Every soldier acknowledges that while at the frontline, four things are inevitable: To return home alive and well, to be injured, to be killed or be taken prisoner of war.
In April 1979, Uganda Army lost the war to Uganda exile rebel groups Kikosi-Maalum and the Front for National Salvation (Fronasa) of Yoweri Museveni and the Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces (TPDF). The war was in retaliation for Uganda invading Tanzania in October 1978.
It is estimated that about 3,000 former Ugandan soldiers were taken prisoners of war by the TPDF. One of the prisoners was Staff Sergeant Kasirye Gwanga.
Thirty six years later, Gwanga, now a Brigadier in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, recounts his experience as prisoner of war with less bitterness. Because, according to him, what he experienced is always expected by a soldier at war.
“When they [the Ugandan rebels and the Tanzanian forces] pushed us into a corner, we had nowhere to run to. They captured the city [Kampala] and they started killing us. We had to surrender. And we became prisoners of war,” the Brig Gwanga narrates.
“And when you become a prisoner of war, you don’t really matter. You can be killed and no one is going to ask questions.”
As prisoners of war, they were brutalised or killed by angry Ugandan civilians, security officers as well as Tanzania soldiers for having been in the Uganda Army that was considered to be Amin’s army.
“[I surrendered] at the Parliament building [in Kampala]. That was the day Lule [Yusuf the new president from April 1979] was supposed to come and address us [former Uganda Army soldiers],” he says.
Gwanga says Lule betrayed them. “When they were coming from Tanzania, they [Ugandan politicians in exile in Tanzania] had sent messages saying we [Uganda Army soldiers] shouldn’t worry, they are coming to liberate Uganda from Idi Amin,” he says.
“By then, the killings were so much in town. They used to say if you see Amin’s soldier, shoot him. So I happen to recognise one of those guys [in security] and I reported to him. I said, ‘you told us that you were coming, we surrendered but we don’t know what to do, they are killing us left and right.’ He said, ‘get your friends together’. But when he moved away, I followed him. He went and reported to the big guys, the Tanzanians.”
“From there, I knew we were in trouble. I told my boys we should disperse. But after dispersing, I thought this is too much, I said let us surrender. Because we had nowhere to go, no one wanted to take us in. Everyone was saying ‘no, no you cannot come in’, even your brother and your sister.”
“No one wanted anything to do with former Amin’s soldiers. So we surrendered. Although we had changed to civilian, when they captured power, they had put radio announcements saying ‘Tokweka omusilikale wa Amin’ (don’t hide Amin’s soldiers). So we knew that if you hide and you are caught, you are dead.”
Humiliated as prisoner of war
“When we surrendered to them, we were thoroughly beaten. After surrendering, it was horrible here in Uganda. We were badly beaten up by the Tanzania soldiers. Remember, we were prisoners of war; we had been shooting at each other. So what do you expect from them? Hell. And we got.”
“One of my kidneys does not function well. One of them [Tanzania soldiers] gave me a kick around the lower back area and I have never been the same again. Sometimes I feel very sharp pains, but I don’t want it removed, and I don’t take medicine. I don’t like those medicines in my body. The last time I went to hospital was in 1998 when thieves shot me in the leg. They wanted to steal my car. But I even didn’t sleep in the hospital. I came back home.”
“On that day [April 1979], we were about 58 [who surrendered]. They took us to the Summit View [Kololo], we found our colleagues who had already surrendered. We spent there a night. They put us on trucks and buses and drove us to Tanzania while shackled.”
“When we got there, we were divided into groups. My group went to Tanga, near the Indian Ocean, another group was taken to Tabora, and another group was taken to Dodoma. The [former] air force group was taken to Rwamurumba in Bukoba.
‘We surrendered, others deserted’
According the Brigadier, those in the Uganda Army before April 1979 and did not surrender were deserters.
“In the military, if you lose a war, you surrender. In 1979, we lost the war and we surrendered, others deserted. Those who were in the army and were not killed or taken prisoners of war are deserters,” he says.
“If you go to war, you either win it or lose it. If you win, you come back blowing the trumpet. If you lose, you are taken prisoner of war. That boy, Juma Oka’s brother-in-law, caused us trouble and we paid the price.”
“Running away is cowardice. That is why some of us did not run away and we had to surrender.”
When you surrender, according to the rules of military engagement, you must be handed over to the Red Cross for protection. For that, Brig Gwanga says: “After surrendering, I was tagged number 17341 Staff Sergeant Uganda Army by the Red Cross. You go to Geneva [Red Cross headquarters], my number is recorded there.”
Repatriated to Uganda
Finally, time came for the prisoners of war to be brought back to Uganda.
“Around June 1980, president [Godfrey] Binaisa negotiated with the Red Cross to return us home. In fact, the Red Cross really helped us when we were in Tanzania. They negotiated our return to Uganda. We were brought back to Uganda in June 1980. We were incarcerated first in Mbale prison [Maluku], and then because it was so congested, some of us were transferred to Kirinya Main Prison in Jinja District,” he says.
“We remained there and during the elections in 1980, our signal boys [former military signallers] made small radios from where we listened to what was happening out side. Our signal boys were very smart. I don’t know how they made it. There are a lot of things that happen inside the prison which those prison warders don’t know. In a prison, you become smarter for you to survive.”
