Police bury one of the unclaimed bodies in Kasese after the killings. PHOTO | FILE

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Kasese bombing: The killings for which no one takes responsibility

What you need to know:

  • Widows and children of those killed in the palace attack five years ago are still trying to find a footing after the violence, and no meaningful reconciliation has taken place in the Rwenzori since the clashes, writes Emmanuel Mutaizibwa    

The infinite hues of white clouds across the blue sky gradually fade in the background as dark clouds gather across the Rwenzori mountains.

Torrential rains pound the ranges of the mountains as if to wash away the sorrow of those who lost their loved ones five years ago.

On November 27, 2016, the army under the command of Brig Peter Elwelu staged a siege at the palace of Omusinga (king) Charles Wesley Mumbere, on the outskirts of Kasese town and more than 100 loyalists, including royal guards, servants and children were killed.

Some of the houses set ablaze in Rwenzururu Kingdom were set ablaze during the attack. PHOTO | FILE | COURTESY

Elwelu has since then been promoted to the rank of Lt Gen, and is the deputy Chief of Defence Forces.

Before this incident, the Rwenzori, an ethnic melting pot, has historically been a flashpoint of conflict.

Partly unresolved political, historical injustices and land disputes fanned the flames of a tribal tinderbox as ethnic clashes broke out and quickly spread in Kasese, Kabarole and Bundibugyo districts.

Series of attacks

Earlier on November 26, 2016, security personnel raided the office of the kingdom’s prime minister and shot dead eight royal guards. 

In retaliation, loyalists targeted police posts across Kasese hacking to death 16 police constables.

About 225 people, including the Omusinga and four children were arrested, shortly after the palace siege. 

Rwenzururu King Charles Wesley Mumbere leaves the court premises after attending a trial session held for him and 151 others at the Jinja Magistrates Court on December 14, 2016. PHOTO | FILE

Today, though about 132 have been freed, more than 78 remain held on remand. Another nine prisoners have died in cells.

Five years after the violence, no meaningful reconciliation has taken place in the Rwenzori.

Today, all that lies at the seat of the kingdom is rubble as the Omusinga has been restricted from visiting his subjects.

Five years ago, Ms Peace Kabugho, who practices the Seventh Day Adventist faith, spent the day home to honour the Sabbath day.  

On that day, her husband, Walemba Ineya, who was a mason, went to the palace. A palpable sense of unease engulfed her.

Later, on Sunday, Walemba called her at midday and told her that ‘you will never see me again and believe in God’. That was the last time she spoke to him.

When her son heard the gunshots, he quickly rushed to the palace where his father worked as a royal guard but he couldn’t access the entry as soldiers sealed it off. Kabugho says she later heard a loud explosion.

“When I heard the gunshots, I started crying, I knew my husband was no more. Ever since my husband died, we have been suffering. I only do casual work in people’s homes to survive. Government gave us Shs500,000 but I spent it on school fees. It is government, which killed my husband. It should take the responsibility of looking after my family.”

Today, she lives on the outskirts of Kasese with nine orphaned children. She makes baskets and does casual work to eke a living.

On November 27, 2016, Raphaelina Biira, received a phone call from her husband, Timothy Mukuddu. 

Barely after the shooting incident at the palace, his phone was off and he has not been seen alive.

The next day, she rushed to the palace but couldn’t find her husband.

Her children, including her four-year daughter she gave birth to, five months after the death of her husband often ask her questions she cannot answer.

“What hurts me is that the children ask me ‘where is our dad.’ I tell them he is dead. They often ask me ‘where did they bury him?’ I tell them that I don’t know the children then cry.”

She works at Mubuku Irrigation Scheme near Kasese Town to fend for her family.

Gertrude Biira says her husband and two children who had gone for prayers at the palace on that day have never returned home. The husband previously worked as tractor driver.

From a distance, she could see smoke billow from the palace barely after she heard loud explosions.

“My sons and their father usually prayed from the queen mother’s place. On that fateful Sunday, my husband and two sons went to the palace. Since then, I have never seen them.  Currently, I am facing various challenges, and the government should think about us. I am suffering to pay rent,” she says.

She has visited a number of prisons, including Nalufenya in Jinja but cannot find her children and husband.

Out of 13 children, she now looks after 11 remaining children but the Shs500,000 she received from government can barely cover costs of living, including rent and school fees for such a large family.

She is imploring government to purchase a piece of land for her family though she reveals that she is yet to heal from the pain of losing her husband and two sons.

All the three victims received a paltry Shs500,000 as compensation. Their children are out of school and these families live a destitute life.

Even the families of the police officers who died in reprisal attacks have not been compensated.

“This government has not given us any assistance. We cannot afford school fees and our children are suffering. From the little I get, I am only able to buy some food and pay rent. We hear the families of the royal guards are getting assistance, yet we the widows of the [slain] policemen have been forgotten. We need assistance because our husbands died while on duty,” says a widow, who owns a small food stall in Kasese, and spoke anonymously.

Still hurting

Mr Samson Muhindo, who is the caretaker for the royal house, says the scars are yet to heal.

He argues that accountability should be enforced on both sides and those who lost their loved ones, compensated.

“This is five years. People in the palace were killed; children are not going to school. Victims are saying ‘why are we not being compensated.’ Then there are those who have been on remand for five years. Why don’t they take them to court?” asks Mr Muhindo.

