Monitor@30: How Onyango-Obbo’s ‘useless’ phone call saved my life

Author: Asuman Bisiika. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • When we reached Kikorongo, we learnt that the vehicle we had missed in Kampala had been attacked...

I am the proud possessor of an invite to a public dialogue organised by Monitor Publications Limited. This public dialogue will be one of the events to commemorate Daily Monitor’s 30 years of a very eventful life.

On the day of the dialogue (August 4), I will be on other nation-building duties in the DR Congo. Even then, I would like to share my ka-small Monitor story.

I reached Kampala late; so I could not go to Namuwongo to touch base. I was coming from Kigali (Rwanda). My per diem had been given to Peter Busomoke (RIP), the senior photographer with whom I was travelling. There was really no need to go to Namuwongo this late. I headed straight to hotel (booked by  Busomoke).
I declined an opportunity to travel by air with Ugandan troops heading to eastern DR Congo via Arua.

I preferred to travel by taxi from Kampala to Beni (in the DR Congo) via Kasese. In addition to visiting home in Kasese, my other interest in the Beni route was that I wanted to investigate the circumstances under which UPDF’s Maj Reuben Ikondere had died.

Busomoke had booked me in Samali Hotel (does it still exist?). We would set off in the morning, passby my home and spend a night at Bwera (Uganda-Congo border). We would cross into the DR Congo the day after.

Unfortunately, we could not set off in the morning because Busomoke was taking exclusive photos at a high security event in Entebbe: Government of Uganda was handing over Sudanese Prisoners of War to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Busomoke returned from Entebbe at about 1pm; but as we were about to set off (the minibus only lacked two passengers), Charles Onyango-Obbo called me to Namuwongo. And what did Charles tell me? ‘Asuman, please let the people speak in those stories’. Only that!?

When I returned from Namuwongo, the taxi had left and we had to wait for the next one. That was the time Allied Democratic Forces  (ADF) rebels were a menace in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Whenever vehicles from Kampala to Kasese reached Ishaka past 8pm, passengers were asked to choose: continue to Kasese now or spend a night in Ishaka and continue the journey in the morning.

Reaching Ishaka at 10pm, our case was very clear: it was too dangerous to travel the stretch from Kyambura (Rubirizi District) to Kikorongo (Kasese District). The night we were supposed to spend in Bwera was spent in Ishaka.

The next morning we restarted our journey. When we reached kikorongo, we learnt that the vehicle we had missed in Kampala (because of Charles Onyango-Obbo’s ‘useless’ phone call) had been attacked by the ADF rebels at Kabirizi.

The attack left three passengers dead and several injured. Our UPDF boys killed one rebel. Since we were one of the first people to reach the scene of the attack, Busomoke had a field day taking photos of the dead ADF rebel.

And then it downed on me: we would have been in this ill-fated taxi if Onyango-Obbo hadn’t made that ‘useless’ call to me.

We reached Beni at midday and booked into Hotel Beni (where Maj Reuben Ikondere had spent the night before he was brutally murdered). After running around eastern Congo for three days as if we owned the whole place, I had to rendezvous with someone from Kigali at Au Bergie Hotel in Butembo.

Returning from Butembo at 1pm rather exhausted, we had to leave Beni immediately (you know I can smell danger 100km away). We were arrested at Beni Airport as we were negotiating to charter a small plane to take us to Gbadolite. We were detained in our hotel rooms for three days and thereafter deported back to Uganda. That’s how I appeared on Monitor’s front page as a newsmaker (not as a newsman) some day in January 2000.

Mr Asuman Bisiika is the executive editor of the East African Flagpost. [email protected]