A black mist envelopes Bukara Village darkening the verdant slopes of Rwenzori Mountains.
The dark clouds and the crackling sound of thunder tail off in a distance as torrential rains pound the desolate grounds. I have travelled here to see the progress of reconciliation initiated by community leaders and human rights bodies.
On September 13, 2016, a dispute claimed the lives of four civilians and two policemen in the village. These women wear faces with profound sadness.
Hundreds have been killed in the Rwenzoris across the flashpoint areas in Kasese, Bundibugyo and Kabarole districts.
This potent mix of ethnic clashes and high-handed security personnel has left a trail of death and destruction.
Whereas in the past the conflicts were largely attributed to a scramble for resources and land, today, politics and the emergence of new kingdoms has lit the spark of violence.
It is barely a month before the country marks the second anniversary of the Kasese massacre where more than 100 civilians and 15 police officers were killed in the clashes.
Many of the civilians and royal guards were killed at the palace compound and the Rwenzururu Kingdom offices, all in Kasese Municipality.
Scores were later charged with treason, terrorism, and murder for the death of 15 police officers.
The Omusinga, Mr Charles Wesley Mumbere, after being freed on bail, has not been allowed to travel to his kingdom. His movements have been restricted to Kampala, Wakiso and Jinja.
There are accusations that the trial is lopsided, targeting largely the royal guards but exonerating security personnel of any criminal culpability.
Local and international organisations asked the Uganda government to facilitate an independent and transparent investigation involving international expertise into the Kasese killings. Government did not heed the call.
To the victims, Justice remains elusive. A girl, whose identity has been concealed for security reasons, lost her parents and a sibling during the siege at the palace. She did not have a chance to bury her parents. She now looks after four of her siblings and has never received any compensation from government.
“We are asking government to help us yet it is government soldiers that resulted in the death of our parents. Our fate lies in the hands of God,” says the victim.
“There are those intimidating us, claiming they are looking for families of those who used to work in the palace. I work in a salon; when I find money, my siblings have a meal and when I do not, they starve,” she adds.
Another woman, who lost her husband when a tribal militia hacked him to death, says her small earnings can barely support eight orphans.
“From the time he died till now, government has never compensated me. Our children are suffering; we do not have school fees and my [children] feed at the garbage pit. I get money for food and rent from this small business. We appeal to government to help us because my husband died in the line of duty,” she narrates.
Bismarck Baluku, who had just completed his Primary Leaving Examinations, is among those who were killed when security agents raided the offices of the Rwenzururu Kingdom in November 2016.
Whereas there is relative peace, there are fears that without meaningful reconciliation, violence can return to haunt this area. Another man, who was a royal guard, lost a brother during the attack at the palace. He has been in hiding and only granted the interview on the premise that his identity will not be exposed.
“When you sleep at home, [you ask] will they come for me? You know we had a challenge of people identifying us as royal guards and when you are at home, they come and pick you and then the RDC comes and says there is peace, ‘hand yourself in’. Why I am I handing myself in when you are holding my colleagues? So peace can only return if the king comes back,” says the royal guard.
Politicians have also been thrust into the crosshairs of the conflict. Largely an opposition-leaning district, politicians accuse government of applying a heavy stick to punish them for choosing the alternative. On the other hand, the ruling party supporters have accused the majority ethnic tribe in Kasese of attempting to subjugate them.
This is the rancour that spilled over into a district council meeting on Friday to decide whether Kasese should be split when leaders came close to fighting.
Leaders still harbour deep-seated mistrust and suspicion. It is what played out here at a meeting in Bundibugyo District.
“Obudingiya bwa Bwamba has never raised any conflict against Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu; the Obusinga came to power in 2009. And there was no problem because nobody contested them. But after realising that we are coming with a cultural institution, they turned against us,” says Mr Wilson Owenguko, the prime minister of Obudingiya bwa Bwamba.
However, Mr Bahigadi Baluku, the chairperson of the prime ministerial commission of the Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu, says there is no tribal conflict.
“It is caused by some of you who come and just push the minority to fight and say they are marginalised and in most cases, we have lived with them but all these things are escalating because of political propaganda,” he argues.
“There is also a need to find out more on the ground; when we talk of a militia, we have no Obudingiya bwa Bwamba militia, so the militia we have was started by Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu,” says Mr Owenguko, whose views underpin the wedge between these two kingdoms.
But the royal guard says there are those who deliberately infiltrated the rank and file of the organ meant to protect the king with a sinister agenda.
“I started hearing it [from the Inspector General of Police on television], so we were suspicious and asked the king that we had over the television that there is Kirumira Mutima; who are they? Our work was to guard the king,” he reveals.
Security agencies speak out
Mr Taban Swaib, the acting Bundibugyo District Police Commander, offers a moderate voice.
“We are living in a very challenging society where we have individuals who have selfish interests. Somebody can try to escalate a minor issue to bring on board those people who do not see far. We are saying as leaders, let us come together with security and speak the truth. We must be sincere in whatever we do,” he says.
Mr Patrick Tumwine from the Human Rights Network has traversed the sub-region to preach peace and reconciliation.
“The cries are still there, the orphans are still there, the widows and widowers are still there and they continue yearning for justice. The people, whose parents are still locked up in prisons in Kampala, do not know what will come next,” says Mr Tumwine.
He adds that unless the old grievances are addressed, Rwenzori will remain a trouble-spot.
“That voice and message we deliver on access to justice is not only for what happened but what is ahead because even when that has happened, we continue to see violence happening in the communities,” Mr Tumwine reveals.
Yet the danger in the Rwenzori remains imminent with the Allied Democratic Forces holed up in the DRC. The Ugandan army has now established a mountain brigade to patrol the area with three battalions.
Lt Col Nasur Kobed, who was deployed last December, is the commander of the 3rd mountain battalion.
“People are so cooperative though they have their own cliques. My role specifically is security. The most important part is to ensure that they are peaceful at all times,” Lt Col Kobed says.
Yet not even the barrel of the gun can secure lasting peace in the Rwenzori.
The attack on the palace
Different view. More than 100 guards were killed in an exchange with UPDF soldiers during a raid on Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu Palace in Kasese District on November 27, 2016. Another 139 royal guards were arrested.
Several items were recovered at the palace including 16 patrol bombs, 42 knives, three metal detectors, one SMG rifle, and one pistol with two magazines. Others include four radio calls and 47 pangas.
Creation of Rwenzori District. In a bid to solve the tribal problems in the Rwenzoris that had bedeviled the Obote I government and led to the outbreak of the Rwenzururu war, Idi Amin created Rwenzori District for the Bakonzo, Semliki District for the Bamba and Kabarole District for the Batoro. The other tribes had viewed the Batooro as oppressors and risen against them, the Batooro themselves having earlier broken away from Bunyoro.
Divisions. What was Rwenzori District is now largely Kasese, and Semliki is now Bundibugyo. One theory says the Bamba view Bundibugyo as their district, yet it has a big number of Bakonjo. Bundibugyo, in fact, is the birthplace of King Mumbere, which is why his brother returned to the district and recently won an election.
Bakonjo vs Bamba. In Bundibugyo, the Bakonjo inhabit largely the mountainous areas whereas the Bamba-Babwisi live in the lowlands. The Bakonjo in Bundibugyo, the information available to us shows, have for long been unhappy with the local politics of the district, which they see as dominated by the Bamba.
To appease the Bakonjo a bit, the district chairmen of Bundibugyo, who have nearly always been Bamba, have had Bakonjo deputies.