The historic Kasubi Tombs last night went up in flames, engulfing the main building housing the mausoleums of four former Buganda kings (Kabakas).
Hundreds of Kingdom subjects, some prostrating, crying and screaming, gathered in front of the embers. The grass-thatched hut was completely destroyed within minutes, leaving the skeletal brick wall.
The burial grounds, revered by the Baganda, are 128 years old.
Witnesses said the blaze started around 8:30pm. One woman, Lydia Nabambulide, said she heard “a loud explosion” behind the tombs, just before the fire began.
She said: “I saw a white box wrapped in something like bark cloth and it looked strange.”
A white numberless pickup truck reportedly emerged from the tombs shortly after the fire broke out, Mr Andrew Jjuko said, quoting Boda Boda men who were at the scene.
Other reports suggested that the fleeing man shot in the air to scare away riders in his pursuit.
Mr Charles Peter Mayiga, the Buganda information minister, said they were puzzled by the mysterious fire outbreak and “it is a dark moment for the kingdom.”
“We don’t know what is really going on in the kingdom,” he said.
Earlier, an agitated crowd chased away Police fire fighters who pulled up to quell the fire around 9:20pm.
Security operatives who surrounded the tombs shot several times in the air to force back a charged mass of people that advanced towards the firemen. The light rain at the time did nothing to tame the flames.
Buganda Katikkiro, John Baptist Walusimbi, arrived shortly after 10pm and looked distraught as he inspected the extent of damage to the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga.
He was quickly surrounded by his subjects, many prostrating in the wet soil. They burst into singing the Buganda anthem as one sounded the kingdom’s big drum, to mobilise more of the subjects.
The cause of the fire is yet to be established, police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba told Daily Monitor at 11:40pm.
Mr Musa Sevume, suspecting arson, said, “Buganda is here and it will stay. Buganda is more than just the tombs. We will replace them.”
A kingdom subject, who only identified himself as Jacob, said amid sobs that the tombs are, “part of us and they should at least leave history alone.”
The Kasubi tombs, some four kilometers west of Kampala city, are a Unesco-certified World Heritage site that brings in millions of shillings to Buganda kingdom through tourism.
The Kabakas buried at the tombs include:
Muteesa I (1835-1884)
Basamula Mwanga II (1867-1903)
Daudi Chwa II (1896-1939)
Fredrick Walugembe Muteesa II (1924-1969)
Additional reporting by Robert Mwanje