station in Jinja, and Sam Ssenyonjo would be driving his minibus taxi and pocketing the money. I kept my thoughts to myself, not wanting any pity from my friends.
Suddenly, an idea popped into my head and I raised my beer bottle for attention. There was instant silence as they all turned to me. I put the bottle back down.
‘Guys, I have made a decision to be a volunteer worker for the Catholic church that sponsored my education. I want to teach children in the camps.’
Everybody looked at me in disbelief. John tried to say something but merely shook his head in resignation.
It was Wilbur who finally found words. ‘Look, Eddie, you don’t have to act like a saint.’ He paused and took a sip of his beer. ‘I know a few people who want to hire honest people like you. I could get you a job,’ he finished.
‘Hey, Eddie, you could work with me in the minibus until you get steady work,’ Sam added with a big smile.
I was moved by the offers from my friends, so I looked down at my beer to get my composure back. ‘Thanks a lot for your offers, guys. You’re true friends, but I have made up my mind. This will give me a chance to be with my mother for some time. I really haven’t spent much time with her since I started high school. I’m sure things will work out for the best,’ I said.
All of them nodded slowly, even though I could tell they were not happy about it since the area was not safe. I checked the time and noticed it was getting late.
John eased out of his seat and headed for the phone booth. More drinks were brought before John came back with a big smile on his face. ‘Gentlemen, you will be staying at our place for the night,’ he said, looking around.
I sipped the beer in silence and then looked at my friends in wonder. We were about to embark on different paths. Some were going to be successful while others were not. Life is always like that, I thought with sadness. We finished our drinks and took a taxi to pick up our luggage from school before heading to John’s residence.
We were welcomed by his sister and brother and shown where we would sleep. After a nice dinner, we sat in the living room, where we got involved in different discussions. Finally, one by one we retired to our respective bedrooms. I could not fall asleep for a long time, as I was thinking about my future and weighing the uncertain period ahead.
Sleep finally came in the form of a strange dream. The little I could recall the next day was that: I was being chased by armed men through a dense overgrown tobacco plantation while trying to move away the leaves that were hitting my face. I kept running harder, urged on by my mother. Somehow she reached out and caught me with both hands, but some sort of force kept pulling me further and further from her until she was out of sight. She kept pleading for me not to abandon her.
I woke up suddenly with tears in my eyes, unable to understand what was happening. I felt better when I realized I had been dreaming, but I still kept wondering why the dream had felt very real. I checked my watch and realized it was six-thirty a.m. I got up and went for a run to clear my head. I tried to figure out the meaning of the dream, but I couldn’t make any sense of it. The more I thought about it, the more disturbed I became. I didn’t care what people said about dreams not being real. In this dream, my mother had seemed too real to be ignored.
I arrived back a little after eight o’clock. I had been gone for a whole hour and a half. Everybody had already freshened up and gone to the dining room for breakfast. I greeted them and went straight to the bedroom for my shower kit. I felt a lot better after showering and changing into fresh clothes for the journey, but the dream was still in my head. I tried to ignore it. Who knows, maybe I had too much to drink last night, I thought to myself as I joined others at the breakfast table.
‘Morning, Eddie, how was your night?’ all of them intoned in unison.
‘Pretty good, although I had a strange dream,’ I answered with a smile.
Everybody around the table laughed heartily, including Maggie, John’s sister, who teased me and wanted to know about my dream. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I avoided her eyes and concentrated on eating breakfast.
We finally finished the breakfast and thanked our hostess. I snuck away to the bedroom and straightened the place out before picking up my suitcase and mattress and walking into the living room. Students always took their own mattresses to boarding schools.
‘Gentlemen, we would not want to keep the bus waiting now, would we?’ I said with humor.
John looked at his watch quickly. ‘Well, we still have some time, but let me check on my uncle and see if he can give us a ride to the station. I’ll be right back,’ he said, walking towards the door. His uncle lived nearby.
I put my luggage down and joined the others in the living room. In a few minutes we heard the sound of a car engine, and then John hurried inside the house. ‘Eddie, you are lucky. We just got a ride. Let’s get you on that bus.’
