Lt. Col. Phinehas Katirima is one of the 10 representatives of the army in Parliament. Bernard Tabaire listened as he recounted his story in our continuing Bush War Memories series to mark this year’s Heroes Day: -
We felt liberation in 1979 after the fall of Idi Amin. In the ’70s, during Amin’s time there was always a lot of fear of the military. In 1972 when I was in Senior One at Ntare School, we were herded from the school to go to the Boma Grounds to witness the firing squad of [James] Karuhanga. I think he had been one of the strugglists against Amin. At that time Amin killed many people by firing squad in different towns.
In Mbarara people were forced to close shops and we all went to Boma. At about 3:30 p.m. he was tied on one of the big eucalyptus trees near Mbarara University of Science and Technology and a section of soldiers armed with G3 rifles aimed at him and fired. I saw his body bend against the tree with blood oozing. All around people were clapping. Someone standing behind me said, ‘Why are you not clapping?’
You can imagine at that time in Senior One I was very small. I looked around and saw a giant of a man. Then I also clapped. But I felt a lot of oppression. I had no right even to think what was good and what was wrong. I just had to clap.
That was my first understanding of what the military was doing in Uganda. They were telling us they were killing guerrillas. I was not sure whether the guerrillas were doing a good thing or bad thing. But here was somebody being shot, pieces of flesh flying off, people being forced to clap! I started fearing the military.
Later on there was regulation that before you joined the university you had to go to a military barracks, see the adjutant to fill a form, and he would authenticate your citizenship. So I had to go to the Mechanised Regiment, which was in Masaka, after my A’ level in 1977. When I met the adjutant, a captain, he asked me why I wanted to go to Makerere.
I was doing sciences so I said I wanted to study medicine, veterinary medicine or any other course I would qualify for. He said that ‘you people if you go to Makerere and study politics we are going to meet you militarily’.
You can imagine a young man being intimidated for no good reason by a soldier. So I dreaded the military and never thought I would join it.
But the 1980 elections were rigged in favour of UPC. There were some agitations at campus. It was also about the time of our exams. I was a resident of Nkrumah Hall but I was doing my exams from outside. I was staying with a relative in Nalukolongo. I would just come at the time of an exam and [sneak] into the exam room fearing that any moment they would pick me up. I completed in March 1981.
At that time there were different voices in politics. UPM [led by Museveni] had emerged and we had become members. UPC had deployed its intelligence on campus and everybody was being followed. So we were worried about our safety.
During that time we heard Museveni had gone to the bush. We saw it as a way through which we could regain our right of freely and democratically electing a government of our own choice without intimidation from the UPC.
After the exams we tried to look for connections to go to the bush but it was never easy. Contacts would tell you to wait on Kampala Road, near the Post Office, then Nkrumah Road, Buganda Road.
One day in 1981 we were waiting on Nkrumah Road and we saw the military police pulling outside the building. We took off by the back door to Nasser Road. We were about 10. I will not mention the people. One fellow who remained in the house – actually he didn’t want to go [because] he was even sick, he had a bad leg – was picked and we have never seen him again. A man from Rukungiri.
I cannot remember the name now. This was at the late Maj. Musinguzi Katafiire’s residence. After that Kampala became very difficult. Our relatives could not afford to see us around because they knew any moment we were going to be picked and they would also be picked.
This was around April. So I went home to Lwemiyaga in Ssembabule. I remained at home until about October ’81 when I attended my graduation. After that the ministry posted us – I had done agriculture at the university – they posted me to Kasese as an agricultural officer.
Just to confuse the situation, I reported to Kasese to my district agricultural officer with my small belongings and got a place to stay and came back to Kampala.
I told him I was coming to Kampala to arrange for my payments to be coming to Kasese. But I was coming to Kampala to look for a connection to the bush.
Into the bush
I stayed in Kampala until about early February ’82. That’s when I finally got the connection. From Nalukolongo someone came and said let’s go. I was picked up around midday. I had even washed my clothes. So I just went in the clothes I was putting on. I just jumped into the Volkswagen, came to Wandegeya and had a meal in a restaurant, then took Gayaza Road branching off at Mpererwe. We ended up in Matugga and crossed the Semuto Road. After a day or two we went to Semuto area to Mondlane Unit (where I found the president now) and on to another unit called Lutta [in Kikandwa] where I did my training under Poteli Kivuna. I went alone that time.
When you are in the bush you feel safest because when sleeping somebody else is guarding you. And if the enemy were to strike, at least you would hear the warning shots and you would defend yourself.
And the consolation throughout was that instead of the UNLA killing us – killing people – without hope, at least we were also killing them and reducing their strength. As we gained strength, the UNLA lost strength.
One of the major [efforts I was involved in] was [the May 1984] Kabamba II or some call it Kabamba Zero – that [attack] actually never took place but we walked all the way from Singo/Kiboga areas through Mityana, through Kiganda to a few miles from Kabamba but it was realised our presence had been detected and therefore we would suffer a lot of casualties. So it was called off.
Because we were not experienced, not advanced in our methods of food preservation, people became very hungry and desperate. It was a very trying expedition but at the same time educative. For example, they boiled the maize, which we would eat after sometime on the way but it became mouldy. On the going it was like four days covering nearly 200 miles.
But I didn’t come back with the main group. I remained as [part of] a contact group in the Gomba area for about four months. Then there was the attack on Masindi Barracks in [February] 1984. In this attack we got over 700 rifles and an uncountable number of ammunitions and bombs. We carried away what we could and the rest we just destroyed in the barracks.
Then there was what I would call Kabamba III – the original one being on February 6, 1981 – on News Year’s Day 1985 where we also got more than 600 rifles and beat off all counterattacks. We got reinforcement. Mzee [Museveni] led another group, which met us at Birembo.
When Kampala was falling I was a special district administrator in Kasese. Around September ’85, when western Uganda was cut off there was a vacuum and the area needed administrators. So they picked me to go to Bushenyi. Later I went to Kasese, Rukungiri and Kabale.
And when you were special district administrator the sky was the limit. As SDA in Kasese I even acted as a managing director of Uganda Railways Corporation because their people could not be paid – the staff were in Kasese and the account in Kilembe. So I authorised myself to transact the accounts in Kilembe to pay those people. And Railways has never said thank you.
[The bush] was very challenging. We had few hours of sleep. We worked more than 18 hours every day. Like in normal life – when you are going to bed that would be the time when you are going to mobilise for food. You may go long distances and come back when it’s about morning. Then during the day we would spend some of the time training. And if we were not training we would be in class doing political work, studying all sorts of things.
[For] the effort we put in, at least the fruits you have seen in this country except in parts of the north that have suffered insurgency since 1986.
Date of Birth: September 1956
Place of Birth: Kyaruhuga in Bwongyera in Ntungamo
Father’s Name: Yokana Manoni
Mother’s Name: Norah Manoni
Family Position: Fifth of 7 brothers and 4 sisters Schools Attended: Kyabashenyi P/S, Bwongyera P/S, Lyantonde P/S, Ntare School and Makerere University for BSc Agriculture
Wife’s Name: Winnie Katirima
Children: 2 sons and 4 daughters
Favourite Dish: Milk, matooke and ground-nuts
Pastime: Cricket and chess (doing it less though)