Jacket almost cost me life as UNLA soldiers fled Tororo

In our new series, Where Were You? we bring you in the first part Sunday Monitor’s Charles Odoobo Bichachi tale about where he was and what he went through when the NRA captured power in 1986.

Sunday January 26 2014

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.

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