On July 11, 1989, more than 60 boys and men died of suffocation and hunger at Okungulo Railway Station in Mukura, Ngora District (then Kumi). They had been crammed into train wagons for about three days without food or water.
The dead were part of about 280 suspected Uganda People’s Army (UPA) collaborators who had been rounded up in a security swoop that started on July 5, 1989, in Kapir and Mukura sub-counties.
UPA was a rebel movement based in Teso sub-region that was fighting the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government.
Humiliation by Karimojong cattle rustlers and later by some undisciplined National Resistance Army (NRA) soldiers caused the people of Teso to take up arms.
In the beginning, they were armed with machetes and spears, but they later got firearms. When the NRA first reached Teso in February 1986, having captured Kampala in January 1986, they were warmly welcomed by the locals.
That the war in the north and north-eastern Uganda was started by the people not to oppose the NRM government, but as a result of subjugation by some undisciplined soldiers, is a well-documented fact in the peace accords signed by the Uganda People’s Democratic Movement/Army (UPDM/A), UPA and NRM at the end of the war in Acholi and Teso sub-regions in 1988 and 1990 respectively.
When the rebellion against the NRM government started in Gulu in August 1986, its architects wanted it to spread to Teso, but government detected it and reacted by disarming the militias in Teso who had been armed by the Uganda Peoples Congress regime in the early 1980s to defend themselves against Karimojong warriors.
With the Iteso disarmed, Karimojong cattle rustlers intensified their raids. This, together with claims that NRA soldiers were collaborating with Karimojong rustlers to rid the Iteso of their cattle fuelled the insurgency.
On July 7, 1989, at the peak of the insurgency, there was an ambush on the Soroti-Moroto highway in which four rebels and two NRA soldiers were reportedly killed.
Around the same time near Camp Swahili, NRA operational commander Maj Nelson Katagara (retired Brigadier) was shot at by suspected rebels who reportedly killed two soldiers.
In response, the military intensified its operations in order to subdue the rebels. During the search and identify operation that lasted more than 40 days, innocent civilians were not only brutalised, but they lost their property too.
One of them was a one Eroachi, a Resistance Council III chairman in Serere, who was reportedly arrested and beaten by soldiers when he refused to surrender his bicycle to the irate soldiers.
The Weekly Topic newspaper of July 26, 1989, reported that before the operation started the Soroti District Administrator (now Resident District Commissioner), James Magode Ikuya, and an NRA officer, Lt Col J. Oketa, addressed a gathering at Soroti Sports Grounds in which Magode Ikuya was quoted as having told the people, “Stop supporting rebels and no one should encourage war.
Should the war break out, you shall be counting, not the number of bicycles lost, but people killed.”
Sunday Monitor was unable to get a comment from Ikuya for this story as his phone was not available.
Cry for justice
At the time, Maj Chris Bunyenyezi was the commander of the 306 Brigade which operated in Soroti and Kumi districts. Maj Bunyenyezi was a Rwandan who joined the NRA in early 1980s during the Luweero Bush War.
Following the massacre, there was public outcry for justice. President Museveni came under criticism for allegedly recruiting Rwandan soldiers into the army.
Whether or not Bunyenyezi ordered for the cramming of the suspects in train wagons, as brigade commander he had to take responsibility. Some soldiers were court marshalled for the incident, including the battalion commander and his intelligence officer.
But because Bunyenyezi feared being court-martialled, he fled the country. Around September 1989, Maj Bunyenyezi and his friend Maj Peter Baingana deserted the NRA with a force of about 1,000 Rwandan soldiers and escaped to the Akagera National Park in northern Rwanda to start a ‘Tutsi return home’ war.
When the NRA got wind of their escape a week later, security meetings were held and the Bunyenyezi rebels were asked to return to Uganda immediately.
Initially they refused, but they later accepted after the Ugandan government threatened to inform their Rwandan counterparts of their presence in Akagera.
The Bunyenyezi and Baingana munity was an embarrassment to President Museveni, Defence minister Fred Rwigyema and army commander Maj Gen Salim Saleh.
They finally returned in October without the Rwandan government and the media getting to know. Charles Kabanda, the first RPF chairman, was incarcerated incommunicado from October 1989, at Basima House, Mengo, and later transferred to Katabi Military Barracks. He was released in October 1990.
Meanwhile, on November 27, 1989, a furious Museveni conducted a mini-Cabinet and military reshuffle in which Maj Gen Salim Saleh was dropped as army commander. He was to be replaced by Mugisha Muntu who was promoted from Col to Maj Gen.
Maj Gen Rwigyema would be relieved of his duties as deputy minister of Defence and sent to the US for a military course. But he convinced Museveni to allow Kagame to take the offer instead.
Perhaps, it can be said that Rwigyema and his old friend Salim Saleh paid the price of the Mukura massacre on behalf of Bunyenyezi and other errant NRA soldiers.
About Mukura massacre
Tuesday marked 28 years since the Mukura massacre. On that day about 60 people were suffocated when NRA soldiers locked them up in train a wagon before setting it on fire.
President Museveni has so far offered Shs200 million to compensate the victims but many local people still question the criteria being used in the compensation process.