To men like Godfrey Nume and Lt Rtd William Ssempebwa, who lived through, and fought in the 1981 – 1986 Luweero bush war, Dwaniro is a place of memories. Triumphant, bitter, sad, and nostalgic.
No one sold the war to them. They embraced it wholeheartedly. Mention well known names such as Bukomero, Kapeeka, Lwamata, Muwanga and Lukoola and you will get a picture of the war-torn and hunger-stricken Dwaniro.
Embracing the war
On February 6, 1981, Yoweri Museveni, then leader of Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), made good on his threat to wage war on the newly elected government, after the disputed 1980 December elections.
He began with an attack on Kabamba Barracks.
On the morning of February 8, the rebels entered Kikuubo Trading Centre in Dwaniro. Museveni addressed an impromptu rally, announcing the beginning of the war. Nume, a 24 year-old UPM enthusiast at the time, with two children, eagerly listened to the speech.
“He told us why war was the only solution, although he did not have to explain much. We were ready. We were being harassed by Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) youth wingers. We only needed a leader.”
Dwaniro, under Mubende North East constituency, had voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party (DP) candidate, Dr Sebuliba but Samwiri Mugwisa, a candidate for UPC was declared winner.
“When Museveni shot a bullet at Kikuubo we knew that war was coming. We were not afraid. We did not even think about death. The overwhelming desire was to get rid of (President) Obote.”
After the rally, the rebels run into Lukoola, vast grassland of trees, swamps, and shrubs. When the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) arrived in Kikuubo they found civilians, whom they tortured.
They killed Edward Situuke, an agriculture extension officer in Bukomero.
“In 1980, I was working with Ministry of Defence,” says Lt Ssempebwa, who was 40-years-old then. The rebels placed him in charge of political mobilisation in Nkrumah zone.
“When UPC people started looking for Amin’s men, I came back to the village. Later, Capt. I.O. Mutebi approached me saying a group was planning war but they needed a detachment in Dwaniro.”
Ssempebwa set up Mutebi in his house in Lwamata Trading Centre and they began buying mwenge bigele (local brew) and enguuli (potent gin). Using the business as a front, they moved into villages recruiting and establishing contacts.
Most homes promised them two children to fight in the war, despite the fact that a UNLA battalion was stationed at the Gombolola headquarters in Bukomero.
Richard Kerim, a 15-year-old school dropout at the time, remembers being excited about the war at his home in Nkokonjeru.
“After (President) Amin, no one set up a reconciliation committee. My family was victimised because my brother (Brig Peter Kerim, who had gone into exile) had been in the Uganda Army.”
Kerim was quickly incorporated into the rebel ranks as a spy. He participated in the first attack on Dwaniro.
“There was so much hope among us. We knew we would win the war. As the years dragged on, we just lived every day as it came, knowing one day we would capture power.”
Setting up Nkrumah zone
By the time Kabamba Barracks was attacked, Ssempebwa and Mutebi had set up camps for their recruits.
“Earlier (Sam) Magala and (Taddeo) Kanyankole had inspected our work. When Museveni came to Kikuubo, he inspected our preparations and told us that he needed to feed the recruits so people had to grow more food.”
Museveni stationed himself behind Kateera Hill and when the UNLA offensive began, the camps were shifted to Lukoola. They later formed Nkrumah zone and the high command base.
“During the day, the boys would dig in the swamps,” says Ssempebwa. “At night, people would bring food for us.”
When he left for Luweero, the rebel commander left behind two guns to serve the entire camp.
“We lied to the boys that we had big guns secured in the hills. On an ambush of the UNLA, we secured three guns and the boys were so happy to see guns, they wanted to attack the soldiers.”
In 1983, UNLA began an offensive against the rebels in Bulemezi county. By this time the rebels had a large number of civilians living with them.
“This how we managed to ensure that people got food,” says Nume. “People were many so the high command sat and decided to send them to Lukoola.”
There was still plenty of food in Dwaniro and the people who were fleeing from other places were warmly welcomed.
But a sudden influx of hungry people was too much for the kind population to bear.
“People starved to death. I saw women growing thin until they were as flat-chested as children.”
“I was moving from one camp to another when I passed by a woman from Bulemezi with five children,” Ssempebwa recalls.
“They were so hungry that they could not walk. The second time I passed, two of the children had died. I got my boys to take a roasted potato to her but when we reached them the woman, and another child had died. The youngest was still suckling her breast.”
