Journey from innocence

‘Cockroaches.  You are mine.  All mine.  Nobody is going to help you here.’  The man bellowed in a thick East African accent.  He was wearing the green uniform of a Ugandan guard and stood at the front of the coach, near where he had boarded.

‘Don’t worry princess,’ Rahul said, squeezing his daughters hand and giving her one of those looks that said everything would be okay.

He had called her princess ever since Ama tumbled into his life eleven years ago, a delicate bundle of joy.  Looking at Ama, he saw the living memory of his dearly departed wife, her likeness, her mannerisms, and her smile.  A gift for which he loved his daughter very much, and now sat on the backseat of a rickety old coach, with the few possessions they had been allowed to bring, Ama was all he had.  She squeezed his hand back.

‘Cockroaches.  You dirty Indian cockroaches.  Remember the year 1972.  It’s the year Uganda became Ugandan again.  And you cannot take with you what belongs to Uganda.   What belongs to me.  You will hand over all your money, watches, and jewelry.  Whatever you have.’

The guard grabbed an old man sat in the first set of seats by the neck of his shirt, lifting him up so they were face to face.  ‘Whatever you have.  If you hide something from us.  We will find it.  We will find it, and you will see what we do to cockroaches then.’  He threw the old man back into his seat.

Ama hoped the scary man would not take her jumper; she had never had one before.   Her Dad had given it to her before they set off; telling her it was going to be cold when they got to their new home, far away in England, and the jumper would keep her warm.  It was pink, pretty and soft to touch.  It was Ama’s favourite thing in the whole world.

She had not had chance to show the jumper to her friend yet, Mita, who was sat near the front of the coach with her father, Mr Gaddi.  She hoped that when they got to England, they could walk to school together, just as they had at home.  Ama knew that when Mita saw the jumper, she would wish she had one exactly like it too.

Rahul worried about his daughter.  Such a happy girl.  It had broken her heart when he told her they had to leave.  She had cried so much he thought the tears would never stop.  She just couldn’t understand why they had to go, why she had to leave her school, her friends, her life.  He had tried to explain things, but how could he expect her to understand, when he did not understand.  How could he explain the actions of a madman?

They had a good life in Uganda.  The passing of his wife from malaria six years ago had been difficult, but he never had time to wallow, he needed to be strong for his daughter and he was.  His neighbours had helped him whenever they could, and he was grateful.

One of them helped him get a job as a clerk at the bank where they worked.  Rahul, motivated by the desire to provide a good life for his daughter, worked harder than everyone else did, sacrificing much of his time.  He steadily rose through the ranks, and after five years working at the bank was called into see the manager, who was retiring and wanted Rahul to take over.  If only his wife could have seen him then, a bank manager; after the birth of his daughter, it was the proudest moment of his life.

Only fate had different plans for Rahul, or rather one man did, the president.

Idi Amin had taken control of Uganda through a military coup, and declared himself president.  Rahul remembered thinking at the time, it never turns out well when people declare themselves president, and he was not wrong.

Idi Amin blamed Indians.  He said that Ugandans were poor because the Indians had taken all of the money and kept it for themselves.  He blamed them for everything that was wrong with the country, and increasingly, he got everyone else to blame them too.

One morning in August 1972, after being president for about a year and a half, Idi Amin got out of bed and declared enough was enough.  That during the night, Allah had visited him in a dream and told him that Uganda was for the Ugandans, and the Indians had to go.  The president ordered the expulsion of all Indians from Uganda.  They had ninety days.

Almost overnight, Rahul’s world changed.  The very same neighbours that had helped him, now at best avoided him. He could see the mistrust and hate in their eyes, where before had been kindness.  He could hear the whispers; Indians were to blame.

He turned up at work to find his job given to someone else, an ethnic Ugandan.  And a few days later, he found a notice nailed to the front door of his home.  The house was to be taken by the government and allocated to a Ugandan family.   Everything he had worked so hard for, the life he had built for his daughter, crumbled away.  He still had Ama, she was all that mattered, and he knew he had to get her away from this madness.

Two more guards had boarded the coach, slowly moving down the aisle, holding out bags for people to drop in their money and jewelry.  There was suddenly lots of shouting.  Rahul looked on, and Ama stood on her tip toes to get a clearer view of what was happening nearer the front.

