Power to For­give

Tor­tured by Idi Amin’s sol­diers

Activated - - FRONT PAGE - By Stella Sabi­iti, as told to Ac­ti­vated East Africa cor­re­spon­dent Kath­leen Mu­rawka

I dis­cov­ered the power of for­give­ness on a July af­ter­noon in 1976. It was dur­ing the Idi Amin regime, when Uganda had come to a stand­still—ca­reers, the econ­omy, the in­fra­struc­ture, ed­u­ca­tion, ev­ery­thing. I was a stu­dent at Mak­erere Univer­sity and also newly mar­ried and ex­pect­ing a baby.

Be­cause the univer­sity didn’t have any sup­plies and the lec­tur­ers didn’t have any fuel to get them to and from the univer­sity, they didn’t come to teach us. So we stu­dents would go to the li­brary ev­ery morn­ing and ei­ther read there, or get books to study in our rooms. Idi Amin, not hav­ing gone to school him­self, didn’t un­der­stand why we were do­ing that. He thought it was a demon­stra­tion against him, so he rou­tinely sent sol­diers to the cam­pus to ter­ror­ize us.

At that time, my hus­band was work­ing in the north­ern part of the coun­try, near the bor­der with Su­dan. Ev­ery so of­ten, he would come to Kam­pala or I would visit him and we would spend a few days to­gether. He had just come for the week­end, and Mon­day morn­ing he dropped me at the cam­pus. When I got to my room, my room­mate, Ju­dith, and an­other friend, Brenda, told me that sol­diers had been com­ing and go­ing from an­other hall of res­i­dence on the other side of the cam­pus, and had bro­ken things and beaten up some stu­dents.

This wasn’t the first time this had hap­pened. Off and on, truck­loads of sol­diers would come and beat some of the boys. We girls would shout at the sol­diers from the bal­conies of our rooms, telling them to stop, and they would yell back that we were stupid women who didn’t know any­thing. We were used to not be­ing at­tacked by them be­cause we were women.

About noon that Mon­day, there was a knock on our door. We thought it was some friends play­ing a joke on us, so we shouted, “Go away, you sol­diers!” and we laughed. You know how stu­dents are. But the knock­ing got louder and louder un­til we re­al­ized that it was sol­diers!

Brenda and I ran onto the bal­cony

and crouched down. Ju­dith jumped into her bed and cov­ered her­self. Mo­ments later, the sol­diers broke down the door with such force that bits and pieces of the lock and door flew across the room and onto the bal­cony. Sol­diers burst into the room, shout­ing. Mirac­u­lously they never saw Ju­dith in bed, but they did find Brenda and me on the bal­cony. I re­mem­ber think­ing, This is it! When­ever the sol­diers went after some­one in par­tic­u­lar, that was the end of them.

They pulled us from the bal­cony and shoved us through the room and into the corridor at gun­point. One sol­dier stayed be­hind and leafed through our pa­pers. Ju­dith could hear him just a few feet away, but he never saw her.

“We found you! We found you!” they kept shout­ing at me, as though they were sure I was some sort of ring­leader. When we got to the top of the stairs, they pushed us down. Each time we would get up, they would push us again. Fall and roll, get up, fall and roll, down one flight of stairs after an­other. At the top of the last flight of stairs, which was the long­est, one of the sol­diers hit me from be­hind so hard that I went fly­ing and didn’t stop un­til I hit the floor. I lost con­scious­ness.

When the other sol­diers reached the bot­tom of the stairs with Brenda, they said they were tak­ing us to Makindye, a bar­racks that at the time was a slaugh­ter­house. But first they took us next door to Lu­mumba Hall, a male hall of res­i­dence built around a court­yard. There, sol­diers were tor­tur­ing the boys—boys we knew, good boys. Ap­par­ently this had been go­ing on all morn­ing with­out us know­ing about it, even though we were in the next build­ing.

The sol­diers made Brenda and me join the boys for a while, but soon we were all or­dered to go out­side, in front of the hall. Brenda and I were sep­a­rated from the oth­ers. I was told I would get spe­cial treat­ment be­cause I was the ring­leader.

More sol­diers ar­rived—hun­dreds of them. They brought many more

girls out­side and made them join the boys, crawl­ing half-naked back and forth at gun­point on the tar­mac, their knees bare and bloody.

I have no idea why they thought I was the ring­leader. That was what gave me strength—know­ing that the ac­cu­sa­tions they kept shout­ing at me were base­less. They beat and whipped and tram­pled Brenda and me, but their main at­ten­tion was on me. This went on for hours—one cruel form of tor­ture after an­other. Re­mem­ber, I was also about one month preg­nant at the time. It was a mir­a­cle that the baby sur­vived.

By the end of the af­ter­noon, the sol­diers ap­par­ently de­cided they had tor­tured me enough and said they were tak­ing me to Makindye, the slaugh­ter­house. But be­fore I died, I wanted to find out why they were do­ing this to me. Why, out of the hun­dreds of girls at my hall of res­i­dence, had they picked me as the ring­leader?

All day I hadn’t said any­thing. I hadn’t cried. I hadn’t screamed. I hadn’t done any­thing to re­sist. I had been like a piece of wood. Now part of me wanted to ask them why they were do­ing this to me, but an­other part said that if I did, it would only make them come down harder on me. Then a voice in­side said, Just look into their eyes. That’s where you will find the rea­son for this.

