Matt’s white Land Cruiser is stuck in the middle of bus station traffic in Kigali, Rwanda. I give him a big hug and a quick kiss. I’ll get out here. I grab my two packs out the backseat; with a wink I disappear into the crowd.
I find the Jaguar Express office and wait. It is a full hour before the overnight bus leaves for Kampala, Uganda. I am not sure why I am here so early, for no other reason than Matt said I should. Not willing to draw attention by pulling out the iPad to read, I sit and watch
the chaos of the bus station and almost miss the cheapness of paperback books.
The bus pulls out of the mayhem right at 8 o’clock. A bus that runs on time in this part of the world?! Wow. The big bus huffs its way through dark bumpy pothole marked roads and we reach the edge of Uganda by 9:30pm. Everyone gets off the bus to cross the border. I am tired. I want to get back on the bus so I can sleep. The next thing I want to see is the edge of Kampala. The night has a touch of chill in it. I zip up the fleece, wrap the scarf around a little tighter, cue up Massive Attack on the iPod and assume the sleeping pose.
It’s the middle of the night and the bus comes to a sudden stop. There are men shouting outside and I hear two popping sounds. Could that gun shots? No….I’m sure its nothing. Go back to sleep, I tell myself. The shouting gets louder. The driver side door opens, five to six men with LED flashlights push onto the bus. The bus is being hi-jacked, this is a robbery.
More shouting and everyone move into the rear of the bus. I try to follow but one of the robber stop me and told me to stay in my seat, right behind the driver. I am on the only mazunga on the bus tonight. The bus pulls off the sealed main road onto an unpaved back road. We stop and go a couple of times. The robbers can’t seem to agree on where they want to take the bus or how far.
One of the robber grabs at my cargo pants and the iPhone, iPod are the first to go. My passport is in that same pocket but he is not interested. MONEY MONEY he shouts at me and keeps on tugging at different pockets. I hand over the small wallet as he tosses through the wad of Kleenex, chap stick, eye drop from the other pocket.
They are shouting in the back of the bus. Pop Pop Pop. The same sound I heard when the bus first stopped. There is no mistaking it now. Gun shot. Small caliber and it sounds just like the firecrackers we used to play with.
Another man comes over and shouts at me. MONEY MONEY. I point to the back of the bus — I GAVE IT ALREADY. He smacks me on the head and walks away. Another one comes back to me. Which one is your bag? He picks the one that is right in front of me and starts. I watch and wonder what they will take, if not everything. He throws out everything that is useless to him. My little travel bunny, sharpie, Tiger Balm, small bag of film, notebook…then he comes to the iPad, laptop, Nikon D800, Hasselblad… He unwraps every one from their protective covers and wraps them back up as soon as he see what they are. He reaches into the back pocket of the pack and finds my real wallet.
Two more passports, credit cards, extra ATM cards and an envelop of US Dollars. He takes the cash, folds it in half, and tucks it in his pocket. Something tells me he won’t be sharing the loot with other guys. He tosses the wallet back at me with passports and cards, zips up the pack with all of my hardware inside. I wishfully think for a split second that he doesn’t want my cameras and just take the money. He puts the pack in the middle of the isle and I get he has assumed ownership of every thing inside the bag.
He walks away and another man comes over. MONEY MONEY. I GAVE IT ALL ALREADY!!! I shout back at him. He grabs at my scarf trying to un-tuck it….I loosen it for him before he chokes me with it. Okay. Sure you can have this scarf if you want. He reaches down my shirt to see if I am hiding money in my bra. Nope. Sorry to disappoint you. I tuck my passport in my underwear and put my green bunny in my pocket.
They are kicking everyone off the bus but not before a final search. I hide the wallet in the back of my pants; all three passports, credit cards and I squeeze through the door in the confusion avoiding the last search.
Everyone is laying face down on the side of the road. I join the pile. I don’t know who I am laying on top of but I feel them trembling under me. This armed robbery seemed comical until now. I don’t know what is next but I know what I fear. Please don’t rape me.
I stick my head up a little to keep an eye on them searching the passengers coming off the bus. Please don’t rape us. If there ever is a time to pray it would be now. A hand comes out of the human pile under me and gently pushes my head back down.
The engine starts. They drive off with the bus.
A skinny woman in a shinny black jacket sits up. We are still alive; there is a God she says. We get up and start walking. The night is dark and there are no lights. I finally feel
the adrenaline surge and the slight handshake that comes with it. It didn’t last long, seconds at most. I am surprised. There are few quiet sobs around me. The woman in the shinny jacket takes my hand. Are you okay I ask. Yes. Do you have your documents? She asks me. I do. Do you? No, they took it. She starts to cry a little. What is your name? Peace. My name is Peace.
