A shootout that reminded of a dark sad past


Moses Odokonyero_closeup pixSunday night we planned to watch the Germany- Ukraine football game with my German neighbour and friend. ‘‘I would like to watch the German team sing the Germany national anthem,’’ she had told me earlier in the day.

‘‘Patriotic German,’’ I joked. Then we had a chat about what we needed later in the evening as we watched the game in my house: popcorn? Soda? Biscuits? Water? Tea? We settled for tea.

But we were not to watch the game. For that very evening, minutes after 9pm, a staccato of gun shots rang out. Robbers? A soldier gone bonkers? A private security guard? Is what raced in my mind.

I went for my ordinary level education at St Joseph’s College Layibi, a Catholic boys’ school in Gulu. It was at the peak of the vicious insurgency in northern Uganda. But despite the unfriendly teaching-learning environment, our lot was 18th best in the country. The lot after us did even better.

The school was a military garrison, complete with battle tanks. The late Gen James Kazini would occasionally pop in late in the night to check on us. In those years, we were adventurers, naive and in retrospect, stupid boys; we would sometimes climb on rooftops in the dark of the night to watch the flare from volleys of fire as the rebels and army tussled it out.

On Sunday night, no longer the naïve boy, I wasn’t keen on stepping out of my house.

As the shooting grew louder and took longer, it became clear that something was amiss.

I called a military contact: ‘‘what’s happening?’’  ‘‘Are you home? Keep safe. Keep safe,’’ is all he said.

The phone calls. The emails. The instant chats on social media were fast and furious. Everyone wanted to find out what was happening. It struck me how in this information age you can have so much information yet so little information.

When the shooting stopped, the haze on what had happened began to be clear. The army and police spin doctors jumped in action to take charge of the information flow.

In 1986 an armed group emerged triumphant and took over state power. They began to consolidate their authority. In ‘‘historically hostile’’ northern Uganda, they left atrocities in their wake. Some writers have stated that the new rulers put out a public announcement asking soldiers of the deposed order to report to them. Those who did, some accounts say, never came back. The rest who hadn’t heeded the call fled to Sudan (now South Sudan) and launched onslaughts on the new regime in Uganda.  And like that a two-decade bloodbath began. Along the way it sucked in a voodoo priestess; her father who still runs a mystic church in Gulu; a former altar boy turned ruthless guerilla leader; geopolitics; the International Criminal Court and the global war on terror.

The war on terror brought in the Americans.  South Sudan attained independence. The LRA lost a safe haven. Cumulatively these multiple and complex factors contributed to the inconclusive Juba peace talks which silenced the guns in 2006.

With no more war, the 200 plus filthy ‘‘Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps’’ dotted across Acholi began to close. The ‘‘lost generation’’ that had been born and bred in the uncertainty and filth of the IDP camps began to trot back home with their bare-handed parents to a new world and to bushes they once called home.

The Sunday night shootout in Gulu was a reminder of a dark haunting past. The haze on what happened is still to clear. Speculation is that it is as much about the past as it is about politics.

Mr Odokonyero has interest in media development, communications& public affairs