Remembrance Day Reflections: Juliane Okot Bitek

November 11th 2013_Falllen Autumn Leaves in Toronto

ZP Guest Editor Juliane Okot Bitek

Forgetting and Remembrance Day


I used to think that Remembrance Day was restricted to soldiers lost in the wars that Canada was involved in. I used to wish that I could remember my brother on Remembrance Day, in a public way, as one of a family who had lost one of its brightest and as one of a community which had lost hundreds and thousands of men and women in the various wars that were fought in my homeland of Uganda. I wanted desperately to claim Remembrance Day for us, because we too had lost a great love and a great life. But I thought it was an imposition, so I wore red poppies like everyone else and reflected on the Canadian dead and listened to speeches about how the veterans had fought for our freedom and how we owe them the comforts of our lives.

I heard my brother call out to me on a sunny morning, just after a high school assembly as me and my friends made our way to class. I looked about. I didn’t see. My brother called out again. It was an urgent call, loud. I turned around, asked one of my friends if she’d heard my name being called. No, she said. She didn’t hear anything. A couple of days later, I was picked up from school and taken home. My brother had been shot.

My brother, Keny, was an officer in the Uganda National Liberation Army, the post-Idi Amin government army. Story was that he was in Fort Portal, a town in western Uganda, and that officers did not usually fight on the frontline. Story was that my brother and other officers were on the frontline, fighting the guerrillas that would eventually make up the current government of Yoweri Museveni. Story was that my brother was shot in that battle, and that he wasn’t the only one. The weekend of Keny’s funeral, there were eight other funerals for eight others killed from the same region – the Acholi region of northern Uganda.  It was a sunny day, no evidence of rain for days to come;  it was hot.  The kind of day that evoked memories of my brother walking with his wife and toddler to his hut during the funeral rites of my father, scant months before. There was a gun salute, I think, with the solemnity befitting an officer. And it wasn’t a grey day, it wasn’t November. The ache from losing my brother would remain just under my skin for years.

I wanted to be a soldier once. When the Canadian military would set up a booth seeking to attract students from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I’d pick up a brochure, take the fridge magnet or the pen they offered, the type that came with sticky notes at the other side. I wanted the chance to join the army and make it as high up as my brother might have done.

Remembrance Day in Canada is usually celebrated with wreaths and the marching of proud veterans who are often shuffling along with age and carried along with pride. Black and white film clips from the First and Second World Wars, Korea; video clips from Afghanistan. News channels often focus on the celebration of our soldiers’ efforts at the local cenotaph where a solemn declaration, carved in stone, is ignored for most of the year. Often it’s raining – a grey day, a grey month, a grey time for families who think of November 11th as a national marker for those they loved and lost, and for those who never returned whole.

Sometime after my brother Keny‘s funeral, I returned to school and tried to melt back into normal. The deaths of my brother and father in such quick succession would’ve been hard to ignore but Ugandans have weathered loss for so long and we know how to pick up, keep moving, keep smiling, keep going. Our English teacher gave us a composition exercise in which we were to write a story that ended with lines from the title of Kenyan poet, Jared Angira’s poem, “No Coffin, No Grave”. We had to write a story that was true, from our own experience, no less. What came pouring out of me was the story of losing my brother. I wrote about my sister-in-law who had gone to identify his body, and I could hear her wracked in pain as she narrated her experience. I wrote about how she identified my brother by a bracelet that she had given him. How it was that he had to be buried quickly, how it had to be a closed coffin affair. And how it was that we never had the chance to say goodbye – not really.

Keny had come to visit me in school the term before. He had come in full military regalia. He stood up when he saw me – and saluted. I saluted back – and giggled. He wanted to know how I was, if there was anyone bothering me. And if there was, I was to promise that he’d take care of it. You know how big brothers are – bragging, seemingly full of themselves. He told me not to worry about anything, that I’d be alright. Perhaps Keny had come to say goodbye, and I didn’t know – I did not know that.

