Mogadishu. Twenty five days after landing on the battlefield, Uganda lost its first soldier to al-Shabaab fire. It was March 31, 2007. The day started like any other, with the enemy attacking at will. At 10am, there was blood on the floor. As the terrorists carried on their usual shelling, Lance Corporal Wilber Muhwezi Rwegira suddenly found himself in the line of fire. He was killed when a mortar shell landed right beside his firing position inside the presidential palace.
The previous night, al-Shabaab had shelled the presidential palace non-stop. That night, Rwegira and his colleagues put up a valiant fight, ensuring that the president, Abdullahi Yusuf, was safe.
But in the wee hours of the fateful day, the 14mm anti-air gun Rwegira had spent the night firing developed a mechanical fault.
In the morning, a team of technicians led by the commanding officer of Air Defence, Maj Duncan Kashoma and Lt Martin Okello, now Captain, moved from KM-4 Junction to the palace to repair the damaged gun.
As the team was repairing the gun, al-Shabaab intensified the shelling. One of the incoming rounds exploded very close to the damaged weapon. Rwegira, who was an air defence gunner, was killed. Maj Kashoma and Lt Okello were seriously injured in the blast.
Reinforcement and rescue teams were dispatched to evacuate the injured and move Rwegira’s body.
“I led the team that evacuated the injured. They were bleeding profusely,” says Col Charles Byanyima
And that was how a mortar shell ended the life of Lance Corporal Rwegira from Kyakabunga, Kiruhura District, who went to the same school with this writer.
Born on April 9, 1979, the fallen soldier joined the army in October 2000 after completing his Advanced Level education at Bujaga Secondary School in Mbarara.
He had done his basic military training at Singo and undergone a leadership course at Kabamba Military Training School in 2001. He trained as a gunner at Butyaaba training school and did courses in intelligence and gunnery in air defence.
Ahead of deploying with battle Group One, the lance corporal had served as 507 Brigade intelligence officer, before going to Nakasongola in 2004 to operate air defence assets from where he was deployed in Somalia in 2007.
Rwegira will be remembered as the first Ugandan to fall at the front in the fight against the al-Shabaab. He put up a gallant fight but the fates were not with him that March morning. He laid down his life for the sake of the Somali people when that AA gun stopped firing. He should have withdrawn to better cover as repairs were being done but he stayed; when the mortar round came in, it was all over.
The army paid its respects to Rwegira as his comrades-in-arms carried on the fight in the face of ever present danger.
It took more than one and a half months before another soul was lost. On May 16, the insurgents would strike again. Four soldiers were killed and six injured when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated right next to them.
They were patrolling in Hamr-Weyn, near the old seaport when it happened. Privates Fredrick Wanda from Kamuli District; Osbert Tugume of Bushenyi District; Julius Peter Onguu of Pader District and Ojok Kilama Lagule from Gulu District should have returned to base later that day at the end of their shift, having picked valuable knowledge about the lay of the land in front of their lines.
Instead, they died. That same day, the embattled Somali president Yusuf was meeting President Museveni at State Lodge Nakesero in Kampala.
Whether by design or inadvertently, at a joint press conference with President Museveni that very day, president Yusuf said his government was committed to negotiations with al-Shabaab. The two leaders first held a closed-door meeting that was attended by the former Chief of Defence Forces, the late Gen Aronda Nyakairima.
Wanda and Tugume were buried in Kamuli and Bushenyi, respectively, on May 20, 2007. Onguu and Kilama were buried the following day amid several protests from residents, especially in Awach, where Kilama, 40, was buried.
Tugume, 25, a rifleman, had joined the army on January 22, 2003. After his training, he was assigned to 81 Battalion, before going to Mogadishu in 2007. Wanda, a rifleman, had joined two years after in 2005.
As fate would have it, both Kilama and Onguu joined the army on the same day on March 2, 2006 in Pader District. They died the same day and were buried on the same day.
The ghosts of Somalia had claimed the Ugandans. The IED, a most insidious weapon, would claim more lives in the coming months.
The explosive which killed these Ugandans also severely injured Lt Fred Ssentongo and privates Boaz Kasswala, Peter Mucunguzi, Simon Tumusiime, Sulait Labu and Odong Okoth. Ordinary Somalis who were within the blast radius were injured and rushed to the military camp for treatment.
As can be imagined, facilities at the field hospital in those early days of the mission were rather basic. As such, it would become necessary to fly the casualties out. An aircraft came in to Mogadishu International Airport, and the injured were flown to Nairobi for further treatment.
While in hospital, the late Col Bernard Rwehururu, Uganda’s military attaché to Kenya, rushed to the Aga Khan Hospital to visit the injured Ugandans. This would mark the first of several similar visits the colonel would make as Somalia began to take its toll on the peace mission.
Back home, the death of the four re-opened public debate about the deployment of UPDF in Somalia. Old questions were asked about this mission in a land so far away and whether it was worth the blood and sacrifice of Ugandan citizens. The army mourned its dead the best way it could and carried on the task as ordered in the best of military tradition as one would expect.
There were moments when it was gut-wrenching. For instance, during Kilama’s burial, his brother, Walter Ocan, and the former LC3 chairman of Awach, David Ochora, asked why the Ugandan government had deployed “Uganda’s sons” to be killed in a “foreign” land.
