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ADF rebels burn 40 students to death in Mpondwe

A UPDF soldier at Lhubirira Secondary School in Mpondwe, Kasese on June 17 after the attack . PHOTO/ALEX ASHABA

What you need to know:

  • Army says terror group top of the list of suspects, with UPDF spokesperson Brig Felix Kulayige saysing the killings match previous ADF barbaric attacks on soft targets.

Shock, grief and disbelief gripped southwestern Uganda hours after Friday night’s horrific attack on Mpondwe-Lhubiriha Secondary School, Kasese District, by suspected rebels of the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces terror group.

By press time last evening, the death toll at the school located in Karambi Sub-county, two kilometres from the Uganda-DR Congo border at Mpondwe stood at 41.

Thirty seven students (20 girls and 17 boys) were hacked and burnt to death inside their dormitories, while a school guard and three other people from the surrounding villages were also brutally killed.

Miraculously, three male students made it out alive, crawling out of their burning dormitory.

An unknown number were abducted, while six critically injured others were evacuated to Bwera Hospital by the army where two later succumbed to their gruesome injuries.

Friday night’s bloodletting shattered the uneasy calm which settled over parts of southwestern Uganda two years ago after the army launched joint counterinsurgency operations against ADF rebels alongside Congolese forces.

Amidst the pungent smell of death and devastation left behind, stunned onlookers wondered how the attackers infiltrated into Mpondwe with soldiers conducting operations along the border, and with a significant security presence in and around border areas.

Those operations had forced the ADF to scatter deeper into the forests of Congo’s North Kivu province, their command and control networks reportedly broken and no longer able to strike inside Uganda.

But on Friday, 62 students in Lhubiriha’s boarding section had just retired to bed after evening preps when the attackers struck at about 10:40pm. 

According to Maj Gen Dick Olum, commander of the UPDF Mountain Division, whose units cover the Mpondwe sector, the attackers were led to the school by local collaborators, having spent two days in the area carrying out surveillance.

“One of them came to scope the school and he was brought by the local youth. He established where the boys were sleeping and where the girls were sleeping and he went back,” Maj Gen Olum told a gathered crowd of grief-stricken and dazed onlookers on Saturday morning.

After nightfall, Maj Gen Olum said, the attackers returned and locked up the boys’ dormitory before setting it on fire.

“The boys started fighting to break out but they became weakened [by the smoke] because the mattresses were already on fire.

For the girls, they found when the dorm was open and they just hacked them to death like animals. They then left with a few students,” he said

The attackers who reportedly spoke Kinandi and another Congolese dialect, French and Kiswahili, first knocked on doors, before opening fire and breaking into the dormitories, one of the three students who escaped said. 

Maj Gen Dick Olum. Photo/Courtesy

The student’s account slightly differs from what Maj Gen Olum had said, indicating that the attackers forced their way in and then started stabbing and chopping up his colleagues.

They then splashed some liquid (a possible fire accelerant) around and torched the building, the student said. 

There were 28 male and 34 female students in the dormitories.

The army said it is in hot pursuit of the attackers who reportedly retreated back into DR Congo’s Virunga National Park on foot, frog-marching abductees who were forced to carry foodstuffs looted from the school store. 

Chief of Defence Forces, Gen Wilson Mbadi, along with the army’s Land Forces commander, Lt Gen Kayanja Muhanga, rushed to Kasese early Saturday morning where they joined Maj Gen Olum to oversee the army’s response. 

Lt Gen Muhanga was first commander of Operation Shujaa, the ongoing counterinsurgency effort, when it was launched in 2021, so, the army will likely be counting on his firsthand knowledge of the area.

Friday’s attack brought back painful memories from June 8, 1998 when ADF rebels attacked Kichwamba Technical College in the neighbouring Kabarole District, set three dormitories on fire, killing at least 8o students.

The nightmare will live with Ms Mary Musoki, a teacher at the school who also doubled as the matron, forever. 

She survived but lost two sisters who were among the 20 girls burnt to death.

Ms Musoki told Sunday Monitor that the boys’ hostel accommodated 28 students, while the girls were 34 at the time the rebels struck. 

She narrated how the attackers came in shortly after students returned from evening preps.

