Yesterday, July 14, 2010 I joined the leaders of the Inter Party Cooperation to visit victims of the 7/11 bomb blast in Ward 2A Mulago hospital, Kampala. The press had been tipped off so there was a frenzy of activity with photo journalists running to and fro trying to find the best spot to capture the day’s images. The presence of the press created a bonanza atmosphere yesterday at Mulago Hospital where I had expected a somber mood. Journalists scrambled with politicians and their entourage to get the best photo opportunity.
For a moment I was taken aback by what I considered bad taste considering the purpose of our mission: To commiserate with those who were in needless pain because of a senseless incident. These mostly young, soccer fans had gone out to have fun and they were now considered the lucky ones to be in hospital with broken limbs, while their friends were killed in a vicious senseless attack by the cruel al-Shabaab (The Youth).
My concern about the fracas we were causing on the ward melted away when I came face to face with al-Shabaab’s victims. I was transfixed in the moment and could not move away from two young women, with beautiful facial features on one side and mangled features on the other.
I pulled away from the crowd, dropped the political hat and let my human one take over. We had not even reached the ward. Obviously it was filled to capacity and there were about six individuals in the waiting area, a corridor outside the ward; which was now fitted with beds. There were no curtains to separate the patients, no privacy at all. I moved closer to the two young ladies, observing the tortured looks and their ghastly wounds. The first one had half her head shaved and there were fresh stitches running down the length of her scalp. There were more stitches on her right cheek and on her chin. Her eyes were swollen in a way that I had never seen before and the skin around the eyes was red and black. I was sure that she was a fair skinned beauty the day before 7/11. Now I had to get close to her to imagine just how pretty she must have been.
I thought she was sleeping but she stirred and opened her hurting eyes, looked right in mine and greeted me. I asked her name, she told me and I promptly forgot it. I felt like an intruder on her pain. Then without prompting she started telling me her story. She must have repeated it many times already because she told it absent mindedly. She said she was not one to go to such events but she was escorting a friend. I listened but did not hear everything, at some point I started to cry. She was 22 she said, had finished studying and had a shop in Banda. She rambled on, saying her father always made sure his children had a business when they completed school. What a wise father I thought, but my thoughts were only half there. I turned away to hide my tears. Then I moved on to the next girl, who told me her story too. Viola, this time I remembered her name and I will always remember her pain and her disfigured face.
I was angry and am still angry with the bombing of 7/11. I have read many opinions from all sides of the political spectrum. There are those who say that we shall crush them and how I wish we could. In Northern Uganda we learnt that brute force does not always ‘crush’ terrorists and that they remain alive long enough to spread their terror and paralyze communities. If we could not crush the ones on home territory where the army resides and has the advantages of local terrain and community support, how will we crush terrorists that live on their own terrain and have their community’s support?
With al-Shabaab we have a new kind of terrorist working on Ugandan soil. The type that does not care to live to see the destruction they left behind, one that does not care about a reward in this life because they have been promised a harem of virgins in the next life and material wealth for those they leave behind. This terrorist does not care for those who will ‘crush them’ because such hard words are spoken after the suicide bomber has already crushed themselves.
Now is a time for grieving but it is also the time to say this: We were wrong on Somalia and we are wrong to react in the traditional way to a new and unconventional problem. This is not a time to blame nor is it a time to seek political justification with hindsight.
It is a time to correct our mistakes.