What you need to know:
- New spine-chilling accounts by survivors of the June 16 raid on Mpondwe-Lhubiriha Secondary School in Kasese District detail more than an hour of terror during which the living smeared themselves with the fresh blood of hacked colleague students to feign their own deaths and evade being killed by marauding assailants.
First, voices of strangers speaking an unfamiliar language echoed from outside in the night, according to multiple survivors. It was followed by hard bangs on the doors and scowled command for student inside to flank doors of their dormitories open.
When the learners, mostly teenagers, peeped through the windows, portraits of men, a few apparently armed, sketched out. Something was ominous. The instant response was muffled alerts among the students to mute animated banter and hide under beds.
There was a short tense suspense followed by an abrupt shattering of the glasses on the widows. A suspected explosive was lobbed inside, but didn’t immediately blast off.
Then what turned out attackers cracked the door ajar and forced their way inside, and began on their macabre mission: hacking students with machetes, stabbing some with knives and allegedly bayoneting others.
The identities and motive(s) of the raid masterminds remain unclear, with government and security officials speaking at cross purposes.
Initial accounts blamed the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan-born rebel group turned-a-terrorist-outfit in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
However, the military and Education Minister Janet Kataha Museveni have separately hinted the attack may have been a result of wrangle between some locals and Canadian founders/sponsors over ownership of the school that had 63 boarders.
In under two hours on Friday night, 37 of the students were dead and half-a-dozen badly injured. Only a handful, like a woman the assailants spared at her home for being a breastfeeding mother, escaped.
Their narrations weave a pattern of more than an hour of systematic terror during which the living smeared themselves with the fresh blood of hacked colleague students to feign their own deaths and evade being killed by marauding assailants.
The survivors said the raid hit a crescendo when the attackers sprinkled an ignitable liquid and set fire to it and nearby beddings.
That inferno consumed the dormitories – first that of boys and the of girls - and its orange flames lit the night skies to announce morbid deeds to an unsuspecting school and local community.
Survivors speak out
Godwin Mumbere, 18, student, “The incident happened after we had returned to our dormitories after evening preps. The rebels came and knocked the door and our school head boy asked them to identify themselves. They told us [that] they were our matron, but we remembered that we have a patron [for the boys’ dormitory]. We became suspicious, our colleague peeped outside and saw someone with a gun.
Our head prefect [immediately] told us to keep quiet. I remember seeing six [attackers] entering our dormitory. They had casual civilian attire and carried knives and machetes while one of them wore a uniform like that of the army and had a gun. After successfully hiding from them inside the dormitory, I had to smear my face with blood from my colleagues. When they returned to check on us, they thought I was dead and that is how I survived.”
Julius Isingoma, 20, Senior One student, “The [attackers] tried hard to break the door of our dormitory such that they could enter. And when they succeeded, they immediately started cutting students with pangas and stabbing others with sharp [rudimentary weapons]. Some of the assailants were busy recording what was taking place [using cell phone cameras] and I had to jump to another bed where I hid under the mattress.
When they started burning our mattresses, I suffocated and fell down. When the [attackers] heard a bang, they were standing in the door, they came back to check what it was. I quickly smeared my face, nose and ear with blood and lay as if I was dead. They thought I was dead and left.
After about 10 minutes, I heard voices of three boys, who had escaped, and I called them and we ran away together. Shortly afterwards, I heard an explosion in the dormitory.
At first the [attackers] tried to break the door of our dormitory and when it failed to open, they lobbed something inside through the window that looked like a grenade.
Now I want to join the army after studies so that I can hunt down rebels because my colleague students were brutally killed.”
How baby saved her life
Ms Brenda Masika, breast-feeding mother,“I usually go to bed early from where I wait for my husband to return from work and other errands. However, on Friday night, I stayed awake longer than usual as I waited for my husband.
All of a sudden, I began hearing some people outside speaking an unfamiliar language. They started knocking on my house door violently. This was an ominous sign. I was scared because my intuition told me what awaited me outside was something strange and dangerous.
As I was lying on my bed, I heard a knock outside [my house] and heard students making noise. I thought perhaps students were striking. In a short while, the [attackers] forced their way into my house and went straight into my bedroom. They threatened me with death, ordered me to hand my mobile phone handset and all the money in the house to them.
I begged for mercy and told the two young men wielding rifles that I had no money in the house. It is at this moment that one of the attackers cocked a gun and took a shooting posture.
Then a colleague of the assailants, probably looking for cash, checked in the bed and found a one-year-old baby sleeping.
I told him that it was my breast-feeding baby; he shook his head and said that I had survived since he cannot kill a lactating mother. One of them said that they were from the Democratic Republic of Congo and do not kill breast-feeding mothers. ‘Your God has saved you today’, he said.
They then ordered me to vacate the house with my other children before they set it ablaze. They took a sauce pan of maize I had cooked and took the food I had kept for my husband. They also went and picked three sacks of cassava flour and took them outside.
I fled with the children as my house burnt to ashes.”
Dim light helped him escape
Kule Elias, 18, Senior One student, “What enabled me to escape from the attackers is that the lighting in our dormitory [that fateful night] was dim and the [suspected] rebels never had additional light.
When I survived being killed inside the dormitory, I had to run outside.
I saw other three students following me and we had to jump [over the] fence and hid in the bush.
He said at first when rebels opened the door, one of their colleagues identified Tumusiime pretended as though he was surrendering to them. When he came closer to them and the rebel tried to hit him with a hammer, he dodged and ran out.
Struggling for oxygen
Moses Kato, 17, Senior One student, “Earlier in the day, we had a friendly inter-class soccer match between our class and and Senior Three students. Most of us were so tired; so, we went to bed earlier than we normally do.
As we were going about with 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. I peeped outside through the window and I saw gun-wielding men.
I immediately told my colleagues to hide and most of them went under the beds.
The rebels, however, used their fire power to create a hole within the door and then later open it for themselves.
When they opened the door, at that point I knew we were finished. They started using gun [bayonets] and started stabbing students one by one to death as I watched.
When I realised that they were going for students hiding under the beds, I quietly crawled out of there and lay on the upper deck of the bed. Having assumed that they have gotten life out of all the students in the dormitory, the attackers began sprinkling a liquid and then lit the fire before they moved out.
After a few minutes I started struggling for oxygen and as I was moving out of the bed, I saw my colleague and we joined and crawled out of the burning dormitory. I think we are lucky that when we reached outside, the attackers never saw us. We then rushed to the plantation at the school and stayed there where soldiers later picked us when they came.”
Security at border
Zephanus Serembera, 48, parent, “I am happy that my son is still living and I condole with the families that lost their children. I want the government to beef up security at the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Son got injured
Scovia Nziabake, 34, parent,“I heard that where my child was schooling from had been attacked and all students had been killed and we waited until (Saturday) morning to see what had happened. On our way to school, we heard that my child was only injured; that he was shot in the hands.
Reported by Alex Ashaba, Jerome Kule Bitswande, Moureen Biira & Joel Kaguta