By Jahan Berns | First Published: January 29, 2015
The day is seared into my memory. It started out quiet and tense—a contrast to the bustle and laughter of most mornings. As my father’s armed convoy snaked through the sewer-drenched streets of Kampala, my 7-year-old eyes saw the devastation wrought by Uganda’s prolonged civil war. From barefoot children who fought for scraps of food at a garbage dump to the barely dressed women unceremoniously sitting in the dirt—babies clinging to them—everyone looked depressed, save for the few pedestrians who waved when they recognized Father.
“Omukulu Afande wuyo!” (“There is the big commander!”), one toothless man shouted as Father somberly waved back.
My father was a brave, big-hearted and brilliant soldier. He was trained as a commando in Israel alongside Idi Amin, the brutal dictator who later tried to kill him after accusing him of planning a coup. Father’s tribe loved him. They depended on him for protection, while he hoped for their support in his fight to become president.
The convoy came to a stop outside my primary school. As usual, I slid my little hand into Father’s big hand as we walked to my classroom, accompanied by three gun-toting, camouflaged bodyguards. I heard Father rattle off a string of instructions in Swahili. My heart skipped—he never used Swahili around me unless something was wrong.
Three hours later, the camouflaged men were still standing outside the classroom. They usually stopped and played with us. Not this day.
A couple of hours later, their apprehension proved worthy as the rapid, guttural sounds of an AK-47 rifle rang out. As the gunfire increased, Kasanke, my chief bodyguard, came and scooped me up and began to run. I recall that one of my patent leather red bow shoes fell off and despite my pleas to retrieve it, we kept running until I was safely in the backseat of an armored vehicle beside my father.
A few hours later, as I lay down for my nap, I lovingly gazed into the biggest, loveliest bloodshot eyes I had ever seen and said, “When I am big like you, I want to have lots of soldiers that do everything I say.” Father laughed out loud and then sadly said, “I hope you never need soldiers when you are grown up.”
As I stared into Father’s eyes, little did I know that the next time I saw him, those beautiful eyes would be unrecognizable. He was assassinated soon after, and his body wasn’t discovered for weeks. Over time, I silently embraced the cold weight that was thrown around my shoulders by my newfound companions: Anger and Fear.
As the years flew by, and as I searched for meaning in the occult and in Islam, Anger and Fear dutifully married me to Hatred: they all faithfully stayed by my side, secretly feasting on my pain. All three were present, cheering me on when, years later, I almost killed a lovely schoolmate whose only crime was telling me how much I needed Jesus. By this time I was attending a boarding school founded by British missionaries, yet I was plagued by constant sickness, tormented by nightmares and battling insomnia.
It got so bad that one dark night I actually found myself running wildly away from an imagined assailant. Panting and out of breath, I stopped outside the chapel where the Christian girls that I utterly despised were holding fellowship prayers. There were audible gasps when I walked in. Myriad thoughts raced through my mind: You are a Muslim; you are not welcome. You have always been mean and despicable—no one likes you.
Those thoughts quickly drove me out of the chapel. But then I heard: “Jahan, please wait up! Please come back to the chapel. We had just finished praying for you when you walked in!” Paula said with undisguised enthusiasm.
The lump in my teenage throat made it difficult to swallow. Paula continued, “Are you afraid? I know your father was assassinated. When my dad was killed, I had so much fear as well, but the Bible helped chase away the fear.”
I turned and raced to my dorm room. I grabbed a Bible and jumped into bed, thinking that if I slept with it, it would help take away my fear. I held it tightly against my chest and tried to will myself to sleep. To this day I don’t know if it was an audible voice or a silent voice, but I do know that I heard a crystal-clear question: “Are you going to sleep with that book without knowing what is inside it? You might as well just sleep with your history textbook!”
I randomly opened the Bible and my eyes fell to Psalm 91. As I read the text, the words jumped out at me—I had never read anything that alive. When I woke the next morning, I realized I had gotten a full night’s sleep without nightmares! I started in Genesis and for the next few days, all I did was read the Bible. While I did not understand everything I read, the words gripped me and stirred me in a way that the Quran had never done the few times I had tried to read it.
It was a bright, sunny afternoon when I finally finished reading the Bible. I walked into the chapel, sank down to my knees and prayed: “Lord, I need you. If you will take away this darkness that has constantly plagued my life, I will serve you for the rest of my life.” As a warmth I had never known stole over my face, I began to sob. The dam had broken. I cried over broken dreams and the many wrongs I had committed.
When the tear ducts finally ran dry, I walked out of the chapel, looked directly into the bright sunlight and felt like I would burst with newfound love and joy. That day, Christ filled my heart and turned a tormented soul into a new creature. D ©BGEA 2014