June 8, 1998 is a day still fresh in the minds of many Ugandans. On that fateful day, rebels of the Allied Democratic Front raided Uganda Technical College Kichwamba in Kabarole and burnt 80 students alive in three dormitories. The rebels also abducted more than 100 students. Felix Basiime and Joseph Mugisa talked to a survivor of the attack, one of the college's lecturer and the principal about life after the attack.
Simon Mwesigwa, 30, sells secondhand bags on High Street in Mbarara Town.
Mr Mwesigwa failed to complete his Brick Laying and Concreting Practice (BCP) certificate course at Uganda Technical College Kichwamba, on the Fort Portal-Bundibugyo Road after the June 8, 1998 attack on the college by rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The rebels burnt three dormitories, leading to the death of 80 students and abducted over 100 others.
Mr Mwesigwa is the only known person who survived the inferno but the burns he suffered could not allow him continue with his studies. The rebels also burnt the college lorry. “Rapid gun shots woke me up at around 5 am and after 30 minutes I heard students yelling but I feared to open my door from the tutors’ quarters which is about 200 metres away from the college,” Mr Steven Byabazaire, the acting head of section, Agricultural Engineering and Mechanics at the college, recalls.
“I kept peeping through the door and I saw a naked student running but could not identify him. I kept indoors until 7am when I heard voices outside, I opened and found three out of eight dormitories were in ashes. Some students were standing in the compound terrified, it was nasty” Mr Byabazaire adds as tears roll down his cheeks.
Less than 100 students reported back to the college when it reopened for the subsequent academic year but Mr Mwesigwa failed to report because he was still in hospital.
“I went to bed as usual after preps. I dreamt about bomb sounds but when I woke up it was real fire, our dormitory was set ablaze and there was a stampede as everyone was looking for an escape route but our door was locked from outside,” Mr Mwesigwa says, adding: “I managed to go through the window but others failed and I fled for my dear life with burns to a nearby church and people took me to hospital.”
Some members of staff and students left the college which was closed for a year.
“About 100 very courageous students returned out of 500. Others had been abducted or perished in the fire. Others went to other institutions, tutors who had money fled to Fort Portal Town and rented houses there, fearing another attack despite the presence of a UPDF detach at the college,” Mr Byabazaire says.
Those students who continued with studies at the college had to sit for their exams at Uganda Polytechnic Kyambogo (UPK) because Kichwamba was left incapacitated to hold exams for that year. “It took some time for parents to bring their children here. It took more than seven years for the college to regain the 500 students’ enrollment capacity but we have now fully recovered” says Mr Byabazaire.
“When that incident happened, the college was closed for one year because parents were scared, some teachers fled,” the principal of the college, Mr Jerome Adutu told this paper in a separate interview.
“When the college re-opened, we first took the teachers and students through psychological guidance and counselling” says Mr Adutu adding: “Since then, the government deployed a unit of UPDF. We have peace and enrollment is growing beyond the original capacity.”
It is now 12 years after the attack and UTC-Kichwamba has recovered steadily. Mr Adutu says the college administration has asked the government to upgrade the college into a polytechnic so that it can start offering higher diplomas.
Mr Adutu says in 2006, they embarked on a national wide public relations (PR) campaign which has attracted students from all over the country.
He says in 2005 there were 196 boys and nine girls, in 2006 there were 261 boys and 19 girls, in 2007 the number of boys rose to 362 and that of girls to 22, in 2008 there were 460 boys and 28 girls, in 2009 there were 541 boys and 55 girls and this year the college has 577 boys and 77 girls. “We have really reached our peak. The PR strategy has worked and the presence of UPDF at the college has contributed a lot, staff and students are confident,” he says.
Mr Adutu adds that in July 2005, the government gave the college a new truck following a presidential pledge. In 2008, the government gave the college Shs655 million for the renovation of buildings that were burnt during the ADF attack. “With this money, we have been able to rehabilitate four workshops, 21 staff houses, two new hostels and set up a new administration block” says Mr Adutu.
Mr Adutu adds: “We are now overwhelmed by the applications every year, we are congested, we appeal to the government for help in equipment for training, library, more hostels and lecture rooms,” “We need a bus because we cannot transport the students on lorries,” he says. UTC-Kichwamba has not been left alone to rise from the ashes, a number of International organisations and universities have supported it.
Among them, the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education (Nuffic) which has supported the college in ICT and staff development, establishing a new curriculum and public awareness campaigns.