Maj. Rubaramira Ruranga (R0 0192) is currently best known for his national and international crusade against HIV/AIDS. However, he was the first officer in charge of prisons during the 1981-’86 bush war. He told William Tayeebwa all about in a chat this week
My first active involvement in the liberation wars of Uganda started in 1977 when I met Sam Magara who was at the time among the group based in Tanzania fighting Idi Amin’s regime.
I knew him when he was a student at Kololo Secondary School where I worked. I had also taught him religion when I was a special pioneer of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During our 1977 meeting in Mulago hospital, he called me on the side and briefed me about what was going on. I said that was what I was waiting for long.
I had been disgusted by Idi Amin’s government because the day he took over power in 1971, excited Baganda, happy about Milton Obote’s overthrow, beat me up in Wandegeya as I came from Makerere University. They accused me of being Obote’s brother because I kept long hair like him.
In Mulago, Magara briefed me about the struggle to overthrow Amin and he gave me an assignment. From that time, I started clandestine work. I would visit different barracks and would report to him what I had observed each time he came to Uganda.
When the group from Tanzania overthrew Amin in 1979, I was working at Uganda Television and Radio Uganda as a newsreader. I then joined the President’s Office and in 1980 was sent for military training in Cuba. While in Cuba, the political campaigns started in Uganda and we learnt that the situation was not good.
Already in Cuba, we got into camps with some people supporting Obote and some of us Museveni. In October 1980, Paulo Muwanga himself came and we flew back home in preparation for the December 1980 elections.
Although I worked within the government’s intelligence system during the 1980 campaigns, I was a member of Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement. At one stage during the campaigns, I realised we were wasting time. I went to Amama Mbabazi and Ruhakana Rugunda and told them that we had no chance since the elections would be cheated anyway.
As preparations to go to the bush went on, I was fully aware of what was going on. In fact, I was prepared to move with the first group that attacked Kabamba on February 6, 1981. But owing to the clandestine nature of the preparations, there were many disconnections in the arrangement and we lost touch. As the rebels started hitting different places and government panicked, I knew what was going on but did not know how to link up with them.
Shortly after the attack, I tried to follow our rebels on my own. I could, however, not proceed and came back to Kampala. When I later reached the camp sometime towards the end of 1981, I found their attitude had changed. They were suspicious of me and I was asked very serious questions. Luckily, people like Fred Mwesigye and Magara were in that camp. They knew that I was not an enemy. Magara was at the time in command and he told me to continue operating in Kampala.
Sometimes I would go to Nairobi to take and bring information. Al Hajji Kirunda Kivejinja was producing a newsletter that I used to get and bring to distribute to people. I was a high-risk taker at the time.
My key job was, however, recruitment of rebels. Among the most complicated to recruit was Tadeo Kanyankole. We knew that he was a highly trained soldier and he had resolved to go to the bush. I was at the time camouflaging as a textile shop operator in Kikubo and he knew I was taking people to the bush. The problem was how to smuggle him to the bush since he was such a tall and conspicuous man who would easily be picked upon on any roadblock.
Beating all odds, I managed to take him to the bush in September 1981 and came back.
Joining the bush
Soon, the people I trained with in Cuba started hunting me around. Each time I was out of town, some people would try to establish where I had gone. One day in early 1982, I went to my home area in now Kanungu district. One guy I worked with in President’s Office connived with some other intelligence people in Kihihi and I was arrested. After an intervention by relatives who pleaded with James Rwanyarare, who was in charge of that constituency, I was released.
When I came back to Kampala, I realised that it was dangerous to stay around. I was at the time in touch with people like “Airforce” [John Mugisha] and a few others. On the eve of my leaving for the bush, I hid at Col. Mukasa’s garage in Wandegeya. I then rode my bicycle with a sac I got from Cuba and headed for Gayaza Road. Towards Kalerwe, I found soldiers at a roadblock and they asked me where I was going. I told them I was going to the bush and they laughed. I rode on alone until I met “Airforce” and another colleague. We rode up to Mondlane camp.
The conditions in Mondlane were quite a change for me. The food and the general conditions were bad. What made a difference is that I went when I was prepared and knew what to expect. The training I had in Cuba also helped me appreciate the conditions in the bush. Interestingly, I had carried all my suits to the bush. On arrival, my property was taken away from me and distributed. I recall that Salim Saleh appropriated my bicycle. In fact, I have never even asked him for a refund. Of all the property I took, I remained with only one jacket and a trouser.
That evening as we sat chatting around a fire, one of the commanders called Sande Mukuru said something that I thought was stupid and retorted as such. I did not know he was a commander. He immediately ordered that I be taken to andaki (manhole). I therefore spent my first night in the bush incarcerated inside a cold manhole.
It took me about a week before meeting commander Museveni. He told me I had two options: either to join the political wing or the armed one. Because I looked older, he wanted to put me in the political wing where you had people like Katenta Apuuli and so on. Owing to my military training, I wanted to be in the army. I was then taken for training in Kasambya. Under the circumstances of food scarcity, I found the training very tough. I was thereafter posted to the same Mondlane unit.
One of my major tasks was to be in charge of the civilian population. This was a very difficult period because we did not have food. Most of the [civilians] were very undisciplined without a clue about military discipline. For instance, we were not supposed to cook during the day to avoid detection by the enemy. However, some civilians disregarded this order and made fire during the day. Because of their indiscipline, I was always clashing with them. In fact, they at one time reported me to Museveni. He explained to them the way we operated in the bush and that it was for the security of us all.
