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UGANDA: A COUNTRY RETURNS TO LIFE

By Stephen Maikowski, Special to The Christian Science MonitorMr. Maikowski recently spent several weeks traveling through Uganda. / April 1, 1980



Busia, Kenya, situated on the Ugandan border, is little more than a collection of faded pink storefronts, a dusty bus station, a half-mile truck queue backed up from the border station, and the bustle of human activity.

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The atmosphere on the Ugandan side of the border is one of tension. The stares of the Kenyan people now seemed mere glances compared with the attention I received walking down the highway on the Ugandan side.

I arrived at a bus station and climbed aboard a bus, heading for Jinja, about two or three hours away.The people milling around the bus, particularly the men, were dressed in the ragged remains of shredded shirts. They gathered around the bus to peer in at the mzungu (Swahili for European) as I tried to relax under all the stares.

The conductor threw my pack on top of the bus, and people in the station watched with intense curiosity. I was concerned for the safety of my possessions. Finally, the bus departed, bouncing down the partially paved road. Several kilometers later the conductor called my attention to something ahead, and I glanced out of the window. Two bodies had been left on the edge of the road.

Nonchalantly, the conductor informed me that these men were caught stealing a goat the night before, and the villagers had killed them with pangas (an East African machete). They were left for a day as a warning to would-be thieves. I forgot about the safety of my pack.

The streets of Jinja were deserted. There were few cars on the streets, but no more than a handful of people. Walking farther, I noticed that the counters and shelves of the few shops that were open were completely bare; other shops were boarded up. In sharp contrast to the cities of Kenya, there was no blaring music to pace one's gait. No danger from roving taxis cruising at high speed; none of the old men who idle along the streets. Barren shops and deserted streets constituted the new urban landscape.

There were no manufactured commodities in Jinja. The cigarette trade was one of the few businesses. Small quantities of food staples such as rice and maize meal were available, but the price continually rises out of the reach of the people.

Fortunately, there is a plenty of fresh fruit. The diet of most Ugandans consists of matoke (plantains) bananas, or pineapple. There is almost literally nothing else in the way of food.

What clearly is abundant in Uganda are Tanzanian troops. These, attired in camouflage Army fatigues, walk the streets of the towns, though the only times they are armed are at key points: roadblocks, railway stations, bridges, centers of transport, and select outposts.

The soldiers are equipped with Soviet-type AK-47 assault rifles, which look more like toy machine guns than lethal weapons. The guns are strapped to their shoulders. The troops encountered thus far at roadblocks were cordial, efficient, and thorough in their work.

Later in the day, while I strolled through Jinja, a local restaurant owner named Gambetta invited me into his place for dinner. The tables were empty, devoid of tablecloths, salt or pepper shakers, or silverware. Several china shelves contained cups and plates; the other shelves were empty.

Mr. Gambetta, oblivious to the condition of the shop, handed me a plate of matoke and sat down. Proudly, he pointed to a wall mural depicting the restaurant as it was furnished prior to the war, complete with richly colored tablecloths, full china sets on each table, and customers in every chair.

He related his observations of the war in Jinja. The town actually suffered little physical destruction; a single plane dropped several bombs in the center of town one evening, and several banks were burned, but it was nothing compared with the massive damage of the southern towns of Masaka or Mbarara. Once the Amin troops evacuated the town, what they missed in looting, the local people lifted. Many civilian corpses daily littered the streets. Citizens were machine gunned indiscriminately if sighted by the retreating Amin forces.

Most people hid during this period, Mr. Gambetta said, or returned to their rural villages or those of kin. Others picked up abandoned weapons and joined the liberation forces.