“After the elections, that’s when problems increased. We were starved. We got sick and started dying left and right. Many of my friends died. Then we started hearing stories that [Yoweri] Museveni and [Andrew] Kayiira had gone to war, but did not know them.”
“When they [the Uganda National Liberation Front] came, Museveni was the minister of [State for] Defence and Kayiira was the minister of Internal Affairs. So they were responsible for our incarceration.”
“Then we started hearing stories that they had gone to the bush to fight the government. We said, ‘okay, they said we were bad guys. Thank God they are now fighting.’ And we vowed never to join them if we were released from prison.”
“We had hope in the Red Cross. They used to assure us that we are going to be released. But we were dying at a very fast rate. So on October 7, 1981, the first batch was released and I was among them.”
Three months after Brig Gwanga was released, the Uganda Freedom Army (UFA) rebels of Andrew Kayiira attacked Lubiri barracks at Mengo in Kampala.
The new Uganda Peoples Congress government thought that the recently released prisoners were involved in the attack and Brig Gwanga was now a wanted man, dead or alive. He went into hiding.
His elder brother, Lt James Kasirye, a military pilot who had come from Nakasongola Military Air Base was arrested and beaten by his colleagues. But when he refused to reveal the whereabouts of his brother Kasirye Gwanga, they killed him.
To this day, his body has never been found.
From his hide-out, Gwanga went and joined the UFA rebels, which he left in 1985 to join the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels, led by Yoweri Museveni who capture power in January 1986.
Preparation for the war
Maj Gen Abdallah Twalipo was TPDF’s Chief of Defence Forces but the responsibility to respond to Amin’s invasion fell on Brig Gen Tumainieli Kiwelu who had to reorganise the army from different parts of the country.
By then, TPDF had only one army division with four infantry brigades in different parts of the country.
Brigade 101st, nicknamed Nyuki (Bee) was based in Zanzibar, 302nd in Dar es Salaam, 202nd Faru in Tabora and 401 Tembo in Songea.
The youth who had participated in national service training were transformed into a reserve force; trained militias were prepared for battle, police and prisons personnel were mobilised, while the ordinary civilians offered food and livestock, private companies surrendered their vehicles to transport troops and hardware.
At the same time the Uganda exiles living in Tanzania also united to form the Uganda National Liberation Army, which included groups such as Fronasa of Yoweri Museveni, Save Uganda Movement of Akena p’Ojok, Ateker Ejalu and William Omaria and Kikosi Maalum (Special Unit) led by Lt Col David Oyite Ojok and Col Tito Okello. They established a joint training camp of close to 1,200 recruits at Tarime near Musoma on the shores of Lake Victoria.
From Brig Gen Kiwule’s reorganisation, a 20th division was created with different brigades like Brigade 206th under Brig Gen Silas Mayunga – later taken over by Brig Gen Roland Makunda, 207th under Brig Gen Butler Walden and 208th under Brig Gen Mwita Marwa.
As the war progressed more brigades were formed, including 201st under Brig Gen Imran Kombe, 205th under Brig Gen Herman Lupogo – later taken over by Brig Gen Muhidin Kimario, Brigade Minziro under Brig Gen Takadiri Kitete and Brigade Kagera under Brig Gen Ramadhan Haji.
The overall commander of the operation was Brig Gen David Msuguri who was promoted to the rank of Maj Gen as Brig Gen Kiwelu went back to the headquarters as Chief of Staff. Within weeks, the TPDF had mobilised its numbers from 40,000 to 100,000.
About the war
Ugandans call it the 1979 Liberation War while Tanzanians call it the Kagera War. Its seeds were sown as early as 1972 soon after the coup that brought Amin to power.
The relation between Uganda and Tanzania started going bad because Tanzania played host to more than 20,000 Ugandan exiles, according to documents in the TPDF museum.
The first attempt by Uganda exiles to overthrow Amin was on September 17, 1972, when a convoy of 77 trucks full of armed Ugandan exiles crossed into Uganda from Tanzania with the sole purpose of capturing Masaka and Mbarara towns. The mission failed when Amin’s air force intercepted the mission.
In retaliation, Uganda jet fighters hit Bukoba and Mwanza towns in Tanzania. The two incidents were resolved by the October 1972 Mogadishu Agreement, where the two countries agreed to withdraw their forces 10km away from their respective borders.
However, according to the document “TPDF: An Operation History”, Amin’s ambition was to annex some northern parts of Tanzania for Uganda to have access to the sea through the port of Tanga.
From the Ugandan perspective, this does not appear to have been the case.
On October 27, 1978, Ugandan forces carried out a surprise invasion of the Tanzanian territory, annexing the Kagera Salient (area north of Kagera River).
The area had been defended by the 202 Brigade commanded by Brig Gen Yusuf Himid. Within two days of the invasion, Ugandan troops occupied 1,850sqkm of Tanzanian soil, after bombing Bukoba and Kyaka towns and blowing up the Kagera Bridge which connected the salient to the rest of Tanzania. Amin went ahead and announced that the Kagera Salient was now part of Ugandan territory.
Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s first reaction was to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict through the Organisation of the African Union (OAU) now African Union.
When the OAU failed to act, president Nyerere on November 2, 1978, declared war on Uganda calling on the TPDF to defend Tanzania’s national sovereignty and integrity.