During the initial phases of the struggle, we were not in full control of territory. That meant that we had to conduct most activities during night. It was at night that the commanders would organise people to carry out different activities. Some people would be deployed to go for food while others would be cooking. Looking for food was the worst activity to undertake. You would sometimes walk several miles to look for cassava and sometimes meet the enemy on your way back and lose it.
Sometimes, I would be sent on reconnaissance missions in enemy barracks. One day, I was going to deliver a letter given to me by Fred Rwigyema from Museveni to the commander of a government army detach at Nakaseke and fell in an ambush at a place called Kyamutakasa. As we moved, one of my four escorts told me that we had fallen in an ambush.
I told him to shut up and we continued. But each time I looked on the side, I would see a gun pointed at us. I however figured out that they could not hit at only four of us. They would wait hoping for our bigger group. So, we went through the ambush without incident and reached Nakaseke.
I told the soldier on the quarter guard that I was from their detach in Kikubampanga and wanted the letter delivered to his commanding officer immediately.
No sooner had we left than they started shooting. I had positioned my boys in different places so that if the fire intensified, we would fire one or two bullets in different directions to give the impression we were many. After disorganising them, we proceeded back to Mondlane. During that incident, the enemy actually announced on their radio calls that “Mandevu” (my nickname because I kept a big beard) had been captured.
Later, I underwent cadet training conducted by Kanyankole. On completion, I became a junior officer and posted to Mondlane as the in-charge of prisons. I kept this post for most of the time we were in the bush. The prison was a simple fenced [structure] manned by guards. Many of the prisoners being our own, there was little chance that they would escape even if unguarded. However, I still had the duty to ensure they were properly guarded. The first time we got enemy prisoners is when we attacked Mpoma satellite station. Later most of them joined our forces.
Some of my prominent prisoners at the time were Jack Musinguzi who was accused of having executed someone called Mugabe. Another one was Kakooza Mutale, now a presidential adviser. Mutale had become a problem organising Baganda to revolt. He was also abusive of Bahima, making jokes of their dress code of tying clothes around their waists.
One day, Museveni convened a meeting and addressed us with Mutale seated on the ground in the middle. Museveni kept poking Mutale’s stomach with a stick as he lectured to us the ills of sectarianism.
Later in the struggle, another prominent prisoner when I was still OC prisons was David Tinyefuza. Because he was a senior officer, he would not be with other prisoners under my control. He was under house arrest. Throughout the war, Tinyefuza was always a troublesome man.
Sometime in early 1983 the government army, commanded by Oyite Ojok, launched a massive offensive. It was a rainy season and conditions were very difficult. We moved from the populated Bulemezi towards the sparsely populated Singo. There was incredible hunger and many civilians died. It was very sad for me to see people die of hunger. To date, I still remember those days and I shudder in shock. Another depressing moment was seeing how some officers were abusing girls. I have been reading what this lady in exile [China] Kaitetsi has been writing and it is true. The few girls available in this kraal of predominantly males were abused. I felt very sorry for the girls.
Nevertheless, it is also during the bush war that most of us appreciated the courage of women fighters. We had many good fighters. Unfortunately, most of them died as the struggle progressed.
Fighting alongside these women, we realised that they were as capable in battle as their male counterparts. I consider this re-awakening about the role of women fighters as one of the major lessons I learnt during the struggle.
In addition to the gender [awareness], I think it is our struggle that is responsible for the current political awakening we are experiencing today. People are now free to express their views openly, which was not possible before.
We should not have lost all our senior officers to HIV/AIDS. The top leadership in the bush knew at that time that this disease was there and it was very dangerous. Unfortunately, not at any one occasion did you hear our leadership talk to us about the dangers of the disease. I still think that so many of our people could have been saved if the leadership sensitised us early.
I recall President Museveni addressing the nation immediately we took over power about this disease. Yet, I did not hear him tell us in the bush about its dangers. The other failure I see is political leadership. It is unfortunate that most of the things we fought for have not been fulfilled. While in the bush, I did not envisage a situation whereby the President would try to buy time so stay longer in power. I expected that after the first transition period, Museveni would hand over power and go back to organise the army into a professional one. Unfortunately, he did not do that with the result that our army is still unprofessional compared to say Rwanda or Mozambique. Based on that, if I were told to go back to the bush today, I would not go.
Despite his problems with power, which have developed over the years, Museveni was, and still is, a very intelligent man. He convinced us that the struggle was the best option available for us to liberate this country. He explained to us the reasons why we were fighting and what we wanted to achieve. He was a very focused leader who kept us together. Due to his leadership, we did not have any serious problems of control and command. We also had many courses in political education. These lessons helped us appreciate the rationale of fighting on.
Milton Obote fell in July 1985 when we were in Fort Portal. Most people were opposed to us negotiating with Tito Okello Lutwa’s government. I recall one of us, I think it was Jet Mwebaze, who wondered aloud who this Rutwe (meaning bigheaded in Runyakitara) was!
From Fort Portal, I was tasked to lead a force to Kinkizi. Our duty was to keep law and order and generally try to control the smuggling that was so rampant at the time. Kampala fell in January 1986 when I was still operating in Kinkizi, now in Kanungu district.
Date of Birth: April 28, 1948
Place of Birth: Kaharo, Kabale District
Father: Mr Daniel Ruranga
Mother: Ms Zelda Ruranga
Schools: Kambuga Integrated Primary School, Centre for Extramural Studies at Makerere University, Military Academy in Cuba, several international correspon dence courses, media training at Makerere University and currently student of Community Health Psychology, University of South Africa.
Hobbies: Working out at Kabira Club, reading on politics and HIV/AIDS