Survivors recount experiences of Studying during civil unrest

Monday November 30 2020

Forme Ugandan president Idi Amin poses with military armour. He was toppled by the Tanzanian troops and forces of the Uganda National Liberation Front.

By Our Reporter

The recent protests triggered many different memories in different people. Although the protests broke out when the students were already in school, they got to see the aftermath; charred roads, shattered cars and their parents’ inability to work because of those protests. 

Instability, whether political or arising out of a health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, affects education institutions and can have life-changing effects on the future and fortunes of students and their teachers.  Ms  Sylvia Mwesigye and   Noah    Kyeyune lived through instability as students   and  look back at the effects of wartime chaos.

Unforgettable earth-shattering  noise 
Ms Sylvia Mwesigye, says students might not have suffered personal loss, but they are filled with anxiety and grief from the sights of fires, looting and gun-toting soldiers patrolling the streets. 

Mwesigye witnessed the ending of two earlier upheavals in our history.  The first happened when she was in Primary One at Mbarara Mixed Primary School and the last one when she was in Primary Seven at St Helen’s Primary School Nyamitanga, Mbarara District. 

“A few weeks before the invading Tanzanian army reached Mbarara, I remember the adults talking about a war coming. They worried about what damage the clash between Kikaito (the name given to President Amin in western Uganda) and the liberators would cause. 

There were even plans to try and hide our more valuable possessions from looters in case war broke out. But I was too young to understand this apprehension. But when it happened, I understood why. 


I remember we were in class and we started hearing these earth shattering noises that shook the very ground we were standing on and threatened to tear down our classrooms.

 The noises and shaking seemed to go on forever. I was relieved when my parents came and picked us from school. Apart from the comfort of being with my family, the situation did not get any better. 

Face to face with the enemy
To make matters worse, we were attacked by some of Amin’s deserting army who demanded for money and helped themselves to whatever they pleased from our home.

 This is when we realised we needed to move from our home in town and find refuge in a rural area. Just as we were planning to move, the invading army reached Mbarara and they also helped themselves to our livestock. But they were less aggressive and indisciplined. This was in 1979. 

In 1986, I was a much older girl, eagerly looking forward to sitting my Primary Leaving Exams at St Helen’s Primary School in Mbarara. The rumour of a war started making rounds shortly after we had sat our mock exams. 
My mother was so worried by the persistent rumour that she came for me from school. 

But a few weeks later, when nothing had happened, I returned to school. No sooner had I got back to school than the rebels took over Mbarara. 

For some reason, the town where my mother lived was cut off from the rest of the area so she could not come for me. Of course classes were out and we spent most of the days in our dormitories telling each other stories. 

Unlike the 1979 war, there was less heavy artillery. Yes, we could hear gunshots but they were not as threatening as the ones I had experienced the last time. 

Also, there was a sense of excitement among some of us who had relatives among the invading rebels. I did not think of them as rebels but as liberators. Somehow, I kept hoping to see my uncles among the liberators/rebels.

 However, our administrators, the nuns,  did not share the same sentiment. 
After a few days, we were taken to their convent which they felt was more secure than the school dormitory.

 But a few days later, they devised a plan of taking us to another convent in Mushanga, Bushenyi District where we would be even safer. We were packed on a pick-up truck and taken to the safety of Mushanga using back roads to avoid any run-ins with the armies.

 It was a long time before I reunited with my family and even a longer time before school resumed. These are experiences we as parents or educators do not pay much attention to but they sow seeds of confusion, anger, fear and hurt.
In hindsight and after my training as a teacher, I realise instead of schools rushing to sweep things under the rug and resume life as before, they should have given us some form of therapy or at least some discussions to share with them our feelings.

 So much changes in such situations, some children lose their loved ones, and others lose their property and familiar comforts. 

Just like these physical damages, the children also experience psychological damage. It affects their belief in government, school, and the police. Attention should be paid to rebuilding those beliefs.”

Hunger forced us   to   sell   our possessions
Noah Kyeyune was one of hundreds of students stuck on the other side of River Katonga Bridge during the NRA liberation war in 1985.

 Due to the fighting between government and rebel forces, communication was cut off at the bridge, leaving many stranded on either side. Kyeyune was in his third year of secondary school at St Henry’s College Kitovu in Masaka District at the time.

