What you need to know:
On October 1, 1990, Rwandan refugees living in Uganda attacked Kagitumba border post to force their way back home after decades in exile. That attack would mark the beginning of a four-year war that not only saw the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) finally take over Kigali but also greatly alter the political and social configuration of the Great Lakes Region. Daily Monitor writer and researcher Faustin Mugabe reviews the events sorrrounding that first attack, exactly 23 years later today.
October 1 will always be an important day in Rwanda’s history.
But perhaps even more important in that history is the Uganda-Rwanda border point called Kagitumba.
It is at this border point that the RPF launched its war but is also where the group’s hero and mastermind of the struggle, Maj Gen Fred Rwigyema, was killed. The exiles’ return to Rwanda was a decision taken after many years of deep contemplation and planning. Critical in this planning was the choice of the day to attack Rwanda. As this piece will explain later, the choice of October 1 was deliberate.
Behind Museveni’s back?
Part of the debate on the RPF attack is whether President Museveni was aware of this action and whether he sanctioned it. Whereas it is not clear whether President Museveni okayed the attack, what is known is that he was aware that Rwandan refugees in Uganda wanted to force their way back home.
On the day the RPF attacked Kagitumba (October 1), President Museveni, who was away in Washington, USA for an official visit, issued a statement, which in part read: “This took us by surprise. We had been getting intelligence reports, which we shared with the Rwanda authorities, but they were not confirmed. We had been doing everything to contain these boys. That’s why they did it without our knowledge.”
When he returned to Uganda on October 10, President Museveni told the press: “On one occasion when I met with the President of Rwanda in Nyagatare, I told him, Mr President, you should watch out. These boys are very dangerous for you. They are a ready force. They are disgruntled. They have acquired skills. Of course, we will police it. But if a faction in Rwanda comes and says join us, then they can desert in big numbers.” Addressing journalists on October 3, 1990, three days after the attack, Maj Peter Baingana, one of RPF commanders, said it had taken them three months to plan for the war.
But why did they choose October 1 to launch the offensive?
The answer lies largely in President Museveni’s itinerary and Maj Gen Rwigyema’s skilful planning. Rwigyema had been a key player in the NRA Bush War that brought President Museveni to power in 1986. When Kampala fell, Rwigyema was named deputy army commander and later deputy defence minister.
By virtue of his position, he had a deep appreciation of the political and security systems of the government. Rwigyema knew what was on President Museveni’s schedule and that of other top government/military officials. But beyond this, Rwigyema had extra powers entrusted to him where he could cause and influence the transfers of soldiers and other individuals.
This authority would come in handy when it came to moving Rwandan soldiers from whatever stations they were to Kagitumba, the frontline. This influence was also vital since Rwigyema had used it to place several countrymen and women in key positions of government and the military, giving them exposure and connections that would prove important when the war was finally launched.
It looks like Rwigyema had contemplated informing President Museveni about the mission before he left for Washington.
The Citizen newspaper of October 13, 1990 quoted the President at the October 10 press conference saying: “I was leaving for the airport, Rwigyema came close to me. He was tense... He said that he wanted to tell me something. I told him we shall talk when I come back.”
Why was Rwigyema tense and what did he want to tell the President?
Rwigyema, calm and calculating
As President Museveni left for the USA on September 27, 1990, the country was engulfed in a frenzy of preparations for the 28th Independence Anniversary which would fall on October 9. Mr Museveni would return a day after.
This offered Rwigyema the perfect cover to conduct financial and logistical business without attracting a lot of suspicion.
A source who preferred anonymity, told this writer: “I remember on September 29, many Rwandans in NRA who had taken long without visiting us in Makindye came and there was a lot of merry-making. I was a teenager then and never suspected anything until we heard that the RPF had attacked Rwanda.”
On Sunday, September 30, 1990, Rwigyema arrived late for the SC Villa-KCC match at Nakivubo Stadium in Kampala. He was wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Rwigyema was a big fan of SC Villa and despite his team walloping KCC 3-1, he retained his composure, betraying no emotion.
As Rwigyema sat watching football, Rwandan troops were making their way past Mbarara in western Uganda.
They branched to Ntungamo Town before heading to Kagitumba. Whenever the troops stopped and they were asked about their destination, the answer was quick and crisp: “We are going to prepare for military drills ahead of Independence Day.”
Kafunjo Village which is about 4 miles away from Murama Hills customs point would be the assembly point for most of the troops.
The other troops, who were ferried mainly in the night, assembled at Katuna, Kamwezi Kyanika and Kizinga border posts. Locals in these areas were told “not to worry” since the “NRA, which was assembling in their areas was a people’s army”. Witnesses have told this writer that Rwigyema, who was moving with the last batch of soldiers, was sighted in Mbarara on October 1 at 7.30am, where his convoy stopped to fuel.
So, what exactly happened when RPF troops crossed into Rwanda at Kagitumba?
This writer managed to track down a retired customs officer who was in charge of that border post. Unsure of the impact of his revelations, he asked that the newspaper keeps his identity anonymous.
Invasion, an eyewitness account
“I had contracted malaria on Sunday, September 30,” narrated the retired official. “So the following morning at around 8.30am, I left office and went to the Rwandan side of the border to seek medication. At about 10am after my treatment but still talking to colleagues on the Rwandan side, we saw soldiers in Ugandan uniforms in a single file marching into Rwanda. Our first impression was that they were on routine patrol or coming to look at the newly-reconstructed bridge on River Umvumba. But when we realised it was an infinite file, we hurried to meet them before they could get to the bridge.”
The source added: “They simply removed the barrier on the Ugandan side and marched towards No-Man’s land. I became suspicious. When I met the lead soldier, I asked him what the matter was.” The slender and tall soldier, says the narrator, tapped him on the shoulder and told him in Runyankole, “Turiyo nitutaaha”, which loosely translates as “We are coming/going home”. The retired official continued: “That Monday was also an open market day at Kitwe in Uganda, about seven miles from the Rwanda border. It attracted traders from Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. The border was therefore teeming with people headed to this market.”
The official says when the first soldier crossed into Rwanda, a whistle was blown and suddenly it began raining bullets.
The RPF soldiers increased their pace while those in front ran towards the Rwanda customs building. They kept shooting at the about 10 Rwandan soldiers and police men at the building. “There was a stampede on both sides of the border as people headed to Kitwe market scattered in all directions,” said the official.
“The first batch of RPF fighters, who were in their hundreds, entered Rwanda while Ugandan soldiers who seemed to have moved with them, stayed on the Ugandan side. Recognisable among the Ugandan soldiers was Lt Col Anthony Kyakabale.”
Kyakabale was later accused of involvement in subversive activities and fled Uganda. He now lives in exile in Sweden.
“Kyakabale and other Ugandan soldiers spent the night in my house,” said the official. “In the evening of October 1, we saw a plane flying very high in the sky from the Rwandan side. It rotated around the border and went back.”
The following day, October 2, 1990, at around 7am, a Rwandan air force jet flying from the Akagera National Park near the Tanzania-Uganda border came and bombed the Kagitumba Customs building which the RPF had captured and converted into their tactical headquarters, says the retired official. “Many people died,” he said, adding that the bombing went on towards the Kamwezi border post.
Did he know what had become of Rwigyema in this time? the writer asked him. “I only heard of Rwigyema’s death two weeks later. I don’t know what killed him. I don’t know whether it was infighting in RPF or enemy fire that took him down. In November, I was transferred to Kasese District,” concluded the official.