THE BORDER CROSSING THAT ALMOST KILLED ME
Half asleep, my head bobbed foregrounding the blurred landscape of the Kenyan savanna. The view gradually transitioned from silhouette of the flat horizon to sprawling forest shrouded in pitch black night.
It was close to midnight and the road was noticeably rough, no longer the smooth asphalt highway that cuts the Great Rift Valley into halves, and the passengers were occasionally agitated by the bus’ sporadic violent bounces—we arrived at the Kenya-Uganda border.
Astounded, for Kenya being one of the progressive countries in Africa, the border looks surprisingly desperate, almost morose. Then I realized that we were brought to the notorious Busia border.
One-by-one the uneasy passengers quietly stepped out of the bus. With eyes wide open adjusting to the absence of light and somewhat a form of instinctive coping mechanism amidst anxious silence. With a single light coming out of what looks like an old building, we followed out of logic, or maybe just of survival reflex. Like moths gravitating towards fire, towards clear danger.
The sound of shoes thumping, squishing the muddy ground, and the muffled murmurs of unknown tongues interlaced our almost audible heartbeats—A symphony of foreboding omen, like the scene would pan wider to reveal a Nazi concentration camp.
The officer flipped the pages of my passport while his bloodshot eyes and apathetic expression strangely transfixed. To this day, I am not sure what the noise in the hall was like, as if I somehow consciously pushed that moment’s sensory memory to the far recesses of my consciousness. I never felt so nervous standing in front to the immigration counter, and I can only remember how my heart violently tried escaping my ribcage.
I passed through the border check, and quickly sprinted out towards the parked bus. I uttered the sincerest “Thank God!” Almost prayer-like, even if I am not religious.
I settled back in my seat behind the driver. The bus was humming silently and cold air fiercely blasting from the air-condition pipes. In the dimmed red light, a dark herculean figure emerged and all of a sudden, the passengers mysteriously fell asleep, except me. If that was the drill then I certainly did not get the memo.
The uniformed man threaded the aisle like a reaper searching for his next subject. He passed my row and in an abrupt motion, his heavy hand tapped my shoulder and gestured to step out of the vehicle. Frozen, I darted some worried looks to John and Reiza.
Left with no choice but move, together with a British lady in her 50’s, I endured walking the longest 50 meters of my life. As we approached a nondescript bungalow, I somehow uttered a false/hopeful reassurance “we’ll be fine!”
“What’s going on?”
“Where is he escorting us to?”
“Will we still see the light of day?”
Armed with a rusty AR-18 ArmaLite, another uniformed man showed us the door. Though the small room was almost empty, I scanned the corners to see if it could possibly be a gas chamber.
I am not a religious person but I somehow sincerely uttered in an almost prayer-like sigh “God, help us!”
The welcome we received was quite hostile, the officer held our shoulders and in an abrupt grappling thrust, they pushed us down forcing us to sit on old monobloc chairs.
The soot stained flourescent light flickers as moths and insects fly around it in a dance of desperate confusion. The confabulation, the fear, the uncertainty—aggravated by the foreboding silence.
The other foreigner, the lady un her 50’s was sitting next to me, she looked tired as ever. I kept calm, even though our increasing breath sounds seemed to be in synchronised rhythm—we were one with the uncertainty, fear, confabulation.
The uniformed men sat close in front of us, close for us feel their breaths, too close for comfort.
“Why are we here, sir?”
Without addressing my query, he replied with a deep toned “How are you?” as he snatched my passport from my hand, and in a gentle motion he delicately browsed the pages… “Ahh.. Germany, Australia, Japan… No Uganda? You need a visa here young man.”
“Sir, with all due respect we have visa on arrival agreement with your country. And there’s an immigration stamp which I paid for $100… Sir.”
In an instant he snapped and raised his voice shooting another interrogatory query. “WHY ARE YOU WEARING THIS?” He pointed to my fatigue trousers which I got for $10 from a thrift shop and rarely use. RARELY! Why of all the chances to wear it, I decided to grab it on a day that it could easily cost my life?
“Are you a military officer? Are you here for a mission? Espionage?”
He grinned in the most sinister manner. His teeth being the whitest shade in sight, popped in contrast to the blue walls, his aubergine skin, and yellow eyes tinged with shades of red. He held his AR-18 ArmaLite closer to his chest, with the body raised at my eye level. Gently slipping his finger in the trigger guard he surreptitiously pointed the gun to my knee.
I felt numb and helpless, I gave up. In a swift motion I pulled-out my wallet. Before I even flexed my arm to offer it, he grabbed it with one hand and maneuvered to pluck USD200 with some loose bills of local currency.
While he was digging for other valuable loots, I could hear the lady pleading that she does not need any permit as she’s volunteering in a local orphanage. And so she was adamant not to give her money. I looked straight to her eyes gesturing to surrender everything in. She refused.
The other officer grabbed her frail arm and pulled her out of the room. I, on the other hand was escorted back towards the bus.
Pale and cold I climbed in the vehicle and before I even got the chance to sit and settle, we started moving. Without questions, without the British lady, without absolution. John was so furious of what happened, Reiza calmed him down. While I stared blankly, dared not asking or saying a thing, and fell asleep as we leave the dim light of the border towards what felt like an inexorable darkness.
The hatching sun peeking from the horizon woke me up. Gleaming and blinding, I rubbed my eyes and realized that we have reached Kampala, the old capital city.
Was it a bad dream? I quickly checked my wallet and found that it was empty. I clutched my chest, faced the light, and closed my eyes tight… I survived the night to live another day.