Friday February 14 2014

‘We escaped death at kabalagala on Valentine’s Day’

Annette and Jackson.

Annette and Jackson. 

By Jackson Oboth

One memorable day that has remained enshrined in my mind is the Valentine’s Day of 1999. I was dating a beautiful girl from Kisoro who I had met five months earlier. Annette Kangabe is still my friend. She is also my beautiful wife and mother of our three lovely children.

Back in 1999, Annette and I arranged for a double date with my friend Sam Tukei (May his soul rest in peace) and his girlfriend Prossy, who worked with Uganda Revenue Authority. Our friendship was strong because both Sam and I were workmates who hail from eastern Uganda and were dating girls from south-western Uganda.

Our choice of the venue for the Valentine outing was Telex Bar Kabalagala, where Prossy had made prior preparation with the goat muchomo roaster for a real treat. Annette and I had agreed to meet at my home in Kamwokya at 5pm to change and leave for the venue together. Sam and Prossy were to go ahead of us to secure our seats.
For one reason or the other, Annette delayed at work. She finally showed up at 6.30pm and I had to wait another 30 minutes so that she could bathe and change into her clothes for the evening.

I was rather ticked off, given the fact that we were supposed to have joined our friends at 6pm. Prossy had already made five phone calls wondering what had befallen us. Finally Annette was ready and we jumped into a special hire car for Kabalagala. We were not prepared for what awaited us along Kibuli Road leading to Kabalagala. It so happened that Uganda Breweries had organised a huge concert at Speke Resort Munyonyo to mark the grand finale of the Bell Lager Freelander promotion. The traffic jam stretched for many metres. Cars were moving at a snail’s pace. To this day, we still believe that God used Annette’s delay and the heavy traffic jam to save us from eminent death at Telex Bar in Kabalagala where terrorists executed their mission to kill people. That day there were twin bomb blasts and many deaths and injuries.
The first bomb went off when we were about one kilometre to the venue. It was a loud bang which we thought was a car tyre that had burst.

Arrival at the venue
Finally we arrived and we could see Sam and Prossy already seated at the roadside pub, enjoying their drinks. It was around 7.30pm but we could still see them clearly. Our driver was now looking for a space to park the car so that we could disembark, when the second bomb went off! A loud bang lifted the car up before it hit the ground again. We were taken unawares. Traffic was slow and there was no way cars could speed off. I quickly slithered out of the car, holding Annette’s hand and we crawled through a corridor of the Kabalagala buildings opposite Telex Bar where the blast had just occurred. We could hear groans of dying people, mixed with shrill screams of terrified women and men as well as bullets flying in the air.

We kept running amidst sounds of ambulance and Police sirens probably dashing to the scene to rescue survivors. Soon we found ourselves at the main road leading to Namuwongo. I held my date’s hand firmly as we ran.

Looking for help
I looked behind and saw a car speeding towards us. I raised my hands and it screeched to a halt right besides us. We quickly got in the back seat and the driver sped off again. It was only when we got to the Jinja Road traffic lights, that the driver asked us where we were going. We asked him to drive us to Grand Imperial Hotel. He complied and soon we were at the hotel where we ordered for drinks to calm our nerves. We then made calls to both Sam and Prossy’s numbers which rang unanswered. We looked at each other with none of us having the courage to admit what we were both thinking. We did not have the courage to go and look for our friends. We went home but we could not get a wink of sleep.

The wee hours of the following day found us at Sam’s home in Naguru, where the doors were still firmly locked with padlocks. I decided that we try Nsambya hospital in the hope of getting information in case our friends were among the causalities.
As we walked through the gate of Nsambya hospital, we saw Sam and Prossy seated at the steps holding each other. Their clothes were covered in blood. Totally shaken, with bandages all over, they were leaning on each other. They lifted their heads and looked at us. Their eyes were hollow. We sat with them and listened to their story.

It so happened that the terrorist placed the bag containing the explosives under the very table where Sam and Prossy sat. Two other chairs were reserved for Annette and I. Sam remembered that when he walked into the pub with Prossy in tow, there was a man seated at a table in corner just near the entrance. The man sprung to his feet and offered the table to them and they mistook him to be a worker at the pub.

Little did they know that there was a heavy bag containing explosives right there under their table. Four hours later, with the pub was full with couples, Sam and Prossy still held on to the two seats reserved for us. They had already placed an order for our roast goat meat complete with salads. They were just waiting for us to arrive so that we could enjoy the meat together. They continued sipping from their glasses when the dark hour struck.

Surviving death by inches
In Sam’s words, the blast tore through their table with such momentum both of them were thrown metres away. He could not explain how they both survived. All around them were bodies still stuck in their chairs, heads lunging backwards! A few survivors were whimpering in pain. Both Sam and Prossy were covered in blood and pieces of flesh. They could not locate each other.

Suddenly there was a melee in the area with Police and ambulance sirens making deafening noise as they ferried the casualties to the nearby Nsambya hospital. Sam looked for Prossy, shouting out her name. They both had lost their phones which were on the table when the explosion went off. The chairs in which they had been seated were blown to pieces. How they survived with minor bruises, was beyond human understanding. Sam started crying.

With hands placed on his head, he went to the hospital hoping to find Prossy there. As for Prossy, she had been hauled into the police truck and whisked to the hospital among the dead and injured. She was quickly rushed to the emergency ward where doctors examined her and bandaged the minor cuts and discharged her. She had just walked out of the hospital gate when she heard Sam crying, calling her name. She ran and tapped him on the back to see if he was the one. In a warm embrace, they thanked God for saving their lives.

As they narrated their ordeal, I noticed Annette’s grip on my hand was getting tighter. My mind flashed back to how she delayed at work and the further delay in the traffic jam. We immediately joined Sam and Prossy in thanking God for the miracles. God indeed works in mysterious ways and that is one Valentine’s Day I shall never forget.

- The article is an edited extract from Jackson Oboth’s forthcoming book, Herdsboy in the City.