Ssempebwa says he was amazed when (Brig) Diba Sentongo informed him that his boys were eating bones.
“From the sound, it was like hyenas were scavenging. The boys had roasted the bones to soften them. I had a leather bag, which I cut up. For three days, we ate that bag. We agreed to eat the first soldier who fell into our ambush.”
UNLA, encouraged by a successful offensive, pursued the rebels. Ssempebwa’s home was attacked and in the confusion, his three year old daughter was left behind.
From their hiding place in the bush, the family watched the soldiers lighting a big fire.
“They threw her in the fire.” For the first time since he began talking, Ssempebwa pauses to recollect himself. The pain has never healed.
“The Red Cross was stationed in Bukomero but soldiers would come to the civilians brave enough to line up for food and pick out those they considered collaborators,” Nume narrates. “They would take them down to the swamps and kill them.”
The UNLA never harmed a peasant they found digging, So, fearing to be found idle or escaping, people planted food from 6am to 6pm.
When the situation worsened, the rebels told civilians to move to safer places. But still, a large number followed the rebels across River Mayanja to Ngoma.
“There were only cows in Ngoma and they ate them all,” says Nume. “In 1984, Museveni sent Major (Fred) Rwigyema to tell me to make an escape route in the swamps between Katwe Kanjiri and Buwundo, so that they could return to Dwaniro.”
The food planted by the civilians before they escaped to Ngoma was ready for harvest.
“With 10 other fighters, we cleared about eight miles in the swamp using hoes, pangas, and slashers. It took us a week. Night and day we slashed the grass. When it became dark, we slept where we stood.”
Among the 10 were Joseph Rwendire, Stephen Kabugo, and Kapalaga, all deceased. Others were Fred Mayanja, James Ruyangwe, and Michael Ruchimira.
“We cut the last strands of grass at 6pm and opened the route. When we peeped out, bullets flew past our heads. We ducked inside and sent a messenger to Ngoma.”
For the second time, Dwaniro welcomed hundreds of starving people.
Aftermath of the war
“Do you know what it feels like to be alive and see the fruits of your work?” Nume asks. He is now the chairman of the war veterans in Kiboga District.
“We have peace, people can do developmental work. They can vote for whomever they want.”
Kerim finally saw his dream of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1986.
“UNLA soldiers imagined that if you had an iron sheet roof, you were rich,” says Ssempebwa.
WHY DWANIRO STANDS OUT
Standing at the War Monument in Lwamata, one gets a sense of abandonment.
Twelve cows are grazing in the overgrown grass. The herd is leaning on the dirty monument; the blue and white tiles are cracked, and in some places they have fallen away.
Brown-coloured rentals surround the monument and the occupants seem oblivious to the fact that skulls and bones are buried there.
Heroes Day, celebrated on June 9, was incorporated into the calendar by the NRM government to celebrate those people who fought in the Bush War (1981-1986).
In 1993, the celebrations were held in Lwamata, Dwaniro, Luweero District, but with the creation of new districts, Dwaniro Sub-county is now in Kiboga District and it will host this year’s event.
A new monument to soldiers and civilians who fell in the war will be commissioned by the President.
“Lukoola, in Dwaniro, hosted many people who escaped the offensive in Luwero,” says Aloni Mugenyi, LC III Chairman, Dwaniro, a son of a veteran.
In Luganda, Dwaniro means battlefield.
“Now we want to celebrate our heroes and the developments in the area.
“Previously, there were no schools here but we now have 10 UPE schools and two USE schools. We have functioning health centres and people are practising modern agriculture.”
A few metres from the monument is Dwaniro Dairy and Livestock Farmers Cooperative Society Limited (DDLCS). The cooperative collects milk from farmers and sells it to Jessa Farm Limited at Shs850 per litre.
In April 1981, Chrysostom Ssetuba, a rebel contact, hid the rebels in his home, behind Kateera Hill. As he searched for food to feed them, he was betrayed.
Ssetuba refused to reveal the rebels’ hiding place despite the torture he suffered. He was the first contact to be killed.
Kiwanuka, a recruiter, was captured in Lwamata and tortured by heating plastic and dripping it all over his body.
He refused to betray the rebels, even when he was made to sit on a red-hot sigiri (charcoal stove) and roasted alive.
Their names will be placed on the monument for remembrance.