Capt Musa Obura Kassim, one of former president Idi Amin’s hatchet men, one time went on a shooting spree inside a room with 30 prisoners, killing them all. Illustrations/FILE 

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Uganda’s hatchet men: The anatomy of torture

What you need to know:

  • In the first of a two-part series on how the Justice Arthur Oder Commission of Inquiry looked into the issue of human rights abuses in post-independence Uganda, Emmanuel Mutaizibwa sketches a portrait of the anatomy of torture through the lens of its victims.

The men who ran Uganda’s torture dungeons had a common thread—they often wore plain-clothes, indulged in a hedonistic lifestyle and suffered bouts of impulsive rage. 

As they applied Gestapo-like interrogation techniques and sheer barbarity on their victims, these gloating jailers remained impassive to the shrill cries of their dying victims. 

Among those linked to these incidents were former president Idi Amin’s hatchetmen such as Ali Towelli and Musa Obura Kassim, both commanders of the notorious Public Safety Unit (PSU) based in Naguru in Kampala; Farouk Minawa of State Research Bureau (SRB); Maj Hussein Marella; Isaac Maliyamungu and Juma Ali, who would later be infamously nicknamed ‘Butabika’, the name of the national referral psychiatric hospital. 

Isaac Maliyamungu. PHOTO/FILE

Yet when the Idi Amin and Milton Obote regimes fell, some of these men—who had no regard to the sanctity of life—appeared as meek as lambs. 

Barely after the National Resistance Movement (NRM) shot to power in 1986, President Museveni sanctioned the Justice Arthur Oder Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses that had taken place since 1962. 

The commission listened to blood-curdling stories of torture and gross human rights abuses. Those who stood accused were reminded that justice discards friendship and kindred — stripped of immunity and privilege, one ought to carry his/her own cross at their hour of reckoning.

SRB’s cold room
According to Sentamu’s testimony before the commission, the State Research Bureau (SRB) based in Nakasero had a cold room where prisoners were placed in freezing conditions, and a room referred to as the swimming pool was filled with water and then heated gradually by electricity, where prisoners were boiled to death. 

There were weights to tie to men’s private parts, a saw for cutting off parts of the body; gas-welding flames for burning victims; bags of sand or salt, which a prisoner would be forced to eat until he/she died; pincers for squeezing men’s private parts or cutting off breasts.

According to Namakajo, the Singapore cell at Makindye military barracks stood out for its notoriety. Once put in it, people would be killed between 7pm and 8am. Trucks would then come in and take away the bodies at night. The majority of those killed at Makindye were soldiers of Langi and Acholi ethnicity. 

“Up to a hundred officers and men were murdered each day,” he revealed before the Justice Oder Commission. 

During the early 1970s, James Bagiire —a county chief of Bugabula in the then Busoga Province—acquired the nickname ‘Kasalamatu’ due to his habit of cutting off prisoners’ ears. Many witnesses told horrifying tales of their treatment at the Public Safety Unit based in Naguru, Kampala during Amin’s reign of terror.

One of the henchmen who presided over torture was Cpl Oola, who killed prisoners by hitting them with a hammer on the head. 

According to Ntambi, “One time, a prisoner was brought and handed to Oola. Oola never whipped this man. He just took him behind the cell, pulled down the prisoner’s trouser, cut off a piece of his buttocks and gave it to the prisoner to eat.”

Enter the Condemned Cell
Further, according to Ntambi, there was a cell called ‘Condemned Cell’ where prisoners to be killed were locked up. 

“Once 30 prisoners were ordered to tie up 12 prisoners who were already in the Condemned Cell and the 30 failed to do so, the officer on duty rang Capt Obura and told him the prisoners had rebelled. When Obura arrived, he threatened to shoot the duty officer and then ordered him to lock the Condemned Cell; the Condemned Cell was locked and Obura started shooting inside at random. The prisoners answered by throwing empty beer bottles at the door fence and some fragments cut Obura’s face. Obura went on a shooting spree for almost 15 minutes and then he stood up and called out anybody who was still alive, and there was no response. So, he called his men to be on the alert at the gate, and he told the duty officer to open, when he opened, he again called for anybody who was still alive to come out, and nobody came out. So, the policemen went inside and examined — everybody was dead.”

