Monday February 9 2004

NRM BUSH WAR MEMORIES: I was declared dead on radio, says Col. Kuteesa

Col. Pecos Kuteesa was among the first five bush war commanders. When Kampala fell in January 1986, he commanded the first battalion that marched through Jinja road. His book about “how it all happened in the five-year guerrilla warfare” is due for publication. Holding the 180-page manuscript, he recounted his role to William Tayeebwa:-

After the February 6, 1981 attach of Kabamba training school by Yoweri Museveni’s group, I realized my chances of survival in the government army were slim. I therefore started to plan deserting. My chance to escape came on February 21, 1981.

On that day, a regiment signal officer, one Sgt. Emirio, came running to me saying there was a message from general headquarters instructing whoever cited me to arrest and take me to general headquarters.

I knew that few, who had been taken there, apart from Salim Saleh, had survived. I therefore decided to desert the army without a clear destination in mind.

I jumped into the first Peugeot 504 pick-up truck going to Kampala and ended up in Bugolobi barracks where most of the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) boys were stationed.

Urban terrorism

While in Kampala, I was introduced to the concept of urban terrorism by now retired Brigadier Matayo Kyaligonza. He had a smooth operating team composed of the late Benjamin Muhanguzi nicknamed Dampa, the late Shaban Kashanku and the late Joy Mirembe, a lady who was also instrumental at the beginning of the struggle.

One of the operations I participated in was an attempt to blow up an Agip fuel depot. As a former urban terrorist, I still do not understand why the city planners put all the main petrol depots in one suburb in Namuwongo.

If we had succeeded in blowing up the Agip tank, then Shell, Caltex and Total would have been caught in fire. As luck may have it, the tank was empty and only a bright frame went up setting fire sirens on. For us, that was enough damage to send a message that there were people unhappy with the regime.

After the fuel tank attack, we started planning how to blow up the Kampala water reservoir in Muyenga. Our leader Yoweri Museveni discouraged us from the idea. His reasoning was that when we blow up Muyenga, the whole town would be flooded and the most highly affected place would be Mulago government hospital. He told us it would be self-defeating for freedom fighters to cause harm to the very people they seek to protect.

Off to the bush

On the day I was supposed to go, I met a group of soldiers guarding Bazilio Olara Okello’s shop and approached their leader John Mugume, now colonel.

I asked him if he was willing to go with me to the bush to which he said he was going to consult and asked me to come back after lunch. Despite the risk, I came back at around 3.00 p.m. and found Mugume with his group of seven ready to go.

We jumped into a pickup driven by Kyaligonza and set off for the bush from Nkrumah road in broad daylight and passed through several roadblocks.

We joined our comrades on March 30, 1981. This was a great day in my life because it is then that I regained my initiative, which had always been suppressed for long.

Yoweri Museveni shook my hands while looking straight into my eyes and telling me the name of my father and some other personal data he had heard about me.

This gesture was significant because I felt he recognized me as a valuable individual and not a statistical number like was the case in the army.

First mission

When we arrived in the bush, plans to attach the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) detach at Kakiri were underway. I was assigned section two of the five sections. On April 04, 1981, we set off form our hide out to undertake what was to be my first military action against the UNLA.

This operation was successful with Museveni as platoon commander. In that battle, there is an incident involving Paul Kagame, now Rwandan president, whose details I recount in my book.

In search of guns

On June 6, 1981, I comprised a team of five chosen to accompany Commander Museveni to Kenya in search of guns. The journey from Luwero to the Kenyan port of Kisumu crossing Lake Victoria in small canoes as Aide de Corp (ADC) of Hon. Museveni and later back through several roadblocks is the most dramatic, intriguing and dangerous of all journey I have made in life. The details of this journey and the role played by Al Hajji Moses Kigongo are recounted in my book.
It was actually during that trip that the official creation of the National Resistance Army (NRA), a merger between our Popular Resistance Army (PRA) and Prof. Yusuf Lule’s Uganda Freedom Fighters (UFF) took place.

Internal Problems

When we got back to our colleagues in Luwero in December 1981, we found that there had developed a problem of command. We now had a group of intellectuals who had joined us from Makerere University, who questioned commands from illiterate officers. Mzee had the duty of educating all groups about the philosophy of the struggle and sanity returned.

Facing fire

After the May 1982 failed attack by Dr. Andrew Kayira’s Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM), the UNLA launched a massive offensive on our positions. We fought several battles and by August 1982, we had thoroughly defeated them.

By this time, the killings in our periphery zones had intensified and soldiers in the government army from the so-called wrong tribes were being killed.

In one of the battles during this period, I witnessed an incident that remains implanted in my mind. As I was taking bullet chains to the trench of Enock Mondo our machine gunner who was marooned in a hail of bullets and bombs during the battle at Kalongero bridge in Luwero, I met two comrades carrying a dead soldier who was headless.

This headless soldier had just lifted his head to observe what was happening in front of him when an RPG shell severed his head off cleanly; only a small part of his neck was still sticking out and spouting out blood like a slaughtered bird.

As we continued to hold the enemy down, I observed Mondo’s body posture and I noticed he was really angry with the enemy. He was gnashing his teeth as he continued to pick enemy soldiers one by one.
The battle lasted till evening when the enemy withdrew. As we charged the dead soldiers’ uniforms and guns, I realized a phenomenon I was to experience many times in battle.