“Our children were recruited to defend and serve Uganda and not anywhere else,” Mr Ochora was quoted in the media. Indeed, this was the same question many Ugandans were asking.
The doubt implicit in Mr Ochora’s words must have stung for those still at the front.
Mr Ochora told fellow mourners that “our children” were recruited to defend and serve Uganda and not to shoulder other countries’ problems.
Lt Chris Magezi, then the spokesperson of the army’s 4 Division, now the spokesperson of the Special Forces Command, commiserated with the mourners. It was not very easy. But he did his best to calm them down as tempers flared, observing that Amisom had handed down a just cause which Uganda had taken up in a bid to help a sister African country.
“The death of our comrades while on international and Pan-African duty is surely a blow to the families of those serving the UPDF in Somalia and we can only pray to the Almighty to give them strength. The only consolation is that they did not die in vain,” Lt Magezi was quoted saying in the media as Ochora’s remains were laid to rest.
Not unexpectedly, these deaths would also provoke fresh calls from some politicians who demanded a withdrawal. Fearing the worst was yet to happen, the politicians pointed out that Uganda’s troops were exposed since they were very thin on ground. None of the other African nationals which had promised to contribute personnel to the mission had joined in.
Suddenly, the Amisom project was facing danger. The Ethiopians were already withdrawing. If the UPDF left this early in the campaign, one could only imagine what would happen. The earlier plan had been for the Ethiopians to wait until the Ugandans had fully settled in and gotten used to the terrain.
But Uganda’s command must have been shocked when Ethiopia very quickly withdrew from all areas in Mogadishu.
One officer, who does not want to be named, says: “We were disappointed. They instead told us that their planes were ready to evacuate us in case we could not handle. But we told them; ‘we will fight’. It was like a mockery. That gave us determination to fight,” the officer says.
Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Katumba Wamala, who was then Commander Land Forces and directly supervising the mission, has been quoted elsewhere observing that once the Ethiopians withdrew, the attacks intensified against Amisom. It was as if the terrorists were testing to see if their new opponents had the mettle necessary to stay alive in this conflict.
The US and African Union was concerned by this turn in affairs. In mitigation, they intensified the campaign to have countries which had promised kept their word.
Nigeria, South Africa, Malawi, Ghana and Burundi had promised to be part of the mission but it seems the attacks on Ugandan troops probably made these countries more hesitant. And so, out of an agreed 8,000 troops who should have formed the initial peacekeeping force, only 1,700 Ugandans remained on the ground.
Jendayi Frazer, an American diplomat, tried to convince Angola, which she said had a strong military that would augment Ugandans but President Eduardo Dos Santos said they were not ready to deploy. Nigeria, which had promised to deploy kept promising but up-to-date, not a single Nigerian soldier has set foot here. Then president Olusegun Obasanjo, who was about to leave power at the time, had promised a battalion.
Desperate, the US and African Union diplomats held several meetings with the Burundian government, which was itself facing political unrest home. An agreement must have been reached because in December 2007, Burundi deployed the first batch of its troops to Mogadishu.
As a fighting force, the Burundians lightly armed; an infantry unit that came without any armour. Even then, this was a big relief to the harassed Ugandans. The Burundians were airlifted by France, while the US provided military equipment, inclding uniforms, boots, bullet-proof jackets and helmets.
Back home, the government stepped up the campaign to explain itself. Ms Ruth Nankabirwa, the then State Minister for Defence, told Parliament that pulling out of Somalia then was simply not an option.
Uganda’s army remained at the front. The first blood shed by Rwegira, Wanda, Tugume, Onguu and Kilama did not flow in vain…
Profiles of the dead soldiers
Lance Corporal Wilber Muhwezi Rwegira
Background. He was born on April 9, 1979 in Kiruhura District.
Career in the army. He joined the army in October 2000 after completing his A-Level. He was deployed in Somalia in 2007. He was killed when a mortar shell landed right beside his firing position inside the presidential palace on March 31, 2007.
Private Fredrick Wanda
Background. Born in Kamuli District.
Career in the army. Arifleman, Wanda joined the army in 2005. He was killed on mission in Somalia when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated right next to him and other soldiers on May 16. He was burried in Kamuli District on May 20, 2007.
Private Osbert Tugume
Background. Born in Bushenyi District.
Career in the army. A rifleman, Tugume joined the army on January 22, 2003. After his training, he was assigned to 81 Battalion, before going to Mogadishu in 2007. He was killed when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated right next to him and other soldiers. He was burried in Bushenyi on May 20, 2007.
Private Julius Peter Onguu
Background. Born in Pader District.
Career in the army. He joined the army on March 2, 2006 in Pader District. He and his colleagues were patrolling in Hamr-Weyn, near the Somalia old seaport when when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated right next to them. He was burried on May 20, 2007 in Pader District.
Private Ojok Kilama Lagule
Background. Born in Gulu District.
Career in the army. He joined the army on March 2, 2006 in Pader District. He and his colleagues were patrolling in Hamr-Weyn, near the Somalia old seaport when when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated right next to them. He was burried on May 20, 2007 in Gulu District.
Maj Duncan Kashoma
Lt Martin Okello
Lt Fred Ssentongo
Pte Boaz Kasswala
Pte Simon Tumusiime
Pte Sulait Labu
Pte Odong Okoth