I got up, shook hands with Maggie, and started to pick up my luggage.
‘I will help you with your things,’ Sam shouted, taking the suitcase from me. Wilbur picked up the mattress, and we all headed for the door.
‘Thank you for the ride,’ I said to John’s uncle, Mr Bill Kimuli.
He brushed off my gratitude and opened the passenger doors. ‘Anything for my nephew. Get in quickly,’ he said jokingly as he started the car.
As the car pulled off, I waved to Maggie until the house was out of sight. She was an impressive girl, very humorous and obviously very intelligent.
‘You know, the road to your area is dangerous these days,’ John’s uncle shouted above the noise of the car. ‘You should disembark at Malaba and wait for the usual military convoy.’
I nodded in agreement but did not commit myself by saying anything since I did not have a lot of money.
We got to the Jinja bus station as they were announcing the bus to Gulu.
‘There is your bus, son, hurry,’ Mr Kimuli shouted as he parked the car on the shoulder of the road. We quickly got out and ran towards the bus. I inquired about the fare, and to my relief not much had changed in the four months since I last took the bus.
‘Well, what are you going to do, Eddie? Will you wait for a convoy or head straight to Gulu?’ Wilbur asked, looking me straight in the eye.
I shrugged. ‘I don’t know, Willy. But don’t worry. It’s not the first time I’ve gone home, you know.’
Sam and John looked at me with uncertainty. ‘Eddie, I haven’t kept up with the situation up north; but let me write down the license plate number of your bus anyway,’ Sam said as he walked to the back of the bus with a pen and a piece of paper.
Sam came back with a concerned look on his face. ‘Look, Eddie, I really think you should change vehicles at Malaba and wait for a military convoy.’
I nodded, and we sadly hugged one another before I climbed onto the bus.
‘Don’t forget to send us some kind of message when you arrive home,’ Wilbur shouted above the noise of the bus engine.
I got a seat next to a window so that I could talk to my friends before the bus took off.
‘Hey, guys come around here,’ I shouted loudly through the window.
John arrived first, but the bus was starting to take off. ‘Don’t forget to write,’ he shouted.
‘You can call the number I gave you for the Catholic mission. I will definitely be there tomorrow,’ I shouted back.
They were now chasing after the bus while waving to me.
‘I will call you tomorrow morning!’ John shouted.
The bus was moving very fast, and it was impossible to hear their words as we waved hard at each other. The bus joined the main road, and the station started fading until I lost sight of my friends. I sat back in my seat and relaxed. The boy next to me seemed too young to engage in a constructive conversation, so I reached into my jacket pocket for a Sidney Sheldon novel and started looking for the right page. It was going to be a long journey.
Along the way I must have dozed off because I suddenly woke up feeling uncomfortable.
The conductor was tapping my shoulder. ‘Excuse me. Your fare, please,’ he said.
I rubbed my eyes, sat up, and looked around. ‘How much does it cost to Malaba?’ I asked him.
The conductor looked at me in surprise. ‘You mean they didn’t tell you? This is a direct service bus.’
I shook my head. ‘They said something about a military escort at Malaba because of rebel activity.’
The conductor smiled and shrugged. ‘You know, young man, there are times when the rebels hit even when they see the military. It’s all in God’s hands.’
I reached in my pocket and paid the full fare to Gulu.
The conductor took the money and thanked me. He must have seen my concerned look because he said, ‘I tell you what—we shall talk to people at the next rest area and get the full picture of what’s ahead of us.’ Then he walked off.
I reached down to the floor and picked up the little novel that I had dropped. Maybe I am being paranoid. How else could these buses keep moving on these roads if there isn’t any degree of safety? Every time I went home, it was a nerve-racking experience.
I looked at the boy on my right. He was about fifteen years old. I decided to talk to him. I learnt that his name was Rob and that he went to school in Kampala. He said he was going to visit his grandparents for the holidays.
