Battle of Birembo: NRA’s longest, fiercest encounter with UNLA troops

Sunday January 5 2020

Fighters. Guerrilla leader Yoweri Museveni

Fighters. Guerrilla leader Yoweri Museveni talks to NRA rebels in the early 1980s. FILE PHOTO 

By Nicolas Akasula

On January 1, 1985, at about 8.30am, the National Resistance Army’s (NRA) mobile brigade commanded by Salim Saleh overrun the army’s School of Infantry at Kabamba in Mubende District.

The NRA captured six light machine guns, two medium machine guns, RPG and mortar shells, and about 562 rifles. After a skirmish with government troops - the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) - from Mubende Barracks, at 5pm, the rebels embarked on long walk back to their base in Bulemezi County, in central Uganda.
They had to pass through Kikwaya Sub-county, now in Kakumiro District, where they had previously passed as they headed to Kabamba Barracks.

Kikwaya was one of two places - the other being Kasese District - where then rebel leader Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) had its candidate, Dr Crispus Kiyonga, perform well in the 1980 general election.

On February 8, 1981, two days after the first attack on Kabamba Barracks, Museveni had arrived in Kikwaya Trading Centre with a handful of men, in a convoy of six cars that included a Tata lorry and a Land Rover.
It was a Sunday afternoon, with people socialising and drinking kwete - a local brew. He addressed his supporters and then drove off.

Resting at River Nguse
Four years later, in January 1985, the rebels returned. They settled at River Nguse with their booty, waiting for another group that was being led by Museveni to leave Bukomero in Kiboga District and join them.
The Museveni group, though not well armed, had been acting as a decoy group, holding rallies in Bukomero to confuse the UNLA while Saleh’s mobile brigade trekked to Kabamba. The rebels rested at River Nguse for two days until the other group joined them.

Kaloli Kamanyire, 80, was a guide to the rebels, showing them the safest routes to use and bribing government soldiers to free some rebels they had captured. He also fed the rebels at River Nguse. Just as he did in the 1970s, he still owns most of Kikwaya Trading Centre.


“During the UPM campaigns in 1980, I had put my lorries and pick up trucks at the disposal of the party members to use in the campaigns. When the rebels came back from Kabamba, I used my Andrews motorcycle to transport some of them, such as the late Gordon Lwamukaaga and Sergeant Mugumya, who were doing reconnaissance, to show them the routes to use. They were all heavily armed,” he says.

The UNLA, led by Lt Col John Ogole, had been outflanking the rebels all the way from Kabamba, according to Col Fred Bogere, who at the time led a platoon in the Kabamba attack and was also the intelligence officer of the NRA 5th Battalion. The rebels were well aware of the UNLA’s movements.

“I remember there was some information that an enemy group had been spotted and were advancing on us, but from a long distance. We kept on wondering whether they had detected our presence at the river or they were following other orders. The late commander Lumumba (Patrick) and Taban (Geoffrey) were despatched to monitor their movements and managed to divert them to a different route. The enemy was moving towards Bukomero, Mityana and Mubende, and our signal unit had monitored their communication. They had spotted us, and I remember seeing Peter Naddumba briefing Gen Saleh on the same.

Col John Ogole was mobilising all his forces, telling them to converge on us. He emphasised that he was sure that their intelligence was reliable that Museveni was in our group. He said it was the only opportunity they had to deal with the NRA and annihilate it. Gen Saleh and his commanders had now come to terms with the fact that the enemy had accurate information and was determined to annihilate us. So, there was some sort of panic. Gen Saleh and group were determined to find ways of reaching and protecting the chairman of the High Command (CHC) group,” he says.

At Birembo Primary School
During the wee hours on January 10, 1985, the rebels left River Nguse and camped at Birembo Primary School, of about three kilometres away.
At 6am, they began foraging for food among the peasants. Sixty-four-year-old Erimegio Ssekyanzi, who lives opposite the school, heard a knock on his door and opened it.

Monument. View of the War Memorial at the spot
Monument. View of the War Memorial at the spot where Museveni rested during the battle as seen from Kibojana Hill. PHOTO BY GILLIAN NANTUME

“We had heard on Radio Uganda that Museveni had attacked Kabamba again. They were saying the people of Buyaga should protect themselves because he was coming this way. I remember the District Commissioner Tom Matte, calling meetings, telling every 10 houses (mayumba kumi) to form a team which should sleep on the roads, armed with whatever weapon they could lay their hands on, and light fires, to wait for the rebels and attack them.
But when we heard that they had reached River Nguse, people abandoned the roads and hid in their homes. When the rebels came to my door, they called out, ‘Abange! Khoodi!’, in a woman’s voice. When I opened it, I saw the madoadoa (camouflage outfit) and the guns.

They told me not to panic, saying they needed to buy food, such as sweet potatoes, beans, and maize and that they do not kill people. My garden is on a hill so, I told them to wait for the sun to come up. They came back at 6.45am and took the sugarcanes we had in the house,” he says.
Armed with a sack and machete, Ssenkyanzi stumbled on the rebel leader lying on a mattress where the War Memorial now stands, as he was rushing to his garden to harvest food. He still has the map of the area that he drew for Museveni that morning.

“He told me to leave the sack and knife behind and come close to him, because there was something he wanted me to help him with. I moved closer and he began asking me about myself. As we spoke, I could see guns pointed at me from the bushes around.

