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Remembering Bitek Oketch

Remembering Bitek Oketch

We were very sad to learn this month that Bitek Oketch, a Ugandan freelance journalist and fixer and the very first recipient of the Trust's Martin Adler Prize, had died. Here, journalist Callum Macrae, who nominated Bitek, remembers his friend.

When I first met Bitek Oketch in 2003, his home town Gulu in Northern Uganda was at the heart of the terror which the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) was inflicting on the Acholi people it claimed to represent.  Bitek was my fixer – and over the next few years he became my friend.
In those days, every single evening, some 10,000 children known locally as the “night commuters” would trek miles into town from the surrounding villages for the dubious safety of the streets.  Under every awning, every tiny scrap of shelter, these children lay coughing and cold, huddled against the torrential rains.  In the darkness from where they had come, the Lords Resistance Army patrolled nightly, kidnapping, killing and mutilating.  The army which was supposed to defend these children – the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) of President Yoweri Museveni, was seemingly unable, or unwilling, to do anything much to protect them. 
Bitek had been living through this – and reporting on it – for all of his working life.  He had lost relatives and friends – because of course the people whose suffering he reported were his own people.  I met his parents on one occasion, Very elderly,  they had held out for years in their village but now had accepted the inevitable and were being moved to an internally displaced people (IDP) camp. His father died shortly afterwards.
Bitek himself had been through terrible experiences, narrowly escaping death more than once, yet still he was extraordinarily lacking in anger or bitterness.  More than that he was enormously kind, gentle, wise and above all, modest. 
It was not until I met him on a return trip a year later, that he told me of how on one occasion, while doing a story for his paper, the UPDF helicopter in which he was traveling crashed in the heart of LRA held territory.  Crawling from the wreckage, Bitek realized he was trapped miles from safety and that he had lost his shoes.  He took the boots from the legs of soldier who had been cut in half by the rotor during the crash.  Eventually he and the other survivors made it back.

(Photo: Bitek and Callum in Uganda)

At the time the world seemed deeply uninterested in this war and most of the Acholi were too busy trying to survive to shout about it.  Hundreds of thousands of them were herded into huge dangerous and unhealthy IDP camps, ignored and forgotten.  Many felt that suited a government which wanted to keep the Acholi politically marginalized. The world, perhaps unconsciously, went along with that. This war – twenty five years old – had never even made it to the agenda of the Security Council.  If the LRA had been stealing oil rather than children it might have been different.
That was what motivated Bitek.  It was a desire to show the world what was happening to his people – and so, with professionalism, commitment and a complete lack of ego, he helped the occasional visiting international journalists and film-makers do that.
It was not until the LRA left Northern Uganda that the organisations and governments of the international community finally really began to take notice.  And to us it seemed this belated interest was only because the LRA had become strategically important as a potentially disruptive force in the delicate negotiations over the eventual secession of the south of Sudan and the fate of the oil reserves of central Sudan.  Suddenly peace mattered.
By 2008 the LRA had moved to Southern Sudan and in Gulu at least, there was peace while inconclusive peace talks stumbled along in Sudan.  Bitek was by now married and had a young daughter.  I saw him then on my way to Juba in Southern Sudan to make a film for Al Jazeera about the peace process.   You can see a little clip of Bitek and his family from that film here.

The peace did not last, although the war did not return to Uganda, so for Bitek’s young family at least, there was respite. 
I last spoke to Bitek on the phone two months ago: with retrospect it was a painfully brief and inconsequential conversation.  He had survived the war, started a family and made it to the relative peace of today – only to be taken by a liver failure.  He was just 44.  He leaves his wife Agnes and his daughter,  Mic Amy Rebecca, now 8 years old.
Bitek was a modest quiet man. A local journalist who worked initially for Ugandan newspapers and later for radio.  You’ll hardly find anything about him on the internet, but he was a great man, kind, gentle, brave and wise.
In 2007, filmmaker Ruhi Hamid (who had also worked with him) and I nominated Bitek for the first Martin Adler Award presented by the Rory Peck Trust.  He won.  He left Africa for the first – and I believe last – time and came to stay with me and my family in London for the Rory Peck Awards ceremony.
Anyone who was at that ceremony will remember his speech – it was remarkable, quite inspiring. 
I will miss him. 

Callum Macrae is an award-winning freelance journalist and filmmaker. He is co-founder of Outsider Television and Director of feature documentary, No Fly Zone, an exposé of war crimes committed during the final months of the civil war in Sri Lanka. You can follow Callum on Twitter: @Callum_Macrae.

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