Sunday January 26 2014

Jacket almost cost me life as UNLA soldiers fled Tororo

NRA soldiers walk into Kampala soon after capturing power from the UNLA government.

NRA soldiers walk into Kampala soon after capturing power from the UNLA government. 

I was in Senior Four at St Peter’s College, Tororo when the NRA rebels walked into Kampala in 1986. That morning (January 25 or 26 – memory failing me here), we woke up at about 7am to the towering image of the school head teacher, James Mudidi, who was panting and frantically beckoning to students to assemble outside the metal workshop in the square between the science laboratories.

The head teacher had walked uphill nearly 3km from the Kasoli Bridge over the Aturukuku River and was sweating and clearly ruffled by the events of that morning at his home. Apparently, a group of UNLA soldiers from Rubongi barracks came to his home at about 6am, pulled him out of bed and commandeered the school truck which was usually parked at the head teacher’s residence – with him as the driver.

A few kilometres downhill at the Kasoli Bridge on the Kwapa-Nyangole route, they told him to get out and find “his own level” and the soldiers drove off. Confused, the head teacher walked back to school. He told us what happened and asked three students who were either nephews or sons of one of the two Okello’s – Tito and Bazillio – to try and help recover the truck from Rubongi barracks where we all imagined it had been taken.

Tito and Bazillio children
One of them was my classmate in 4G stream called Oling-Okello. He was a quiet and unassuming boy while his brother, cousin (or whatever the relationship) was a little more pompous. Altogether, they were in a group of three or four highly connected students and every beginning and end of term, they would be dropped and picked at school by a motorcade of army green Land Rover V8s (usually about four or five vehicles) whose low purring engine, distinctive hissing sound on acceleration and long swaying radio communications antennas remains etched in my memory.

Usually the motorcade proceeded to Nabumali High School in Mbale where it dropped or picked one of the sons of late Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok and children of other senior military officers.

So on this morning, all hope of recovering the school struck was placed in the hands of the “Okello boys”.
The head teacher gave them his old Ford Cortina (they could drive) to go to Rubongi Barracks and speak to the commanding officer who knew them very well. They drove off and the rest of us students remained stupefied trying to make sense of the whole thing.

Less than an hour later, the boys returned followed by a military Land Rover V8. They handed the head teacher his old vehicle and packed their belongings in the Land Rover; they were going home! They told us the Okello Lutwa government had collapsed and that soldiers were using our school truck, and any other vehicles they could lay their hands on to take their families back home to northern Uganda.

That day, we continued to lounge around the school as the head teacher insisted that no student should go out as the security situation was quite precarious. We sat in small groups and tried to get whatever news we could about the situation. We listened to BBC and Deutch Welle radios on small transistor radios that many of us had at school for any news about what was going on in Kampala.

One of the “Kampala boys” (these were students whose parents lived or worked in Kampala) called Orobat kept coming in with new information: “The NRA rebels are now in Nateete swamp”, he would say. Moments later he would return and tell us from his latest information; there was heavy fighting around ‘Middle East’, Mbuya, Bugolobi, etc.

Having lived all my life in eastern Uganda at the time, with Jinja being the closest I had come to Kampala, I could not make sense of these places and what it meant if the rebels were there or not. Anyhow, students like Orobat, Okot Robert, and Gasper Emuron, became our authorities on the progress of the war even when it was not clear in the absence of mobile phones then where they were getting this information.

Tororo gunfire
Sounds of gunshots came from Tororo town and students who had ventured into the town said there was looting of some shops. In fact some of them brought back some looted stuff, mostly whiskey and cigarettes that we drank and smoked into the night.

As the night wore on, gunshots suddenly came nearer the school. Apparently some local thugs wanted to come into the school to loot, but a few policemen and school guards that the head teacher had brought kept firing in the air to scare away the thugs.

That night, most of the students resolved to return home and we arranged to keep our belongings at teachers’ houses. My group from Busia agreed to set off on foot at dusk and so did those from different places. So come morning and we hit the road.

The journey from Nyangole started off well but just before we got to Kasoli, I remembered that I had left by new jacket in the dormitory. I loved that blue jacket so much; it was a present from my uncle who lived in Nairobi and he brought it during the Christmas holiday only a few weeks earlier. I made a decision to return to school and pick my jacket, figuring I would rejoin the group but 2km (it would be 4km two-way) gap was a big one. That decision would almost cost me my life.

Walking with soldiers
Now with my jacket, I walked in the opposite direction of a wave of soldiers – hungry, angry and dejected – walking on foot towards Mbale enroute to Acholi, Lango and Teso with their little belongings on the head and back, children on the back, wives in tow and guns slang over the shoulders. The luckier ones who had commandeered any form of vehicle – trailers, fuel tankers, pick-ups etc – drove past heading towards Mbale. They were overloaded with many soldiers hanging onto any part of the vehicle.

