Field Of Dreams
5 September 1996
Field of dreams
Nikki van der Gaag sets out for Ikafe, a Sudanese refugee settlement in northern Uganda. The plan is to spend three weeks there and to write a whole issue of the NI about the lives of the refugees. But fate - in the form of Colonel Juma Oris's rebels - steps in and plans begin to go awry...
Calling November Base. Come in November Base. This is Mobile 12. Over.'
'Hello. This is November Base. How are you? Over.'
'Fine. How is the road? Over.'
'Not good I'm afraid. A landmine has exploded on the Koboko-Ladonga Road. Find out what you can at your end and we will speak at three.'
'Copied. Three this afternoon. Standing by.'
The radio crackled and went dead. We looked at each other gloomily. More delays. Issa, the driver, swung the vehicle round and back onto the road.
We had been waiting for three days now to get to the Ikafe refugee settlement located a couple of hours' drive to the north near the Uganda-Sudan border. I had arrived at Entebbe airport on Thursday morning, expecting to head off to Ikafe the next day. But that was not to be. Instead I was immediately put on a ten-seater plane straight to Arua, the nearest large town to Ikafe.
As the plane came down I could make out houses and mud huts. People were walking or biking down the road carrying huge bundles on their heads. Goats grazed, tiny moving specks of brown and black. The colours were startling: from the blues pinks, yellows and reds of women's clothes to the bright green of the trees and grass and the ochre-red of the road.
We flew over a football field and finally bumped down in Arua. I breathed a secret sigh of relief as the wheels hit the runway. A small crowd was waiting beside a tiny house, and I was whisked off in a white Landrover whose enormous radio aerial could have graced any major communications centre.
It was presumably via that same radio that the first news of the hijacking had come earlier that day. Two trucks and two Landrovers had been taken by unknown rebels, the occupants of the latter forced to march for a hour and a half not knowing what was going to happen to them.
It turned out that the rebels were an anti-Government group known as the West Bank Nile Front. They were led by a Colonel Juma Oris, who had been in Idi Amin's army, but seemed to be backed by the Sudanese Government in Khartoum. They had come over the border from Sudan at Midigo the night before and had been planting landmines along their route. Rumour had it that they had also slit one man's throat.
We spent a lot of time in Issa's Landrover over the next few days, radioing Ikafe and back to the capital, Kampala, for news and for permission to move. We got to know the best radio reception spots - and so did all the little boys in the area, who lounged around listening to our strange conversations until they were shooed off, giggling.
On the Saturday morning we heard that an Italian aid worker had taken one of the roads that we had been planning to take. His Landrover hit a mine and he was now in Arua hospital. We drove frantically round trying to find out what had happened and finally found the watchman at the aid agency's office. 'Director in hospital,' he said grimly. 'He hurt his foot.' He made a dramatic slashing gesture at his own leg: 'Off.'
That night we listened in the small hours to radios buzzing and trucks revving away. The next morning an army Lieutenant-Colonel staying at our hotel (the White Rhino Hotel, though there was not a rhino in sight beyond the painted ones on the hotel wall) told us there had been a 'major offensive' against the rebels in the night. Eighteen had been killed and nine captured. I prayed that the noises we had heard hadn't been the nine being questioned.
We now had permission to go and soon set off down the road to Ikafe, promising to radio in to November Base every half hour. We met few other vehicles on the road, just curious children waving and neat grass huts in immaculately-swept compounds.
The journey took just over two hours. En route we stopped at Yumbe, a town with a huge mosque - the Ugandans in the area are mainly Muslim - and many broken-down brick houses. 'They were destroyed during the war of 1979 when Amin was defeated and no-one can afford to rebuild them,' said Issa.
Idi Amin, under whose presidency hundreds of thousands of Ugandans were murdered, came from this area. The forces which came in after his regime fell wreaked a terrible revenge on the local people. The area has been neglected by central Government ever since.
After Yumbe a truck passed us going the other way. It was full of young men, all standing up in the back. The driver waved and Issa waved back. 'That's Gideon, from Ikafe,' he said. 'And here,' he waved vaguely to the left, 'is where the settlement begins.'
I could see nothing that marked it off from the rest of the countryside. It didn't seem like a refugee camp - or at least not the images I had of a camp - at all. There were the same neatly thatched grass and mud huts (tukuls), the same children waving. Only here and there was an area of land which had been burned or deforested. Everywhere, people were hoeing or planting; spiky maize leaves grew among smaller clover-like plants which I later found out were groundnuts.
Then we pulled into Bidibidi 'base camp'; the 'November Base' that we had been communicating with so regularly. Built on a hill, the office block looms large above the bush, pale blue and incongruous.
Two hours later, my things safely stacked in my tent, I heard that the truck we had met had been turned back five minutes down the road. The rebels had been right behind us.
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