When soldiers turn guns on civilians

Soldiers patrol Kampala city after the February polls. File photo

What you need to know:

In less than two months, about 30 people have been killed by soldiers who went on a shooting spree. Most of the victims have been civilians, a fact that has left different sections of the public alarmed. Today we look at what could be fuelling these killing sprees.

June was a very eventful month. There were several high profile arrests all in connection with rebel activity. On another front, there have been creeping incidents of soldiers killing unarmed civilians, a trend that has left the public with many unanswered questions.

On June 29, Pte Stephen Ajuna, a UPDF officer attached to Gaddafi Barracks in Jinja, allegedly developed a misunderstanding with his wife. Thereafter, he stormed a bar where her friend works with an intention of bumping her off but instead ended up shooting four people inside the pub. Eye witnesses say the soldier requested for Mama Kayanja and before she could be identified, he went on a shooting spree before turning the gun on himself.

Prior to that, on June 18, a UPDF soldier shot dead a woman in Kigumba Town Council, Kiryandongo District. It is said Cpl Fred Kugonza attached to Bombo Army headquarters, escaped from Bombo Barracks with a gun which he used to kill his sister-in-law Maureen Nyangoma for frustrating his marriage. Just like Ajuna, he shot himself after killing his in-law.

On June 15, seven people were shot dead in Makindye Military barracks by a soldier who was also killed in the shootout. Sgt Isaac Obua, a laboratory technician in the barracks, is said to have separated with his wife also, a soldier at the barracks. Some suspect that perhaps the child support he had been ordered to pay for his two children ticked him off.

At the end of May, Lance Corporal Moses Katungwensi Katoko attached to Muramuzi 307 Brigade in Kanungu District shot dead eight people before handing himself to police.

Ill twisted fate?
Some sections of media reported that most soldiers involved in the killings were returnees from peace keeping missions in countries such as Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and Somalia.
These are claims that Gen Katumba Wamala, the Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) has refuted.
“It is not true that all incidents of soldiers who have shot people are returnees from Somalia, South Sudan and Central African Republic. That is a total lie and a misreporting,” Gen Katumba says.
He, however, condoles with families of the bereaved and describes the incidents as regrettable.

On the other hand, Dr Sheila Ndyanabangi, the Principal Medical Officer in charge of mental health Ministry of Health, says there are several reasons why a security officer may open fire at civilians or colleagues.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about life. Soldiers become traumatised and when they combine war experiences with social problems such as stolen property, snatched wife or losing the hard-earned money they lose consciousness,” she says.

Ali Male, a counselling therapist, at the Uganda Counsellors Association (UCA), also a lecturer at Young Women Christian Association, says soldiers lead a life full of orders which gradually affects their sense of humility.
Male concurs with Dr Ndyanabangi that battlefields alter one’s conscience and deteriorates a person’s hope and love for others.

“If a soldier remembers how his close friends were killed at the war front, how some of his body parts were lost in the war or when he is not paid the money that almost took his life, he can become violent,” Male opines.

Way forward
Gen Katumba says in partnership with the British, the army is working at setting up psycho-social centres. The psycho-social centres will help soldiers with physical and psychological problems. He is uncertain when the centres will be constructed because it requires resources to train and retain different psycho-social experts.

According to Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, the UPDF spokesperson, the army is going to train at least 2,000 counsellors, psychiatrists and medical doctors who will be placed in the different military barracks to offer guidance and counselling services.

To help uniformed officers recover from trauma, and cope with social life challenges, Dr Ndyanabangi recommends regular monitoring and counselling services.

“The mind is for an individual. There should be regular individual screening of security personnel. Those with serious issues should see a psychiatric clinician,” she says.

“Having psychiatry nurses in every barracks will help identify soldiers who need urgent medical and psychological attention. They need wider counselling services,” she says.

Male on the other hand warns spouses and relatives of soldiers who have returned from battlefields to avoid provoking them. Dr Ndyanabangi advises barracks commanders to restrain officers who have been on war front from accessing ammunition for the greater good.
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