It was 1983 and chief of staff Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok was at the peak of his military leadership. I vividly remember that fateful journey that suddenly took our hero’s precious life on December 2, 1983.
That journey left a permanent scar on my life because whenever I’m asked to narrate the ordeal, I find myself shedding tears uncontrollably.
Reports had reached chief (as Gen Oyite-Ojok was fondly called) that the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels had poisoned water sources in Luweero District (epicentre of the Bush War), causing the death of many government soldiers.
Oyite-Ojok hired Franklyn, a European chemist to decontaminate the water.
It was mid-morning of December 2, 1983, and two helicopters were parked on the compound of the Nile Mansions (now Kampala Serena Hotel). One helicopter was bigger than the other.
Ten of us, including Oyite-Ojok, boarded the big helicopter and pilot Oringi was flying the small escort helicopter.
With everyone’s seatbelt buckled, we were ready to fly. The engine of the huge helicopter gunship in which I sat next to the chief roared and lifted off the ground.
But just as we were getting off the ground, the aircraft suddenly lost control and descended abruptly, pounded itself hard on the ground several times.
Mechanically, I doubted the helicopter, but I also thought the incident was a sign of bad luck. Immediately I turned to my boss (Oyite-Ojok) and expressed doubts over the safety of the helicopter. I told him I would not travel in that helicopter, but rather move in the smaller one.
Oyite-Ojok, always courageous and willing to dare any storm, rubbished my belief that the mishap was a sign of bad luck.
Thereupon, as I stepped out of the helicopter, he told me in Luo, ‘Ole Kamanyola yin ilwor pat. Mak file nani iwot kede kunu.’ (Kamanyola, you are such a coward! Well, take my file with you)
‘This is not about cowardice chief, it is about safety. If you feel safe flying in this helicopter, well I do not. Please, allow me fly with Mr Oringi in the other helicopter,’ I politely replied while receiving the file from him. I relocated to the smaller aircraft.
Oyite-Ojok remained in the fateful helicopter. We were up in the sky again and off we went to the Luweero warzone.
We landed in Kasozi, Luweero, where we were joined by Franklyn, the chemist who had travelled by road.
As we flew from Kampala to Luweero, we constantly listened in on the conversation between the pilots of the two aircrafts.
Oyite-Ojok’s pilot would, for instance, tell ours ‘it’s cloudy.’
‘Correct,’ Oringi often answered.
‘We are now in location X.’
That went on until we landed at the military base in Kasozi.
Chief was so desperate to decontaminate the poisoned swamps. Immediately we landed, we were led to the contaminated swamps.
At the swamp, chief asked Franklyn to demonstrate to the soldiers how to decontaminate the water using the chemical he had brought.
We gathered around Franklyn and watched him. The moment he poured the chemicals in the swamp, the water surface cleared out, leaving visibly clean water.
To assure us that the water was now safe for drinking, Franklyn scooped and drank some, followed by Oyite-Ojok who then assured the soldiers that the water was safe to drink.
‘Dear officers, from today on do not drink untreated water. Make sure you treat your water before drinking it,’ chief said while still holding the cup in his hand.
As the sun set, we boarded our helicopters and left for Kampala. Chief and his team went back into their helicopter as we went into ours.
Immediately we were in the sky, we heard a radio message instructing Col Wilson Okwonga, who was in the chief’s helicopter, to the effect that: ‘Tere wunu wa Owinykibul wek gingide matinotino, gited dano gucam wek tekcwinye bene okob bot joo-wa’ (Take him up to Owiny-Kibul, cut him into pieces, cook and feed him to our people so that they may inherit his bravery).
Okwonga was the chief army surgeon and head of Mbuya Military Hospital.
When we heard that someone was to be cut into pieces, we all became more attentive to our radio gadgets. We wondered what the message meant.
Pilot Oringi, also a Luo speaker (Alur dialect), was shocked.
‘This is heinous! Cut somebody to pieces. Who do they want to cut to pieces?’ he asked me.
‘I am also shocked and perplexed by the sickening radio message,’ I replied.
Indeed the message had also bothered the others in the bigger helicopter.
‘Please chief, what is this message about? I do not understand the language,’ we heard Friday, Maj Gen Oyite-Ojok’s aide inquired. Friday was a Tanzania People’s Defence Force soldier attached to the UNLA.
‘Give me the signal,’ chief instructed Friday.
When chief heard the same instruction still being emphasised, he asked Col Okwonga, ‘What is this message of cutting somebody to pieces about? And why are we headed north? Our destination is Kampala, to the south.’
‘Otto,’ chief continued, ‘Did I instruct you to fly us to northern Uganda? Why are you flying northwards? Change direction and fly southwards to Kampala.’ Lt Col Fred Otto was the director of Uganda Air Force.
As Oyite-Ojok fumed, Okwonga snapped, ‘Shut up!’
‘What have you just said Okwonga?’ an enraged Ojok interjected.
‘Tin ibineno gin ma ayom oneno ipoto ngor.’ (Today you will be subjected to a harsh treatment, the way a farmer deals with a monkey caught destroying crops)
On hearing this and seeing the chief’s plane headed northwards, I felt too angry that I suggested to Oringi to fly in front of chief’s aircraft to compel it to change direction, or else they hit us and we all die together.
Oringi declined, arguing that his helicopter was too small to force a gunship to oblige.
Subsequently, Oyite-Ojok made his last statement: ‘Since Otto and Okwonga are determined to fly us to an unknown destination, Friday kaa tayari ku kufa.’ (Be ready to die)
As soon as he said these words, the aircraft exploded.
Straightaway, we believed that Oyite-Ojok had taken a grenade and detonated it in his helicopter.
I am aware that pilot Oringi is still alive and living in the US. Certainly, it would be of great value to add his voice to this very important chapter of our country’s history.
When UNLA soldiers nearby rushed to scene of the crash, they couldn’t believe their eyes. The giant helicopter was consumed in fire.
There were no traces of human remains. In fact, what was filled in the coffin as the remains of Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok was ash and his pip that was salvaged from the wreckage.
Oyite-Ojok together with all the other nine occupants perished. As we flew back to Kampala, I was boiling with fury against Gen Tito Okello and Paulo Muwanga and I wanted to shoot them on sight.
When we landed at the Nile Mansions, I broke the sad news and accused Gen Tito and Muwanga of killing Gen Oyite.
I quickly arranged an emergency meeting with commanders Opon Acak and Peter Owili and suggested that we needed to revenge Oyite’s death.
However, while we pondered our next move and strategy, I realised that then president Milton Obote, who was in India, was not yet aware of Gen Oyite’s death. I got on phone and called him.
When he picked, I told him it was me Cpt Akena calling and the sad news was that Gen Oyite was dead.
‘He has died in a helicopter explosion. We are going to avenge his death, we are going to fight,’ I said.
Devastated as he sounded, Obote said in a begging tone, ‘Please, Akena I beg you, do not fight.’
Next Sunday read about what the helicopter manufacturer, Bell Augusta, said was the cause of the crash