‘No.’

‘Give me your money.’

‘No.’

It was Mr Gaddi, his face flushed red with anger.

Do not be an idiot, let it go, thought Rahul, just let it go.  He knew Mr Gaddi had a temper, one of those people that always tried to win an argument by shouting the loudest, and he was shouting now.

‘What right have you to do this? You have taken my home, you have taken my job, we only have a bit of money and now you want that?  We are leaving.  What more do you bastards want?’

The first guard barged through and grabbed Mr Gaddi by the throat.  ‘What right?  What right do I have cockroach?’

He slapped Mr Gaddi across the face laughing.   ‘I am Ugandan.  You are in my country.  You belong to me.  Everything you have belongs to me cockroach.’

‘Fuck you.’ Mr Gaddi shouted and shoved the guard hard, sending him down the aisle and over onto his back.

Suddenly, lots of people were shouting and pushing at the guards.  Someone snatched at one of the bags, sending the contents flying out in all directions.  People scrambled over each other, grabbing at the falling money.

The noise that followed was the loudest thing Rahul had ever heard.  Like a thousand doors slamming at once.  Screams followed by a panicked silence.  The guard had picked himself up from the floor, and stood, seething, his right arm in the air, holding a gun, smoke rising from the tip of the barrel.  He had shot through the roof.

He grabbed Mr Gaddi and with the handle of the gun, hit him hard across the face, sending a spray of blood into the air.  Mr Gaddi fell back into his seat.  The guard picked him up by his hair.

‘Open your mouth.  Open your mouth cockroach.’  Eyes ablaze with rage, the guard shoved his gun into Mr Gaddi’s mouth.

‘Daddy.’ Ama could hear her friend Mita scream in-between tears.

‘So Mr.Cockroach.  Are you brave now?’ shouted the guard, bearing his white teeth as he laughed, ‘are you brave now?’

With the gun still in his mouth, Mr Gaddi could only force out a muffled noise, a sort of wail.

‘You are mine cockroach.  Everything you have is mine, and if I want it, I will take it.  Do you understand?’  Mr Gaddi nodded his head.  ‘If you so much as make a noise.  I will kill you.  Understand?’  He nodded again.

‘And her.’  The guard said, as he grabbed Mita, and threw her screaming into the aisle.

Whilst keeping the gun wedged in Mr Gaddi’s mouth, he motioned to the other guards. ‘Take her.  Take her right here and show him, show them all, what happens to cockroaches.’

At the back of the coach Rahul had gone pale.  His big hand pushed his daughter, Ama, down by the shoulder. ‘Get down, get down on the floor here, where they can’t see you.  They must not see you. Be quiet princess, for me please be quiet’

Ama looked at her dad, and the face that always told her everything would be okay, now creased with worry, Rahul’s eyes flicking nervously between Ama and the front of the coach.  She had never seen this look before.  Ama curled up into a ball on the floor, and Rahul covered her with his coat, hiding her from the world.

Under the darkness of the coat, Ama could hear the guards laughing, and Mita crying out in pain.  She lay motionless, curled up in the dark, too scared to cry, too scared to breathe.

After what felt like forever, Ama could feel the coach moving.  Shortly after, there was light.  She looked around, her eyes taking a few moments to adjust to the brightness of the midday sun shining through the windows.  Ama looked at her Dad, who pulled her close and hugged her tight.

‘It will be okay princess, it will be okay.’  He kissed her on the forehead.

Rahul looked around the coach; it was shrouded in a silence, only pierced by the rumbling of the engine and occasional sob.  The other passengers stared vacantly out of the windows, like all the life had been drained from them.  They looked empty.

The next day, slowly people began to chatter again, and as they neared the airport, anticipation began to build.  Were they really going on an airplane? Would it be cold when they got there?  Where would they live?  What food would they eat?  Would the English people welcome them?

As Rahul and Ama carried their bags off the coach, they passed Mita and her father, Mr Gaddi, still sat in their seats.  Mita had been silent since, not a single word.  She looked sad.  Ama stopped and pulled something from the top of her bag.

‘For you.’

As they left the coach to start a new life, Ama looked back to see Mita pulling on a jumper.  A soft, pink jumper.

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