Remembrance of Murders Past

The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda.
By Andrew Rice
Metropolitan Books, 363 pp., $26

A strange thing happened during the making of The Last King of Scotland. While the film was shooting in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, onlookers transfixed by Forest Whitaker’s likeness to their former dictator, Idi Amin Dada, began affectionately chanting “Dada.” Others, less generous in feeling, angrily cursed the powerful apparition. The ghost of Amin had appeared, and the crowd was suddenly reliving, not reenacting, history. Not to knock Mr. Whitaker, but these reactions had little to do with the actor’s chops and everything to do with the psychic hold that the man who called himself “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and the Fishes of the Sea” still has on Uganda 30 years after the end of one of the cruelest regimes on a continent infamous for them.

Amin’s lasting force remains in large part because the country decided to tamp down its bloody past—to collectively forget—in favor of peace and reconciliation. Unlike the Jews’ stringent hold on memory, South Africa’s grand Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the humbler but perhaps most realistic localized gacaca courts of Rwanda, Uganda adopted a nationwide policy of letting sleeping dogs lie. As a judge who ran Uganda’s short-lived attempt at a truth commission puts it to author Andrew Rice, “You can pursue justice at the cost of perpetuating conflict. Or you can pursue peace by excusing some of the things that happened, although atrocities should never be condoned.” The result, Rice argues in an insightful new book, The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda (more on that protracted title shortly), is a culture of repressed trauma and delusion.

Smile recounts the story of just one of the 300,000 murders committed under Amin’s eight-year reign. What makes it notable is that it was the first to be tried in a court of law. Rice, a journalist who has written extensively on Africa, was living in Uganda in 2002 as this legal drama was unfolding. Shortly after reading about the trial in the newspaper, he sought out the complainant, Duncan Laki, a Ugandan-born lawyer who split his time between Kampala, where the case was being tried, and New Jersey, his adopted home. At the time that Rice met him, Duncan was already a year and a half into an odyssey that began with Kampala’s Department of Motor Vehicle records and led to the long-missing body of his father, Eliphaz Laki.

Eliphaz had been a county chief (not unlike a city councilman) under Amin’s predecessor, Milton Obote. Though a quiet, outwardly prudent man, Eliphaz became involved with the resistance immediately following Idi Amin’s 1971 coup, driving the car that smuggled its leaders, including Yoweri Museveni, the man who would become Uganda’s current president, across the border into Tanzania. Not long after, he was detained on charges of treason. After several months in a prison where he was tasked with carting off the bludgeoned bodies of fellow prisoners—a job preferable to those inmates forced to do the bludgeoning (this is Amin we’re talking about)—he was released as suddenly has he’d been locked up. Eliphaz returned to his government position but he knew his days were numbered—in the week of his disappearance he sent his wife a letter intended as a good-bye. One afternoon in September 1972 he was picked up by a trio of men and never seen again. As with so many disappearances, someone probably informed on him, likely someone he knew well. In Uganda, as in East Germany, citizen informants were essential to the ruling party’s hold on state power.   

But Eliphaz’s murder and the series of discoveries that led his son, 30 years later, to the killers, is secondary to the story. What’s more remarkable, and what distinguishes Smile from the crowded bookcase of genocide history and memoir, is the description of the bizarre process by which justice is pursued. Although Rice’s storytelling can be dry—he sometimes has trouble bringing what is otherwise outstanding reporting to life—he has written a book singular in its account of the day-to-day realities of dredging the past. In some ways, Smile is the banal procedural to Philip Gourevitch’s sweeping war narratives, most exceptionally We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families, which remains the standard-bearer of the genre. This is not intended as criticism—Rice’s by-the-facts approach wields tremendous power. By recounting the troubled search for the suspects and later the tedious, complicated trial, Rice is able to use the particular story of Eliphaz Laki as a case study of Uganda’s relationship with its past.

 

FROM THE START, it’s impossible for Duncan to pursue his father’s murderers through the proper channels because the police are wary of taking up such a politically charged case. Instead, he must track down the suspects with the help of private detectives. Only after the detectives have collected preliminary information do the police get involved, and even then they do so grudgingly, requiring payment along the way. Once the men who supposedly killed his father are detained, Duncan freely sits in on the interrogations of them, and even pays for their meals and travel, an irony not lost on Duncan.

Further complicating things is the fact that in 1994, President Museveni granted amnesty to exiled generals as part of his reconciliation plan. The rub is that amnesty covered only those crimes committed after 1986—not ones committed under Amin. Yet for the hundreds of exiles who flooded back into the country, it was widely believed that all was forgiven—and for good reason. To wit, an official letter written by one of Mr. Museveni’s senior aides was sent to the man who would become the lead suspect in Eliphaz’s case: “I wish to assure you … and indeed all Ugandans currently in refuge/exile, of the government’s commitment to the policy of national reconciliation … I wish therefore to encourage you and through you all Ugandans still in refuge/exile to come back home. …” It’s not hard to see why the suspected killers felt betrayed by the government that had urged them home.

BY COUPLING personal and state history, Rice offers an account that is at once intimate and far-reaching. Woven throughout Eliphaz’s story is a vigorous and compelling history of Uganda, both colonial and post-. He lays out a clear and pointed case for how British manipulation of the region’s ethnic groups laid the foundation for feuds that last to this day. In fact, it was in Uganda that a 19th-century British army captain codified the term “indirect rule,” which, Rice writes, “sought to extend Britain’s influence by enticing African kings and chieftains to become partners in their own subjugation.” This method was swiftly taken up throughout the continent.

As ethnically motivated warfare persists in countries like Sudan, Somalia and Congo, books on how these countries deal with their violent pasts will continue to proliferate. Which brings us back to the book’s title. Here’s a small plea to the publishers and editors who will shepherd these volumes to their inevitably Western audiences: Move away from the Gourevitch school. If not because such titles are unwieldy and derivative, but because at this point there’s something uncomfortably generic about them, as if to designate: Here’s another pulpy history about the basket case that is Africa. Rice has made a valuable contribution to the literature of memory and trauma—it would be a shame to see it disregarded as one of many.

 

Sarah Goldstein is on the staff of GQ. She can be reached at books@observer.com. 

 

Remembrance of Murders Past