The faces of the dead soldiers expressed surprise not fear or agony, as one would expect! It was later while studying Psychology that I learnt that the survival mechanism of a soldier does not allow him to believe he could be the one to bite the bullet.

Each person has that feeling of “not me”. People go to battle to come out alive and the dead enemy soldiers and our own comrades were no exception.

Later as reality dawned on me about the headless comrade, I suddenly developed goose pimples and broke into cold shivers. After that, there were many more ugly incidents, notably the February 1983 Bukalabi ambush where the commander himself, Salim Saleh was injured in both arms. I recount most of the hard battles we fought in my book.

Major success stories

By the end of 1983, we had gained significant territory and were advancing west. In February 1984, we decided to launch an offensive on Masindi Artillery School. I was at the time commander of the first battalion. The operation was under the overall command of Afande Salim Saleh. On February 20, 1983, we launched a very successful attach on Masindi and captured far more weapons than we had bargained for.

Later as the war progressed, we were to register more such successes, but the Masindi one is my most memorable because I was the one directly in command of that operation.

Following the death of Brig. David Oyite Ojok in December 1983, who was a very charismatic officer respected by his troops and even some of us his enemies, we knew the UNLA was in for real trouble.

Declared dead on radio

Assured that we were now a formidable force, Museveni left for Sweden at the beginning of 1985 for a ‘diplomatic offensive’. We continued with the offensive, and in one particular one at a place called Kampomera, I nearly lost my life.

My mission was to capture a 14.5 mm AAC gun inflicting a lot of casualties on us. As we fought on, and I advanced towards the fellow who was firing the gun, I did not realize that my gun had run out of bullets.

As I crawled nearer the AAC fellow, I could see the enemy soldiers guarding the gun start to withdraw. I then shouted ‘charge’ and tried to fire only to hear the firing pin hit an empty chamber.
At that point, I was at the mercy of enemy fire when Jet Mwebaze (RIP), a muscular tall fellow tossed me behind him like a rug. In an instant, the potato mound I was standing on was swept away by the four barrels of my prized AAC.

It is also during that battle that we lost a young man nicknamed ‘double colour’. He was shot crawling towards the prized AAC. Later, his body was beheaded and his head take to Kampala.

Because of our similar light complexion, the jubilant enemies were convinced they had killed Pecos Kutesa. In fact, radios and newspapers in Kampala proclaimed that one notorious rebel, Kutesa, had been killed. The story was sold to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). One can only imagine what Dora my wife who was heavy with child felt when she heard on international radio that I was dead.

That battle was actually commanded by now Lt. Col. Walter Ochola, current LCV chairman of Gulu. We still talk about it each time we meet.

Nairobi ‘pistol talks’

When Milton Obote was overthrown on July 27, 1985, the Nairobi peace talks, which we called ‘pistol talks’ resumed. They probably had a chance to succeed if it were not for the uncalled for move by the Okello Lutwa regime to bring former elements of Idi Amin from West Nile to reinforce the UNLA ranks.

On August 24, 1985, the Nairobi peace talks failed officially upon the realization that these fellows were buying time. Incidentally, during that time, we received a sizeable amount of weapons from Libya.

When the peace talks failed, we launched a major offensive on all UNLA positions asking to surrender. The memorable surrender to me was on August 24, 1985 by Lt. Okello Okecha (RIP) who crossed from the UNLA with more than 200 of his soldiers.

Last offensive

On September 12, 1985, commander Museveni gave an order to all NRA officers to advance on all UNLA positions. We therefore advanced to Fort Portal, Hoima, Mubende, Mityana, Masaka and Mbarara. At this moment, we were controlling eight of the 18 million of Uganda’s population.

Apart from Masaka and Mbarara, the other towns were overrun without much effort. For the case of Masaka Mechanized Regiment, it took three months of siege before it fell.

Mbarara’s story was quite tragic but you will read the details in my book. Suffice it to say that Mbarara was one of the last barracks to fall in January 1986 when we were actually approaching Kampala. At the time, I was commanding the forces guarding Katonga bridge.

Kampala falls

On January 15, 1986, commander Museveni chaired a meeting of all combat operations and ordered the final assault on Kampala. I was the commander of the first battalion that advanced through the city on Jinja road. I went through the city headed for Luzira prison to rescue our comrades, prominently Napoleon Lutambika and several others. I knew Napoleon during training in Tanzania.

The biggest joke during the take-over of Kampala was the three rules to civilians coined by one of our comrades. He was more interested in rule three which stated: “No girl or young woman should keep knickers on!!”

The final feeling

I met two journalists, Tim Cooper and Ali Alizon at the Imperial Hotel and they asked me how I felt. I responded: “Nothing succeeds like success. I feel on top of the world.” By January 26, 1986, the battle for Kampala had ended.
(Series continues on Thursday)

Quick Notes

Date of Birth: August 24, 1956
Place of Birth: Lyakajula, Kabula-Lyantonde, Rakai District
Father’s Name: Paul Rwitarutyo
Mother’s Name: Casarina Rwitarutyo
Wife’s Name: Dora Nunguri Kuteesa.
Family Position: First born of two. Schools Attended: Kijabwemi Primary School, Kitovu Secondary School, Kako Secondary school, Masaka Secondary School, Makerere University, Several Army Academies in Jinja-Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana and Egypt,
Pastime: Golf and an “omnivorous” reader who reads anything in ink.

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