So I looked them in the eye, and I was so sur­prised at what I saw there! De­spite all their curses and bravado, they were hurt­ing in­side! They didn’t like what they were do­ing, con­trary to what I had thought all along.

I was so over­whelmed with com­pas­sion for them that I wanted to tell them be­fore I died that I un­der­stood, that it was okay. But how could I tell them that? I was still be­ing beaten and tor­tured, but be­tween blows the thought came to me, Maybe if I talk about some­thing we have in common, that will help them un­der­stand. It was a crazy idea, but I didn’t care. I had noth­ing to lose.

But what did I have in common with those sol­diers? They were strong men—I was a preg­nant woman. They had guns, boots, whips—I was a sim­ple help­less girl. Then it dawned on me. You’ve just been mar­ried, you’re ex­pect­ing a baby. Th­ese men must have fam­i­lies too.

“What did your wives cook for you last night?” I asked.

“What?” they asked in dis­be­lief. And then they said some­thing in Kiswahili. When­ever Idi Amin’s sol­diers tor­tured peo­ple, they spoke in Kiswahili. To­day, many Ugan­dans don’t speak Kiswahili—they as­so­ciate it with tor­ture and bad things. “What a stupid woman!” they yelled, and they kicked me some more.

When they stopped, I took a deep breath and asked them again, “What did your wife cook for you last night?” They hit me again. That con­tin­ued un­til they must have thought, Let’s hu­mor her. And they started an­swer­ing, “I ate this,” and “I ate that.”

Then I asked, “Where do your chil­dren go to school? Did you take your chil­dren to school this morn­ing?”

My sim­ple ques­tions led to a con­ver­sa­tion, and the sol­diers even­tu­ally sat down with me un­der a tree, where we talked and laughed. Yes, we ac­tu­ally laughed to­gether! Brenda told me later that when she saw that scene, the fear and pain left her.

It turned out that the sol­diers who had been with me the whole day were the lead­ers. They made a sig­nal, and the whole thing stopped, just like that! By this time, it was around 6:30, so some of the boys had been tor­tured all day long and the rest of us for about six hours.

Trucks came and col­lected the sol­diers, and am­bu­lances came for those who were the most se­verely in­jured. All the gates to the univer­sity had been locked and guarded all day, but the am­bu­lances must have been wait­ing out­side, be­cause they ar­rived while the sol­diers were still leav­ing.

The univer­sity cooks and kitchen staff, whom the sol­diers hadn’t ha­rassed, brought us tea and bread, then sat with us on the ground and cried for us. That’s when I fi­nally broke down. I couldn’t imag­ine what it had been like for them, hav­ing to wit­ness all this but be­ing un­able to do any­thing to stop it.

Look­ing back, I can hon­estly say that I for­gave those sol­diers the mo­ment I looked them in the eye, be­cause that’s when I re­al­ized that all of us—stu­dents and sol­diers alike—were vic­tims of some­thing we didn’t un­der­stand. And when I asked them about their homes and fam­i­lies, they got the mes­sage that I re­al­ized that and for­gave them.

I also owe a lot to my up­bring­ing. My par­ents taught me that there is some good­ness in ev­ery­one, no mat­ter what. There has to be, be­cause the Bible tells us that God cre­ated us in His own im­age.

That ex­pe­ri­ence gave me so much strength and showed me that I should never fear an­other hu­man be­ing! That’s how I can do the work I do to­day. I’m at ease even with armed sol­diers, and will even go into ar­eas where there are land­mines. I fear the land­mines and the guns, but I don’t fear the sol­diers or rebels hold­ing the guns or plant­ing the land­mines. I know that they are hu­man, just like me, and we share a deep com­mon­al­ity that can never be taken away.

Hav­ing gone through that ex­pe­ri­ence at Mak­erere Univer­sity gives le­git­i­macy to the talks I now give about for­give­ness. When I tell my own story of how I was able to for­give and the won­der­ful things that hap­pened as a re­sult, peo­ple lis­ten.

“Why should I for­give any­one who doesn’t say they are sorry?” peo­ple of­ten ask me. And I tell them, “Life is too short for me to hang around wait­ing for some­one to say sorry to me.”

So much good has come from that hor­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence. Best of all, I dis­cov­ered that, like ev­ery­one else, I was born with a won­der­ful some­thing—the power to love peo­ple! I didn’t have to earn it. It’s just there. And it doesn’t run out. The more I use it, the more I get! Stella Sabi­iti was a found­ing mem­ber of the Cen­ter for Con­flict Res­o­lu­tion (CECORE), a Uganda-based not-for-profit NGO founded in 1995 by women as­pir­ing to pro­mote al­ter­na­tive and creative means of pre­vent­ing, man­ag­ing, and re­solv­ing con­flict. She has taken her mes­sage of for­give­ness and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion across the world, and has been in­stru­men­tal in help­ing to re­solve bloody con­flicts in Uganda, the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, Liberia, the Su­dan, Rwanda, Bu­rundi, and else­where.

Stella Sabi­iti with her hus­band and daugh­ter about one year after her Mak­erere Univer­sity or­deal. Stella Sabi­iti in more re­cent years.

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