He recalls “I set out for college in Masaka from my home in Kampala for a normal start of my second term in 1985.Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a new life changing experience which would impact on my life forever.

There had been a recent overthrow of the government of Dr Apollo Milton Obote in January 1985 by forces led by Gen Tito Okello.
Many had thought that peace was on the horizon as life had returned to normal including education, social and economic activity. 

My parents sent me to secondary school as usual with the hope of continuing my education and looked forward to my progression to my final O-Level class.

Amid the excitement and jubilation of a new school term hid the uncertainty of security and political future as there were peace talks between the sitting government and National Resistance Army rebel outfit at the time. Nobody expected what was to follow in the months ahead.

The term we could not complete
The school term began as normal as all students reported to the college as usual. A month down the line, it dawned on  us that there was something unusual happening in the country. Rumours were rife that the armed struggle by NRA was advancing towards the Western Axis through Kasese, Fort Portal and Masaka.

After mid-August 1985, the situation turned worse as more pro-government troops were heading towards southern Uganda amid rumours of the guerrillas advancing towards southern Uganda.

 The atmosphere in Masaka area was slowly becoming tense and our school authorities were watching the temperature of the political situation, but as students we were awaiting news of the latest developments.

By September 1985 the armed insurrection by the NRA was advancing towards Masaka but the resistance from the government forces was formidable. 

The advancing NRA guerrilla forces decided to go ahead and cut off supplies to the government forces in the southern part of the country and hence a major bridge called Katonga linking central and south Uganda was blocked and captured, effectively cutting off communication. 

 This led to cessation of business, social and economic activities within Southern Uganda – education was among the casualties of this armed conflict.

Stranded and starved
At school, the authorities told the students who could leave to find a way out to their homes. Those of us who could not leave were told to stay in our dormitories and wait for further communication. 

By October 1985, government troops in Masaka army barracks were cut off and were getting supplies via government helicopters, this was amid a hailstorm of artillery fire from the NRA army. All school routines were abandoned and the college was closed to formal academic learning.

During these times, we were stranded at school and had no pocket money and resorted to selling our personal possessions for survival. Those of us who had villages to go to organised our way out as permission was granted by the school authorities. 

Life in the village was quite unusual because we were not used to the routines there. There was an acute shortage of essential commodities such as sugar, salt and paraffin and life was on tenterhooks. 
Although there was transport lifeline to Kampala via Lake Victoria, this was a very risky affair as costs involved were exorbitant and government military helicopters used to patrol the waters and shoot all boats heading to Kampala. 

Bad to worse
By mid-December 1985, the situation had turned from bad to worse but the Katonga Bridge had been liberated by the NRA troops and the government troops were being heavily defeated. 

The situation in the southern hemisphere was getting better and essential commodities were now abundant and coming from Tanzania and other neighbouring countries.

Picking  up  the  pieces
After the war ended in January 1986, I went back home to Kampala but told my parents that I had to change schools because of the traumatic experiences I had gone through and my parents agreed with me.

 I relocated to a new high school near home and was admitted to Senior Three instead of Senior Four; the head teacher argued that it was prudent to repeat a class to catch up with the academic curriculum.
In 1987, I sat for my O-Level exams and passed very well to proceed to my A-Levels and life continued as well.

The period of five months was a learning period which changed our perception of life and was a great learning curve. Having lost a year of studies, life had to begin again, and this meant rescheduling life’s priorities including starting again.

1986 ushered in a promising start of life and indeed the misery and pain of missing home and family. War experiences happen once in a lifetime and can be life changing as well, since then I learnt never to take life for granted.

On April 13, 1979, Kampala fell to the  Tanzanian troops and forces of the Uganda National Liberation Front close and a coalition government of former exiles took power.

  Yusuf Kironde Lule  took  over  as  president for 68 days.  Lule’s proposal to disband the National Liberation Army to replace it with a newly-created National Army was viewed as a malicious move to sideline those who formed the bulk of the liberation force.

On June 20, 1979, the National Consultative Council (NCC) staged a coup, removing Lule as president for allegedly making wide ranging appointments in government without consulting them. Godfrey Binaisa was named as his successor.