Both those walking and in vehicles incessantly fired into the air probably to salute each other or let off their frustrations with the turn of the war. The nearly 2km walk alongside the fleeing UNLA soldiers from Shell/BP to town was one of the scariest moments of my life.

With my friends nowhere in sight and feeling vulnerable alone, I decided to turn back shortly before the Shell/BP Malaba-Tororo-Busia junction and return to school. I was scared and apprehensive as I watched the pain of the defeated soldiers wondering how many of them would make it home. You could see the frustration in their eyes!

Monkey shot
At St Kizito Primary School, a soldier walking behind me was not amused by the antics of a monkey on a tree at the foot of Tororo Rock. He shot at it, sending shivers through my spine. When we reached Tororo town, looting was going on in full blast. My adventurist spirit urged me to enter a muyindi’s shop on the main street that sold alcohol and I came out with a few small bottles of Teachers, Grants, VAT69 whisky, and Dunhill and Marlboro cigarettes. Emboldened, I walked down Bazaar Road to a shop near Sisi Kwa Sisi music store where people were emerging with boxes of electronics.

What I saw here left me shaken. A man emerged from the shop with a big Sankei or Crown radio-cassette recorder but a soldier who was going in to loot told him to hand over the radio to him which he refused. In split seconds, I heard rapid gunshots. The radio was shattered and the man was left holding the handle and trembling. I did not hear what the soldier told him, nor waited to see what else happened. I turned and started walking (almost running to school).

At school, many of the students had left. The few of us now who remained spent the next few days or so running between the dormitory and the bushes at night as thugs attempted to come into the school to loot. A few cooks remained to prepare meals for us. After a week or so, the NRA soldiers arrived in Tororo and proceeded to take over Mbale where fleeing UNLA soldiers blocked at Awoja Bridge in Soroti by Teso militia decided to return and fight back to Kampala. There were bloody battles at Manafwa Bridge on Mbale-Tororo highway. At school, we would hear the heavy artillery and gunfire.

Meanwhile at home, my family had been told by my classmate Barasa Daniel Nakuda that in all likelihood, I was dead if up to then I had not reached home. Many people were killed by fleeing soldiers in the River Malaba swamp on the Tororo-Busia road. My siblings were in Jinja at the time and with my father, they somehow managed to make it through Busoga to Lumino.

More than a week later, when the first vehicle, an old bus called Kwania Transporters set from from Majanji to Mbale, my uncle Joseph Owaka was on board to find me or my body. He found me at school. I could see the relief in his eyes. We went to Tororo town to wait for the bus from Mbale to Lumino where everyone, especially my mother and grandmother, were so happy to see me.

Brig Gen John Mugyenyi’s account

As the NRM celebrates 28 years of liberating Ugandans, we should be mindful of the stability and peace which has enabled this country to make great strides in all areas, especially the economy which has grown 5,000 times from 1986.
However, it has become a habit for senior army officers to abuse President Museveni after leaving the army. These people were in high positions in the army and you wonder why they behave like that. Retiring you from the army doesn’t mean that you are above the law. Even when you have retired, you are still expected to behave under the code of conduct. This reminds me of a Runyankole proverb – “otaryeebwa omuhanda gwakuretsire”; literally meaning - (never forget where you came from).

That is not all; some prominent leaders are now hell bent on churning out hate and sectarian statements. If these short-sighted and irresponsible statements are not stopped, there is no doubt that the horrific past which some people are beginning to deceive themselves that it is passed but it may be repeated again and it would be disastrous.

Uganda’s tragic past is because Ugandans never learn from history as per the incidences in 1966 when the country’s problems came to the fore. When president Milton Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin in 1971, Ugandans were warned that they should not support Amin. Some of our leaders some of who are still around and known urged people to go on the streets to celebrate Amin’s coming.

Amin’s deceptive utterances deceived them and they joined his regime but he ended up butchering them and thousands of other Ugandans, as well as destroying the economy and the social sector. It was the same story when Amin was kicked out and Yusuf Lule, Godfrey Binaisa and Paulo Muwanga took charge in succession.

Dr Obote came back but I pitied him, because the man was not in charge as people who were in charge then came under the military junta and kicked him out and took over using a military junta. It was therefore a timely intervention that the NRA under the leadership of President Yoweri Museveni’s leadership came to power in 1986 before Uganda disntergrated into chaos like Somalia.

History repeats itself, and everybody should be warned that our bloody past can return and it would be disastrous to our children. I understand some of the politicians want to vent their anger against President Museveni and the NRM after they were thrown out of jobs. One wonders had these people retained their jobs, would they be making the noise that they are making now? As we celebrate NRM’s 28 years after liberating Uganda and Ugandans, let us reflect on our past and be meaningful.

Brig Gen John Mugyenyi was part of the NRA liberation struggle and was first commandant of the ant-terrorism task force of the UPDF and was also director of operations in the army.