There are families for whom Remembrance Day is Every Day or most days. National gratitude doesn’t and cannot match personal grief and it’s hard to argue with a public show of support and the recognition of soldiers. Often we hear phrases about how our soldiers fought for our freedom. That gives me pause: from whom do Canadian soldiers wrest our freedom? How do they do that? What do we do, for example, with the images we’ve seen from Elsipogtog just last month?

When Canada joined the war effort in Afghanistan in 2002, a professor in the English department at the University of British Columbia started to keep count of the losses. Canadians would never let fifty soldiers die over there. But fifty came and went. The faces and names on the professor’s door grew. If it got to a hundred, surely Canadians would be up in arms. A hundred soldiers died, and more; Remembrance Day was commemorated like all the other ones. A hundred and fifty eight Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan and there was no uproar here, just another solemn Remembrance Day on November 11th.

Soldiers die, their families hurt. Soldiers live with terribly injured bodies, their families hurt. Soldiers get so badly scarred psychically that it should give us pause to think about what it means to maintain an army, to have young people sign up for duty. And then we think about them once a year – with so much solemnity and pomp. But some soldiers go it alone…

Months, years later, I would think about my brother Keny and how useless his advice had been. I worried – and he wasn’t there. I hurt, and people hurt me – and he wasn’t there. He wasn’t there to take care of the nastiness that we had to go through. He wasn’t there when my grade-school teacher returned with our marked composition papers on the “No Coffin, No Grave” theme and insisted that there was one paper that she wanted to read out – and it was mine. She held it up as an example of what not to write. After she’d read it to the class, she turned to me and asked me how it was I could lie like that, to make up such a story. And that I should be ashamed of myself, she admonished me. She told me to leave the classroom and, as I walked out in shame, the tears that threatened to choke me, I willed them to stay back; I was not going to cry.

Keny wasn’t there when I turned thirty three, his age when he died.

I think about the loss of lives of young men and women who sign up for military duty to defend their country, to fight for the rights of others, to invade other nations or to assist in reclaiming Life after disasters like Typhoon Haiyan in The Philippines – which struck land on November 7th and 8th. This is hard and dangerous work, and sometimes it’s awfulwork that returns with evidence of our armed men and women engaging in shameful acts such as the 1993 hazing of Shidane Arone in Somalia. And look at the evidence provided by the recent deconstruction of the Black Blouse Girl photo which shows that there was rape before the Massacre at My Lai. How can we continue to maintain an institution that drives our men and women to such depths, then we commemorate the wars that led them to their deaths? How then can we forget so fast, so completely?

Last summer, I had the privilege of visiting with my nephew, Keny’s son. I was going to be seeing him for the very first time since I left home in 1988. I took the train from Vancouver to Eugene, Oregon, and had dinner with him and his fiancée. My nephew grew up without his father and has no idea whose spectre walks beside him. He feels like Keny, sounds like him. He even called me waya – auntbutthere was no urgency in his voice, not like the one I’d heard almost three decades ago one morning after assembly. We talked about all kinds of things, but nothing about the gaping absence between us. Time had collapsed to have us meet and know each other, but not enough to have my brother back.

Remembrance Day is packed full of history and valour – Canada has lost many brave women and men to the nastiness that is war. This country, and other countries which have lost brave men and women, can step up to count themselves as courageous and freedom- loving, but when are we going to be inspired by the enormity of loss to seek a future in which there are no more wars and no more losses to war? The list of dead Canadian soldiers no longer hangs on that professor’s door – but we remember what hurts, some of us do.

November 2013_Fallen Leaves_Toronto, CanadaAddendum:   In fact, that list of soldiers names on the door of the professor in the English Department is still there. I have visited his office several times since I graduated in 2009, but I stopped seeing. By his own admittance, the list needs to be updated but still, it says something to me that forgetting is an active process and possibly it begins by stopping seeing what’s in front of us. I’m grateful to Professor Zeitlin for reminding me that peace is a worthwhile pursuit and it begins with the intention to see, to remember and to question what it is we must never forget.

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