‘Don’t you think it’s unsafe to venture so far from home?’ I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Papa said it’s safer than it’s been for years, especially since they introduced military convoys.’
I learnt that he was in senior two at a reputable school and wished to continue with his education up to university, for engineering. I sincerely hoped the boy would achieve his dream.
The driver announced that the bus would stop at a rest area in a few minutes for some minor repairs. I checked my watch. It was getting late, and I was feeling hungry. I welcomed the idea of stopping and getting some food. Also, the conductor would hopefully find out more about the rebel situation in the area. The bus slowed down and made a turn into an area where numerous vehicles were parked.
‘Welcome to Kali. We shall leave here at six-thirty. You have roughly an hour and a half. Please be back on time, otherwise we will leave without you,’ the driver announced through the microphone.
I got up and followed the rest of the passengers off the bus.
‘Hey, Eddie, it looks like it’s going to be a long journey to Gulu,’ Rob said to me with a big smile. I squeezed his shoulder and smiled back. He was about six inches shorter than me, but he was built like a wrestler. I thought he was pretty big for his age.
As we descended from the bus, Rob pulled on my hand and said, ‘Come on, Eddie, I have been here before. I know a good restaurant where we can eat.’
I obliged and followed him through the maze of cars. I could use a good meal, not to mention the restroom. The restaurant was clean and newly painted, which meant it might be expensive. Oh, what the hell, I thought to myself.
‘Hey, Rob, where is the restroom?’ I asked.
He pointed to a white door in the corner. ‘Don’t forget to get the toilet paper at the counter if it’s a long call,’ he said, smiling.
I nodded and changed directions. I got the roll at the counter and then went straight towards the restroom. Afterwards I washed my hands and face and also combed my hair. I felt much better as I walked back into the dining room.
‘Over here, Eddie,’ Rob shouted when he saw me. ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I ordered for us and the food is on me.’
I was surprised and embarrassed. How can I let this boy buy a meal for me? I started to protest, but something in the boy’s eyes made me relax. There wasn’t any arrogance, just happiness.
I will accept this one time on the condition that I buy the drinks.’
‘Okay, let’s shake on it,’ Rob said, giving me his hand.
I took it and squeezed it. He jumped up from his seat like a demon. I let go of his hand and burst out laughing.
‘Damn! I’d be crazy to let you do that to me again,’ he exclaimed as he shook his hand.
The waitress brought our meals of meat stew, mashed potatoes, and lettuce on the side.
‘Excuse me, Miss. Can you please bring us a couple of soft drinks?’ I asked. Rob asked for a Fanta, and I ordered a Sprite. ‘Oh, and can you make two separate bills, one for food and the other for drinks?’ I asked. She nodded and left to get the drinks.
I prayed before our meal, a habit I had picked up at home from my mother, and then we dug in. The meal was delicious and very timely. I ate all the food on my plate in silence and didn’t look up until I was finished.
‘Thanks, Rob, I really needed that,’ I said, reaching for my drink. Rob raised his Fanta in a toast, and we both gulped them down. I looked at my watch and noticed we had spent about an hour in the restaurant. We still had about thirty minutes, so we chatted some more before we settled our bills and headed for the bus.
By the time we got there, everybody was back in their seats getting ready to go.
‘Hurry up! We almost left without you,’ shouted the conductor.
The bus started moving before we were fully seated. The conductor was checking tickets and at the same time issuing new ones for the newcomers. When he got to our chairs, I reached over Rob and touched the conductor’s hand.
‘Did you find out if the road is safe?’ I asked.
‘There hasn’t been any rebel activity in a while, so we are heading straight to Gulu,’ he said. He checked his watch. ‘If all goes well, we shall arrive at around nine.’
That meant we still had a journey of two and half hours before we got home. I thanked him and sat back in the seat. I closed my eyes and started daydreaming about home and my new volunteer job.
Some people in my hometown lived in protected areas that were sustained by contributions from various churches and organizations. I was looking forward to teaching in these areas. I liked teaching; it gave me a sense of self-worth. I also wanted the children to have a better future. I hated seeing hopelessness in our people.