The Rev Ezra Mukonzo Yongesa, the chairperson of the district inter-religious committee, says only negotiations and dialogue can restore peace in this restive pocket.

“There is silence, people are quiet and you know one can be silent not because they are defeated. Even the widows are silent. The most important thing we need is dialogue, we come to the roundtable and discuss and see really what we need.”

He says government ought to free the Omusinga from house arrest.

“The Omusinga should be released [from house arrest] and his subjects and I think the rest will go on peacefully,” the Rev Yongesa says.

In February 2018, President Museveni, donated 10 motorcycles and Shs200m to several community groups in the district, including one for royal guards’ widows and orphans.

In April 2017, community activists compiled lists of dead and missing people, identifying 115 adults and 15 children killed on November 27 at the palace.

Later on, in May 2017, a coalition of 40 Ugandan and international organisations urged the government to facilitate an independent and transparent investigation involving international expertise into the Kasese killings.

They urged the government to invite relevant African Commission experts and United Nations special rapporteurs to participate. The government did not respond.

Kasese remains relatively calm of recent but beneath the silence, lies unresolved grievances and festering wounds.

A bush is sprouting outside the prime minister’s office in Kasese Town.

The heavy military deployment has since then been replaced by roadblocks in town.

Creations Forum Africa, a local NGO, recently conducted research, which shows that victims’ families continue to live in abject poverty.

According to the research, 44 percent of the families live in mud and wattle homes, 12 percent in grass-thatched huts, 18 percent are living in rented homes and relatives accommodate 16 percent.

The research indicates that some students who dropped out of school were largely as a result of lack of tuition, pregnancy, which affected the girl-child and schools being a long distance away from the homes of learners.

In 2017, five MPs petitioned the International Criminal Court (ICC) asking The Hague-based institution to investigate allegations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In its response, the office observed that there were incidents of violence, including violent clashes, between the Uganda security forces and various militants groups immediately before the events in question as well as in the region more generally.

The office is also aware that some members of the royal guards are alleged by the Uganda authorities to have been members of the Kirumiramutima militia, which the authorities assessed as an increasingly regional security threat.

Nonetheless, in the absence of the required threshold of intensity and organisation, the office concluded that the alleged acts could not be appropriately considered within the framework of Article 8 of the Statute as a non-international armed conflict.

“The alleged conduct also did not satisfy the contextual elements of the crime of genocide, under Article 6 of the Statute. Accordingly, the office has undertaken its analysis within the framework of alleged crimes against humanity, under article 7 of the Statute,” reads the report.

 “In order to determine whether the operation could be considered an attack against a “civilian population” for the purpose of Article 7 of the Statute, the Office observes that the operation appears to have been aimed at dismantling the Royal Guards, who are understood to have undertaken certain security-like functions on behalf of the king and were armed with instruments such as machetes,” it adds.

However, the report indicates that the actions of the security forces had to be conducted within a law enforcement paradigm, which requires that the use of lethal force be restricted to those situations where it is “strictly unavoidable” to protect life. 

Records, according to the ICC, indicate that a large number of other civilians were present in the kingdom’s administration offices and/or palace compound at the time of the operation, including palace domestic staff, local business enterprises, women, children and various other visitors.

Gen Elwelu has previously denied that children were inside the palace. 

“There was no child in that camp. Mumbere got to know that we are going to attack him on Friday. Mumbere sent his wife [away] with his children on Saturday on [November 26] and they all left,” said Elwelu during an interview with NTV in December 2016.

Opposition politicians accused

Gen Elwelu accuses Kasese Opposition politicians of sowing seeds of discord that led to the violence. 

“These MPs should have stopped this, the fact they failed to stop it, they must get out of Parliament; they should just resign.  The people who should take responsibility are the politicians from Kasese, especially those Opposition politicians led by the [former] Leader of Opposition [Winnie Kizza].”

Lt Gen Elwelu earlier on in the year said those who were killed during the Kasese clashes were criminals ‘who deserved what they got.’

“Even ICC set me free and said you have no case to answer, so what are you talking about? Those were criminals, I didn’t kill anybody else. They deserved to die because I was on the ground and you were not on the ground, that’s the problem. I know I’m a judge of my own during my work, I understand and that is what I do, I know what I do that’s why I have no problems here. Uganda is peaceful because of my actions and Kasese is peaceful, they are doing very well. Did you hear any problems with Kasese again? Only quiet,”  Lt Gen Elwelu said.

What ICC report says about rwenzururu clashes

The ICC report indicates that the operation was carried out ‘in an indiscriminate and disproportionate manner. 

In this regard, the office notes with concern the types of means used, including live ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades.’ In the circumstances, the court argues other means would appear to have been reasonably available to accomplish the objective of securing the surrender of the persons inside, whether by less lethal means or by, for example, disconnecting the palace’s water and electricity supply.

Taking into account the foregoing, ‘the office, therefore, concluded that members of the Ugandan security forces appear to have committed in Kasese on November 26-27, 2016 underlying acts constituting the crime of murder, under article 7(1)(a) of the Statute.’

The report concludes by postulating that ‘having assessed the information available, notwithstanding the Office’s concern that the use of force in the circumstances appears to have been both indiscriminate and disproportionate, it has been unable to satisfy itself that the underlying acts were committed pursuant to or in furtherance of a State policy.’

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