“It was at a round 10:47pm and I was on WhatsApp when I started hearing strange voices. One person approached the door and started knocking but I remained mute because I had become suspicious. He flashed a torch into the house and I suspect he thought the house was empty because I had hidden and power was off,” she said.

Ms Musoki said she then informed the school director minutes before she overheard raised voices with people demanding for money and phones before gunshots rung out.

“I was soaked in fear and all of sudden I started suffocating so I crawled out of my room only to see that the dormitories were on fire,” she said.

At this point, the dazed teacher realised that her two young sisters were being burnt to death but she remained helpless. There was nothing she could do when the rebels were still roaming within the compound.

Yesterday, Ms Musoki could only ask: “What really brought me this side? How will I return home without any of my sisters that I had brought to give an education?”

Eyewitness 
Moses Kato, 17, survived and recounted how the school had hosted a friendly inter-class football competition earlier in the day.

“Most of us were so tired and so we went to bed earlier than we normally do. As we were going about the banter, we heard strange voices demanding that we open the door. When one of us wanted to open I told him to hold on a moment,” Kato says.

Kato adds that he peeped through a window and saw gun-wielding men. He says he then advised his colleagues to hide and most of them went under the bed. The attackers opened fire and then broke in.

“When they opened the door, at that point I knew we were finished. They started using gun bayonets, stabbing students one by one to death as I watched on,” a distraught Kato said.

Upon realising that they were going for students hiding under beds, he quietly climbed back to the top decker. The attackers looked around then and started sprinkling a liquid and then lit the fire, Kato said, narrating how he began struggling for air.

He decided to leave the bed and crawl out, meeting a colleague along the way.

“I think we are lucky that when we reached the outside they never saw us. We then rushed to the plantation in the school and stayed there where soldiers later picked us when they came,” he said.

Kato’s fellow escapee, Edgar Mumbere, was still in shock and could not speak yesterday.

Local collaborators
Like Maj Gen Olum, Kasese Resident District Commissioner, Lt Joe Walusimbi also told the gathered masses at the scene yesterday that someone within the community helped the attackers on their bloody mission.

“It is unfortunate that this has happened and we have lost our children. We must all remain vigilant and ensure that we bring to book these bad elements. This is not about politics, this is about security and we must all work together,” he said, warning that some people are harbouring rebels.

Maj Gen Olum said intelligence has confirmed that the attackers arrived here two days ago and went to ground.

It is possible, therefore, that they may have sneaked in under the cover of 100 Congolese nationals who had fled into Uganda on Monday, June 12, following renewed ADF activity in their area.

“They came from Kasindi to come and kill our people,”Maj Gen Olum said. “Initially, they wanted to burn all the vehicles at the border but found that our security was highly guarding them and then they decided to raid the school”.

“We are going to use everything within our power to hunt down those people. I stay in Congo but I have had to retreat since they are attacking my backyard. We shall use choppers and all machinery and hope we can rescue some of those girls,” he added.

Apologising for the army’s failure to prevent the devastating attack, he also revealed that of the victims’ bodies were burnt beyond recognition and will be transported to Fort Portal Regional Referral Hospital for DNA testing so that parents can identify their deceased children.

What locals said
Ms Zainab Kabugho, a resident said: “I was still awake by 11:30pm when I heard voices of people that I couldn’t understand because they were strange to my ears.

It was a large group speaking in Kiswahili, Kinandi and French. In their talks, they were looking for the direction to the health facility”.

Shop keeper Ibrahim Masereka  said: “At first I had thought the bullets are from Domena village, the other side of DRC since it was attacked on Sunday. Then shortly, our electricity went off. I think they disconnected us; I saw those people breaking into my colleagues shops; packing any edible items and other items. At the same time, the students at the school were crying for help, begging for mercy.”

He added: “Later on, I smelt smoke without knowing that the school had already been set ablaze. Because we have a habit of sleeping in our shops, guarding them from thieves, my friend’s Godwin and Wapalya tempted to come out to see what was going on. The heartless men hit them badly on the head. I also wanted to come out but then I saw them with pangas, sticks, hammers and guns so I decided to hold back. Then I saw them forcing people to carry the luggage.”

Reported by Alex Ashaba, Jerome Kule Bitswande, Moureen Biira, Benson Tumusiime,Joel Kahuta & Alex Tumuhimbise.