The bus slowed down. I opened my eyes and elbowed my young friend Rob. ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ I asked.
He stood up to peep through the front windshield and then quickly sat down, his eyes wide with fear. ‘Oh no, I knew I should not have come.’
I didn’t wait to hear any more. I stepped over him and tried to look. We were stopped in a park near the road. There was some kind of roadblock, but something didn’t seem right. A lot of thoughts started running through my head. Suddenly, something exploded very loudly, and I was thrown towards Rob. Another loud explosion followed, and then silence reigned all around. The bus headlights went off and everything became dark.
‘What’s going on, Eddie?’ Rob asked.
I didn’t know what to say. I just put my index finger on my lips. ‘Shh … I believe we are in deep trouble,’ I whispered.
There was some commotion outside the bus, and then a powerful light emanated within the bus. The light moved silently from face to face, slowly going towards the back. These couldn’t be the rebels. They were simply too cool. They didn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry. Nobody dared say a word. It was the most frightening time of my life.
‘Listen, everybody!’ a male voice shouted in fluent English. ‘I want you to walk towards the front and out of the bus, starting with the seat in the back. Now!’ he finished harshly.
People started walking out of the bus, and Rob and I followed silently. The man with a flashlight was standing next to the driver’s seat. Behind him was another man with a pointed gun. I noticed a leg protruding from under the driver’s seat, and I recognized the clothing. It was our driver. My heart sank. Oh, my God. The explosions! The bastards had murdered him. But why? He had slowed down the bus as they requested, but they had still killed him.
Suddenly, the reality of our situation dawned on me. These were the rebels. I prodded Rob to hurry up. I didn’t want to see any more death.
‘You! Stay!’ a voice barked.
I hoped it wasn’t me they were calling and kept walking down the stairs.
‘I mean you, going down the stairs, come back.’
I turned around to face him, scared stiff. He motioned with a flashlight for me to climb back up, which I did. He kept looking hard at other boys and kept motioning the strong-looking ones to stay behind until there were five of us. One woman tried complaining about her son, and they simply told her to go and wait for him outside. When she refused to go, they laughed and told her to take him. As the two were walking down the stairs, they were mowed down by bullets. The woman and her son fell outside the bus.
‘Okay, everybody! That should be a lesson to you. We are not here to play around, understand?’ the man with the flashlight said.
We all nodded, too dumfounded to say anything.
‘I want everything cleared out of this bus and thrown through the windows on the right in ten minutes flat,’ the man said to the five of us boys. ‘Now move!’
We almost fell on top of each other as we hurried to unload the luggage. We worked fast, throwing things out the windows. Urged on by the rebels, we even broke a few windows. We finished quickly and were told to step out of the bus to join the others in the line. A lot of flashlights were outside, either pointing at us or at the bus.
‘Now listen, you morons, I don’t like to repeat myself! Everybody get your things quickly and form a line,’ a man with a big flashlight shouted.
I was scared to death. I realized that the only hope we had was if by chance an army convoy passed by, but the odds of that were one in a million. In the meantime, all I had to do was try my best to cooperate with our captors.
They ordered us to start walking towards a hill deep inside the park.
‘No talking. You hear!’ the man with the big flashlight shouted again. I took him to be the leader because he was commanding everyone.
We kept climbing up for what seemed like eternity until we arrived at a flat area.
‘Halt!’ the leader screamed. ‘I want everybody to sit down and turn around. Look this way!’
We all did as we were ordered. He stepped back from us. Suddenly there was a big explosion and our bus was on fire way down in the park. Our captors all laughed loudly as if it was funny. I felt sick to my stomach.
‘Attention!’ the leader shouted. ‘As you have seen, we punish with death, so don’t push us. If you behave, your time with us won’t be bad,’ he said and then walked away to join the other rebels.
I was trying to figure out what I had done to deserve this, but I kept drawing a blank.
‘On your feet, we have a long journey ahead of us!’ the leader shouted.
I didn’t look back, I just picked up my things and followed the rest. My nightmare had just begun.