February 20, 1984, promised to be like any other day until about 6:00am when a loud bang and volley of bullets got us out of our morning thoughts. It was not unusual to get such noises from Masindi military barracks, which was just a kilometre from Kabalega Secondary School where I was a student in S2.
Only this time the bullets went beyond the normal training time and word begun to trickle in that an operations by the Museveni guerrillas (called bandits at the time) was underway.
Hours later, the battle shifted to our school and we had to learn taking cover right in the middle of a hail of bullets.
We learnt to run in zig-zag formation! Even then, the boy in me demanded I stand and watch the live action as though it was a harmless movie. At one moment, I was brought back to sense by a hoarse voice telling me to get out of the way. It was a government soldier with a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) just three meters away.
I happened to stand between him and his target of jovial retreating rebels escorting lorry loads of captured weaponry. What followed left me scampering through broken glass that left me with what is still the biggest scar on my body.
When all seemed settled, we did what boys do best in such moments – raid the kitchen and store for foods. It was time to embark on the 50km walk to Hoima. After eight hours, we had walked about 34km and could not go any further. Bulima Primary School provided night shelter from 11pm to 6am when we made another 4km to Bulindi. Other students had slept at the neighbouring Sir Tito Winyi Secondary School.
The remaining 12km was as eventful as the previous day. First, we got a bus going to Hoima. After less than a kilometre, government soldiers ordered it back to Masindi and the nightmare begun. A security operative who tried to explain that these were students was asked to identify himself.
He showed his card, which I was told had been signed by Chris Rwakasisi, and that ended the deal. He was shot on spot. Bus windows became emergency doors. The rest of the journey was through bushes, forests and rivers with anything called a road or path going as forbidden territory.
Weeks later, we were back in Masindi for school but life was never the same again. First, my friends had lost their fathers as revenge attacks killed two of the richest ranchers – Kazoora and Byegarazo. Second, Kabalega students were identified as having provided information to aid the attack and were treated with occasional special harassment.
Two students were arrested for being in a group of three that included another from St Leo’s Kyegobe, some 250km away in Fort Portal. My two classmates spent a night in the barracks for having said “that is the man” when two lieutenants were passing. Finally, another boy was arrested for not running when he saw the most feared district commissioner walking towards him on a public road! He spent a night in the residential toilet of the commissioner.
A final memorable highlight is when the tough-looking Col Bazilio Olara Okello came to address the school and said “Me iko tough man, guerrillas come to Masindi on 20, me come on 21”. Later that day, army lieutenants came to conduct a roll call that found me among the absent! We had gone 2km away to fetch water. Thirty years later, we would still be waiting for jail or something worse if it was not for the events of July 26, 1985. On that day, similar but more quiet events happened.
There was another takeover of Masindi Barracks by mutinous soldiers under the command of the same Bazilio Okello. The next day, Obote was overthrown and the next year, the Okello Junta was overthrown too. That last overthrow of government owed a big part of its success to the 760 guns and ammunition the guerrillas harvested from Masindi on February 20, 1984. Indeed, it was not to be like any other day.
Mr Muhumuza is an economic advisor, Ministry of Finance Planning and Economic Development. firstname.lastname@example.org