He began asking me for the road to Nkooko but when I directed him, he asked for panya (shortcut) routes because he did not want to use the main road. When I told him I did not know the routes, he asked how that was possible, yet I lived in the area. I began telling him the number of miles he had to walk to Kikwaya, Nalweyo, Kiranga and Nkooko,” he says.

Mateo Byamunugo, the caretaker of the War Memorial, says the rebels got comfortable and sat under a tree outside his aunt’s home. Some of them even began cooking.
“Museveni had asked my aunt for food and she gave him cassava and beans. He even asked for the beans she was cooking, which we were going to eat for lunch, saying they were very hungry. She gave them the beans,” he says.

While the rebels were cooking, the UNLA had taken up position on Kibojana Hill, overlooking Birembo. They had been reinforced by North Korean soldiers, and were equipped with anti-aircraft guns, Katyusha rocket launchers and 120mm mortars. At 3pm, they began firing on Birembo. The bombs fell for 40 minutes, and then the infantry advanced on Birembo.

The battle of Birembo
Bogere says the rebels had no choice but to stand and fight. “We had only camped at Birembo on the advice of the CHC because he said it was a tactical advantage point. But it was a mistake. The enemy had said this was a do or die affair and they had more or less surrounded us - according to our observation posts. Remember, these are government forces with logistical capabilities.

“I don’t know what had happened to him (Museveni) but probably during the pursuit of his decoy force, he could have been exhausted. Maybe he had moved at a speed he was not used to. He was psychologically tormented. He was worried about us, and himself. He could have sneaked out as an individual but his conscience could not allow him.

“And he was worried that he was going to cause the death of all these people (the rebels). The enemy had brought in the anti-aircraft gun, which had dealt us a big psychological blow, including the commanders. The soldiers were scared whenever they heard it because it could even burn the grass on the ground.

“The commanders were busy working out a withdraw route for the CHC. That battle almost took the life of Dr Kizza Besigye. He was treating casualties who were being rushed in from the fighting, under a tree. He lit a fire and began boiling the instruments he was going to use. Some soldier detected the smoke and worked out the calculations and grid references. A bomb hit the saucepan. I remember Dr Besigye was handling a syringe but when the shell hit us, we all ran away. Some of the causalities he was treating were killed,” Bogere says.

The peasants still remember the five-hour battle. Ssekyanzi has kept the bullets and bomb shrapnel as mementos.

“I was coming back from the garden when I heard a bomb wheezing past, and I saw the rebels looking around, alert. Then, I heard it coming towards us and it fell at the school. The rebels tripped me as they fled and I fell down, but they continued running. I picked up my sack and ran to where I had last seen Museveni lying.
By the time I got there, two shells had already hit the place. There was a lot of shrapnel around. I found Museveni and his escorts crouching under the tree, with his gun on the ready. I immediately fell down, and when a shell whizzed by, I picked up my things and ran back to my house.

There were about 20 of us in the house. The rebels were all over the ground, crawling. Those who were cooking had poured the food in the fire. People were crying in the house as the bombs went off. We thought we were going to die. It was hot and we were all sweating.

I opened the door and heard the rebels saying they had to fight because they were surrounded. They advised us to get out of the house and run, saying we were very foolish because we should have ran at the sound of the first bomb. I picked up a backcloth, which I used as a blanket, a cup and a jerrycan and fled into the forest, to Mujungu. Some other residents fled to Kisiija,” he says.

Byamunugo says a shell hit the tree where Museveni and his escorts were sitting and killed his lead bodyguard.
“Museveni jumped up and ran into a huge carving in the tree. He hid there for some time as the battle raged on. Later, they came out and hastily buried the bodyguard under a mango tree nearby. The next day, the UNLA soldiers came and retrieved the body to see who had been buried. When they saw that it was not Museveni, they set the body on fire. Many of our neighbors also died in that battle,” Byamunugo says.

Withdrawal from Birembo
At 7pm, a downpour set in. An hour later, the guns fell silent. Under the cover of darkness, the NRA began withdrawing.

“Normally all forces avoid battles in darkness and the government forces were used to dealing in the ordinary way of things. They thought they would keep us for breakfast the next morning. By the time some of us came to realise that the government forces were withdrawing, a number of our colleagues were dead or were unaccounted for because we had been in disarray.

“We escaped Birembo by a whisker. Those in the top command had worked out the CHC’s withdrawal and the moment it got dark, they sent advance troops to clear his way. He began moving out; they were looking at two options. One of them was that if the enemy did not withdraw, he would face us in the morning but with the CHC gone.

“My platoon was instructed to follow the withdraw route at 10pm. We caught up with the CHC group that had left at 7pm. The CHC was so tired that he had to be carried on a stretcher,” Bogere says. When Ssekyanzi returned to his home the next morning at about 10am, he found three people had been killed in his compound, including a rebel.

“The government soldiers destroyed my house and ate all my chicken. They even left a number of bullets in the fireplace so that they could explode when we lit the fire for cooking. Luckily, we found those bullets and I still have them to date,” he says.

Today, most of those who witnessed the battle - and were traumatised by it - are long dead.
President Museveni’s six-day trek, which started yesterday, is the second time he is walking to Birembo since he captured power in 1986. He first walked there 20 years ago, in 1999.