Headlights. A truck is coming up from behind and everyone jumps into the woods. What if it is them coming back? I duck down behind some shrub until the truck passes us by. It is not the robbers. We could have flagged them down for help, but then, you don’t really know who is on these back roads at 5am in the middle of nowhere.
We keep on walking in the dark and I think about all the work that is lost. All the film from these last 7 weeks, video footage, digital files. All the stories I’ve written or are in the middle of. I’ve lost everything. Computer, cameras, phone, every piece of hardware and yet I feel okay. I am not panicked. I am not upset. My mind is already at the problem solving stage. Should I keep on going and spend the summer in Africa and South America like I had planned or should I go to my mom’s in Taiwan and work on the other book instead of Wok The Dog? Should I re-trace my steps or should I just pick new counties? There are plenty of options and the freedom to decide sends my mind into overdrive.
There is a fork in the road and the group can’t decide which way to go. A man comes out of nowhere from the bushes. He has a lantern, a small plastic bag and plastic flip-flops that is close to being worn through. What is he doing in the woods in the middle of the night? He points us to the Y junction in the road. I bump into a man in the dark. Oh thank god you are okay he says. I was so worried about you. I was asking everyone if they’ve seen you. It is Ken, the Congolese man next to me on the bus.
Back on the main road. Light. Pavement.
The gas station attendant is carrying a rifle. A couple of hour ago I might have thought the gun is an exaggeration but not now. He goes over to the darkened Police Station to wake up the police.
A brand new truck pulls up to the gas station with great urgency. Ogwal the policeman with perfect English hops out. We know where the bus is. I need one of you to come with us. A handsome tall man who I am noticing for the first time jumps in the back of the truck and they take off. First light. The day is starting and I’m finally seeing everyone clearly. There is a man whose gray shirt and pants is soaked through with blood. Another with his white trainers stained red. I turn to Ken. Who got hurt? “They shot him, right there on the bus, right next to me,” Ken says. “This is the third time in my life where someone got killed next to me and I’ve been spared. But it is the first time I’ve gotten human blood on me.” He holds up his arm, bright red against his dark chocolate skin.
Kids in uniforms walk by with big smiles and curious eyes. Mini buses drive pass and honks. A man rides a bicycle with two kids in uniforms, one on each end of the bike.
The police escort the bus back to the gas station, a policeman comes out with a fake rifle made out of cardboard and electrical tape. The robbers only had one real weapon between them. The dead man is still inside. Everyone get back in the bus to see if there is anything left. I know there is nothing left. There are bits of paper everywhere. A pair of white sneakers in the middle of the isle, clothes scattered around, the dead man and a pool of blood. I spot my eye drop and headlamp on the ground. I pick them up and get off the bus. Lord and behold my big pack is untouched in the luggage compartment under the bus. All the film and back up hard drives are in there. This feels like a bonus. Not just work I’ve already done, but clean underwear and toothbrush too.
Men with guns multiply. Police in khaki uniforms and black beret, military in blue fatigues and unknown designations in solid blue jump suits swarm the gas station. There are nearly as many of them as there are passengers. I am not sure that they are actually doing anything but their presence gives the illusion of justice and order. A tall man in solid blue jumpsuit stand next to me and says I’m sorry. Do you have a card? I can call you when we find your stuff. I can’t tell if this is strange pick up or if he is genuine. I hand him a business card either way. A woman makes a beeline for me, shoves a brown paper bag in my arms and walks away. There are three tins of sardines in tomato sauce in the bag. Urrh…Thanks?!
Eventually, the police remove the body and piles us back onto the bloody bus. We drive for about an hour to a proper police station to wait for another bus. Peace found her purse and there are still some money left. She insists on buying me a soda. A guy buys a dense fried pastry shaped like a muffin and offers me part of it. I try to ripe off a piece but the shape and density made it hard and I end up with a tiny bit. Come on, take more, this is Africa, don’t be shy the man says. Ken has assumed the role my escort. I ask him what happened back there and why did the robber shoot the man. The dead guy was a businessman and had an envelope of cash on him; he didn’t want to give it up. Dead for nothing. Ken shakes his head. This is Africa.
We arrive at Kampala around noon and the bus company is offering everyone a free bus
ticket as compensation. Ken insists on hiring a cab with the bit of money he found left in his bag to take me to the US Embassy. Before I got out of the taxi, he grabs my hand and slips me some money. For your transport later. I hug him tight.