How Ben Luwum survived NRA revenge attacks

Friday January 29 2016
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Ben Luwum during the interview. Inset, NRA fighters march on the streets of Kampala shortly after taking over government in January 1986. Photos by Henry Lubega/File.

I think the problems of Ugandans hating each other basing on tribe could have started way back in 1966. To me, I think the attack on the Kabaka’s palace by soldiers predominantly from the north was the beginning of bad feelings towards the people from the north.
By the time the battle for Kampala started, we had two homes, one on Namirembe Hill near the cathedral, and another on Udyam House. So the family was divided, with some staying at Udyan House with me, while others were in Namirembe. As the war intensified, I moved from Udyam House to go and see the children in Namirembe. Unfortunately, while there, it became hard for me to cross back through the city centre. I decided to stay there until the war ended.

Fortunately, we had very good neighbours. One particular neighbour was a Muganda lady called Sarah. Her family was very good to us.
I don’t recall the exact day but it was in the very early days of the takeover. It was in mid-morning, when one of Sarah’s sons came running towards our house, shouting: “Abayekeera baja eno” (the rebels are coming this way). When I heard him, my first reaction was what they were looking for. I thought this could be my last day. I thought of many options, including running away or hiding inside the ceiling, but I decided to wait and confront them as they reached the house.

They were about four, only one with a gun, which he pointed at me ready to shoot. One of the unarmed three walked over to me. He asked me to identify myself.
I said I was working with Uganda breweries as I handed him my Identity Card. He looked at it for a while and said: “Ben Okello ahhh ate mucholi,” meaning “Ben Okello, he is an Acholi.”

Rescued by neighbours
Fortunately, the neighbours had started gathering at my house to see what was happening. Sarah’s mother was among those who came. She told the rebels: “This man is a good man. He is a good neighbor. We have been living happily together for a long time, please don’t kill him.”
After some tense moment, the rebels murmured among themselves. The one pointing a gun at me beckoned the others to go.
As they left, the one who had asked for my ID moved closer and said: “Please don’t mind what has just happened, we were looking for former government soldiers. You are not one of them, just be calm. Don’t run away, nothing is going to happen to you.”
I was not confortable thereafter, thinking that someone may have accused me of something falsely. I had relatives in the army who used to come home.

At one point, I thought some of them may one day cause us problems. That was during the Obote II and Tito Okello Lutwa regimes.
When the rebels left, I contacted Bishop Kauma, who lived within Namirembe Hill. I told him what had just happened. I suggested to him that I go to his place, fearing that they may come back in the night and harm me. Unfortunately, his house was also surrounded and I could not go there, neither could he get out.
The next morning, Archbishop Yona Okoth requested that I go to his official residence. I think Bishop Kauma had shared my plight with him. It was more risky getting to his residence. There gunshot sounds everywhere. Luckily, I got there, and stayed until the war ended.

At Archbishop Okoth’s home, I found four men, who had sought refuge at the Archbishop’s residence. I later learnt they were former security operatives in the Obote II government. They had come with their guns and uniforms.
One day, while we were seated outside at around 10am, the rebels came and asked for the archbishop. They said to him: “We heard that you are harboring some soldiers here.” The archbishop answered: “Yes, these are security people who were in Obote II government. When it was overthrown, they came here for safety.” The NRA soldiers said they had come for the guns and the uniforms, not the people.
The former security men handed over their guns and uniforms to the NRA soldiers, and they left.


Former soldiers picked
However, three days later, the same people came back, this time to take the former soldiers. The archbishop put up a spirited fight for the men not to be taken, but the rebels insisted they were going to get some information from them and set them free.
Weeks later, after the guns had fallen silent, I visited the Archbishop. I found all the three men who had been taken by the soldiers. They narrated to me their ordeal, saying if they had not been soldiers, they would not have survived.
They told me that their captors would keep them thirsty and hungry, and then they would come and ask who wanted water or food. If one raised his hand, they would call them out and they start beating them.”