There was an air of suppressed expectation on the ship as the Somalian coastline drew ever closer. The merchant ship carrying Uganda Battle Group One’s long-awaited weapons, food and war material, was hours away from docking. It had been almost two weeks of waiting for the infantrymen who had landed in Mogadishu ahead of their equipment on March 6, 2007.
This was good news. But the ship would also now present an irresistible target for al-Shabaab fighters who had also been waiting for it to arrive, according to intelligence. The forces of UGABAG1 were about to face a very stern test.
On March 19, 2007, at around 5pm, the ship finally came into view at Mogadishu seaport. Extra security countermeasures had been initiated as it prepared to dock. An Ethiopian military plane had taken to the skies to provide cover as it sailed in from the nearly 30 nautical miles it was standing off the port.
As things stood, the vessel would dock under intense heavy weapons fire. The same welcome which greeted Brig Peter Elwelu was about to be served up to Brig Godfrey Golooba.
This was expected. Analysis of available intelligence had revealed the enemy’s deadly plans. They were planning an all-out bid to sink the ship through bombardment, which they hoped would set off the ship’s own deadly cargo comprising of tons of assorted incendiary and high explosive ordinance.
Brig Golooba, who was leading the team on the ship, a role he had played right from the day the RVR train was loaded up and flagged off by Gen Katumba Wamala en route to Mombasa, says they had to be escorted in because of the danger that awaited them on the mainland.
Two days before they arrived, the brigadier says their comrades in Mogadishu called and informed them that the situation was fluid. In military terms, that meant they had an active battlefield on their hands. They had also been informed of the strikes on the two aircraft which sadly resulted in the death of the 11 Belarussian crewmen.
“We were also told that the seaport where we were supposed to dock was under enemy fire. With that threat, we had to slow down the speed from 12 knots to six. That was very slow speed. We needed to be careful,” he says.
But even before it docked, the insurgents started shelling the seaport, setting range for follow-on fire at the ship.
“The mortars were landing from every position. Their intention was to sink it,” says Brig Elwelu, who as the first contingent commander in Somalia, had a vested interest in ensuring the safe landing of his precious cargo.
He had come prepared and deployed an appropriate welcome party.
It was time to throw everything available at the enemy. The Ugandans opened up with the 30 mm autocannon from the BMP-2 fighting vehicles; laid on the incredible suppressing fire from the mounted heavy machine guns from the ‘mambas’; before topping it with ferocious salvos of rockets fired from the BM-13 launchers (Katyusha) for saturation bombardment of the enemy positions.
The shock effect of this robust retaliatory fire power must have been numbing but this was an enemy not used to turning tail and running in the heat of battle. For more than two days, they did their best before their efforts were finally beaten off.
Sinking the ship would not only have been disastrous for the mission, it would also have been a very big loss to Uganda. The equipment on that ship was worth hundreds of billions of shillings. Also aboard were highly trained and skilled members of specialised units from Air Defence, Artillery and Armour.
Offloading the ship took two days. The job was made the more hair-raising because the troops were constantly under fire from the enemy.
“They thought we would abandon the ship and run away. But they were shocked. I think that is when they realised that UPDF was not an ordinary force,” says Col Charles Byanyima, the officer who it will be remembered had shown commendable courage and leadership during the aircraft attacks’ tragedies.
The terrorists had taken position around the national stadium and climbed on top of the surrounding tall buildings. This gave them a strategic advantage just as was the case with Kilometre Four junction before they were flushed out.
From this position, which gave them clear and sweeping views of the dock and ship, mortar rounds were being lobbed and RPG launchers fired by the al-Shabaab.
From inside the ship, Brig Golooba says it felt like the mortars were “dropping like rain”.
“But by God’s grace, no single bomb landed on it. Imagine if one had landed on the containers of the ammunition! It would have torn the ship apart.”
And so just like Brig Elwelu before him, Brig Golooba may put their day one survival down to a miracle given the al-Shabaab’s poor aim, or simply good, old lady luck.
That luck, however, seemed to run out at the worst possible moment. As the captain was lowering the ship ramp for the tanks to roll out onto to dry land, the water levels suddenly began to recede rendering the ramp unstable. Offloading was impossible.
“We could not offload. It was also becoming dark and the mortars were still coming in. But Brig Elwelu and his team worked with Ethiopians and cleared the positions where the mortars were coming from. At about 8:30 pm, the mortars stopped coming in,” says Golooba.
Still, Brig Golooba and his team could not come out of the ship as sporadic fire kept being directed at them. They were later joined by the head of intelligence for UGABAG1, Maj Sserunjoji Ddamulira, now, a Lieutenant Colonel teaching at Senior Staff and Command College Kimaka. (One can only imagine the war stories he regales his students with). They spent a night in the ship.
For the night, the welcome party moved the armoured vehicles closer to guard the ship. It was strangely quiet overnight. But the relief was short-lived because by 6am, the shelling resumed.
“But this time, it was cleared very fast. By about midday, all the tanks were offloaded,” Brig Golooba remembers.
