We took some time to get to know Opiyo Oloya, author of Helion’s just published BLACK HAWK RISING: The Story of AMISOM’s Successful War against Somali Insurgents, 2007-2014
Where were you born?
I was born in Gulu town but I grew up in a little bit of Bwaise of Gulu, Paminiayi. It is about 17 kilometers as you go west of Gulu, towards Lacor, then you branch off towards Alokorum seminary… My home is there in Paminiayi, Nwoya district.
How did you end up in Toronto, where you currently reside?
The story begins right from Makerere University just after the war that kicked out Idi Amin. I am a first-year student at Makerere, I come in and we are really happy to feel a sense of freedom. And then of course Uganda went through those quick succession changes, Lule, Binaisa and now we are beginning to look into elections of December 1980.
So, we are students, we organize ourselves and we become involved in politics. At some point, I was elected the guild president. One of the things I was passionate about was that I wanted to see a Uganda where people are free to move around, interact, freedom of political association …but I did not get the sense that that was happening.
And that bothered me because we had just come from a dictatorship… We moved towards December 1980. The election was done on December 10 and we felt, as a group of students, that it was fraudulent. After that, there were a series of events at campus, the culmination of which was on February 24, 1981 where a group of armed security people moved on campus; a number of students were arrested.
I escaped… first stayed with a lecturer of Makerere who took care of me that night and then took me to this safe house in Kamwokya the following day and we stayed there until March 6, 1981. On the 10th day we, with other students, John Oryema, George Otto (both medical students) and Grace Ggalabuzi (now a professor in Toronto), got on the back of a white pickup truck and moved towards Jinja, then to Busia.
There was a roadblock and then we were asked for our IDs. Luckily, the fellow who was asking for identification cards happened to have been a friend of my brother; they went to school together in Gulu High. He mistook me for my brother and he said ohhh, we went to school together. So, I played along and he said you guys don’t have to worry, just go along.
So, we went but between Jinja and Tororo, we ran into another roadblock…I showed my passport, which did not tell that I was coming from Makerere or who I was. But another student, one of the four, showed his Makerere ID and immediately he was put on the ground, with a gun to his head and he was threatened with being shot.
The only thing that saved him was that he said ‘I am not running away, I am going to see my uncle who is in Tororo’; and he gave the name of the uncle who happened to be a police officer… Then we went to Kenya on March 6, arriving in Nairobi the following day.
Did you have any plans once you escaped?
There wasn’t much of a game plan. We knew though that we needed to stay alive because whatever we left behind was not very, very safe. We needed to tell our story to someone so that we can begin to look for an opportunity for sponsorship. We went to several embassies.
We got help from friends of Ggalabuzi (he had friends in Nairobi and was the only one with money on him); we met some friends as well that were from the Gulu area who were very instrumental in giving us financial support so that we at least had something to eat and a place we could rest our heads.
Tell us about your writing…
My fist article came out on February 20, 2007. I said Uganda was sending troops to Somalia, the Americans were there, and Canadians were there. On October 3, 1993, Americans were thoroughly beaten, Black Hawk Down. Why are we sending Ugandan troops there? I was against it. So, I wrote my piece and I said you know what; our troops will be DOA, dead on arrival.
Then in 2010, I run into the current CDF, General Wamala Katumba, and he had not forgotten that. He invited me, and said ‘you know Opiyo, you come and have lunch with me, I wanna show you something’. He showed me what Ugandans were doing, the humanitarian gestures for Somalis, and it changed a little bit of what I had in mind. And he said I want to do more.
I want to invite you to come with me tomorrow to Mogadishu. I said I don’t think my wife would say yes. Then he said don’t tell your wife. Call her when you arrive in Mogadishu. And that is exactly what we did. We flew out and I called my wife and she said are you crazy?
Precisely as Katumba had said, I found Ugandans engaging in what I would never have imagined, working with the Somali civilians, humanitarian gestures…from that day I said I don’t care what people will say about whatever I will put out, I will always speak in support of the work that the UPDF is doing.and so came Black Hawks Rising...
What do you do when you aren’t writing?
Many people know me as a writer. But in Toronto, I am involved with education. My entire career is that of an educator. I started as a school teacher with the York district Catholic school board, just north of Toronto. I became a school principal and now I am superintendent of schools. So, I am in charge of about 22 schools within the district, these elementary schools.
I get the chance to visit and interact with the kids…
I am still a teacher in the sense that I love to teach, I don’t teach anymore actively because as a superintendent, there is … a lot of coordination but when I go to a school, I walk into a classroom and whatever the subject might be, the teachers are very happy to see me, so we team-teach.
BLACK HAWK RISING and thousands of other fascinating titles can be found at http://www.casematepublishers.com and everywhere fine books are sold
Original interview available at the Observer