Offloading of remaining materiel was through by sundown. The equipment was transferred to the main base at Halane. Troop morale went up several notches. Now, the fight could be well and truly joined on more than equal terms.
All those troop formations which had been deployed around the airport, Kilometre Four and at State House, were now in the pleasant position of being reinforced with greater firepower.
Facing the reality on the ground
The euphoria of the ship’s landing and successful delivery of the mission war materiel would soon fade away, though. The soldiers and their officers now had to face the hard reality that while they were sent abroad on a so-called peacekeeping mission, there was no peace to be kept in Somalia.
For peacekeeping, you must have a cessation of hostilities agreement and must be a neutral force. The UPDF obviously had a side; they were here to support the Transitional Federal Government, although this did not seem to occur to the bureaucrats in the UN and AU.
“The international community was talking about peacekeeping but there was no peace to keep. And the worst thing, back home, people didn’t understand what we were doing. There were voices criticising us. Ugandans were wondering why people who had gone for peacekeeping were being killed,” Brig Elwelu says.
“They didn’t know what we were going through. We were being attacked every day. There were Improvised Explosive Device attacks targeting our convoys every day. These were things we had never gone through.”
Also, treachery by some elements within the Somali government security agencies persisted. They connived at night with the terrorists to attack Ugandans. But the UGABAG1 command decided not to retaliate for fear of losing these ‘friends’.
Brig Elwelu remembers how on the second day after their deployment, his intelligence team had received a call from a government source that a hotel that was housing African Union officials was about to be attacked. The source urged urgent and quick deployment to protect the hotel.
These attackers, obviously working in concert with this so-called source, had mounted an ambush at the infamous Kilometre Four junction.
The attackers plan depended on the hope that the Ugandan commanders would send soldiers on foot but instead, Brig Elwelu sent in a pair of ‘mambas’ commanded by then Lt Stephen Basoberwa.
“They fought through the ambush with minor injuries. But I later realised we had been lured into a trap. From that day, we decided to be cautious about such calls.”
Mission shift was inevitable with the passing of time as the enemy kept up relentless attacks on UGABAG1 units. Also, different powers centres set the stage for a switch in ‘operational doctrine’ because of the divergence in the nature of directives coming from Kampala; the African Union in Addis Ababa and the Transitional Federal Government.
A senior officer, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, says their bosses in Kampala would give orders not to deploy outside certain positions. When they complied, the Somalis would get very upset.
“Back home, they would tell you; be where you are. But the Somali government was saying if you want to remain inside your bases and not protect us, you go back home. African Union was also saying a different thing because this was an AU mission,” the source says.
The commanders had to make their own decisions based on the situation on the ground.
“To make ourselves relevant, we secured the seaport, Presidential Palace and Kilometre Four Junction, which connects all the strategic locations where we were supposed to deploy,” he says
Protecting the seaport (the government’s main source of revenue) and the airport was important in case rapid withdrawal became necessary because these were the only entry and exit points from the hell-hole that was Mogadishu.
These two strategic installations had been previously guarded by Ethiopian troops. When the UPDF arrived, the Ethiopians relocated because the forces could not be in the same positions. “We could not mix command,” Brig Elwelu explains.
But there was also the important matter of local politics. Although Ethiopians were protecting the government of Abdullah Yusuf Ahmed, there was always an uneasiness between the Ethiopians and Somalis over their long time territorial and political disputes that dated back to the 1940s.
President Ahmed had to work with Ethiopians because they had in 2006 protected his government when it was still based in Baidoa against the Islamic Courts Union, which later metamorphosed into al-Shabaab.
Again, the Ethiopians protected president Ahmed because there were reports that Ethiopia’s neighbour and sworn enemy, Eritrea, was backing the Islamic Courts Union.
With Ethiopians relocating to other parts of the city, Battle Group One started filling the resulting vacuum. But the 1,700-strong Ugandan force was soon spread thin because it was much smaller compared to Ethiopians who were in their tens of thousands. They were also constrained by the mandate under which they were here officially.
So, while with this small force, they could not carry out offensive operations, the rules of engagement also didn’t allow Amisom troops to attack the enemy. And yet al-Shabaab attacked daily. The most they could do was defend themselves.
“We were sure every night we would be attacked. During the day, they would be throwing bombs or targeting our patrols with IEDs,” Brig Elwelu says.
Then after three years of playing cat and mouse with al-Shabaab, things had to change in 2010. We now had UGABAG 5 and 6 in place. The Elwelu contingent had long completed their tour of duty and were back home.
Switching the mission mandate from peace keeping to peace enforcement would allow Uganda’s troops operating under Amisom to introduce offensive operations using what some refer to as the ‘crippling war method’ to the war theatre. The liberation of Mogadishu was about to become the primary objective, especially after the July 2010 Kampala suicide bombings…
“Protecting the seaport (the government’s main source of revenue) and the airport was important in case rapid withdrawal became necessary because these were the only entry and exit points from the hell-hole that was Mogadishu.
These two strategic installations had been previously guarded by Ethiopian troops. When the UPDF arrived, the Ethiopians relocated because the forces could not be in the same positions.”