ALSO READ: A State of torture?

Semombwe, who was arrested for allegedly ‘stealing a file’ containing sensitive information, from the Foreign Affairs ministry, witnessed the murder of Masaba by Obura and Oola. 

Masaba was alleged to have stolen a gun from a police truck. After Obura had repeatedly warned the victim to hand over the stolen gun, Obura ordered Oola to kill Masaba. Oola used a big pipe filled with concrete to strike Masaba’s head. Masaba fell down, then Oola broke Masaba’s ribs and legs. He folded the dead body just like a parcel and put it on a Land-Rover vehicle.  

In March 1989, Obura, who headed the feared Public Safety Unit during Amin’s nine-year rule, was hanged in Luzira prison.  

Obura had earlier on been arrested after Amin’s overthrow in 1979 and convicted two years later of killing a Kampala trader, whose business he later seized.  

An illustration of Capt Obura being led to the gallows at Luzira prisons after he was found guilty of torture and murder. PHOTO/ILLUSTRATION 

Witness Ntambi stated that for the detainee at Naguru, the ‘standard reception’ was to insert a victim’s head into a motor vehicle tyre. 

Sometimes the head was shaved with a broken bottle. A man would step on the neck of the victim and then the victim would be whipped for 10 or more minutes non-stop. 

According to Ntambi, the skin on the back and buttocks would be ripped off and blood would ooze out. 

Torture, killings in a mortuary
Even senior police officers were not free of the murderous arm of Naguru. Witness Joseph Ssali Ssalongo, a detective Inspector of Police, underwent the horrors of Naguru when he was arrested at gun-point in early July 1972. 

Ali Towelli, who was the commander of PSU until 1976, executed the arrest. 
Ssali was pushed into a car boot, containing fresh human blood. 
On the way, Towelli told his officers: ‘I am going to kill this inspector.’ 

At Naguru, Ssali was lined up with five others, whom Towelli called robbers. Towelli, armed with a pistol, shot all the five in the chest at short range, one at a time, while Ssali pleaded helplessly. 

When Towelli reached Ssali, he spoke in Swahili, “Kama mimi nawuwa wewe bure, Mungu atamupa mimi adhabu” (If I am killing you for nothing, God will punish me). 

The PSU did not stop at torturing a victim until he was hospitalised or dumped into the mortuary. 
Its actors also followed the ‘body’ until they were sure the victim was dead. 

Dr Matayo Lukakaba Kakande, who was a pathologist at Mulago hospital and city council mortuaries—and a police surgeon from 1964—stated that the PSU men locked up a man alive in the mortuary fridge and forbade anyone to help him. 

The doctor testified: “That man was confused and was beaten badly. On the third evening, the PSU men came and collected this man [from the fridge], took him away, beat him up, killed and brought him back to the mortuary. In some instances, people were brought there and shot inside the mortuary itself.”

The PSU did not stop at torturing a victim until he was hospitalised or dumped into the mortuary. Its actors also followed the ‘body’ until they were sure the victim was dead. PHOTO/ILLUSTRATION

According to Muyanja, when he was arrested in 1982 during the Obote II government and taken to Nile Mansions, he found a young light-skinned man dressed in a doctor’s gown, with a stethoscope in his pocket. 
His hands were tied and he was leaning on the wall. 

The soldiers were telling the doctor that he should admit he was a guerilla. When he said no, a hammer was brought and his head was hit, killing him instantly. The body was removed.’

Notorious cell
According to Namakajo, the Singapore cell at Makindye military barracks stood out for its notoriety. Once put in it, people would be killed between 7pm and 8am. Trucks would then come in and take away the bodies at night. 

Women, children not spared

Muyanja told the commission that after the death of the young doctor, a petite light-skinned woman was brought into the room.

“They asked her whether she was a guerilla, she denied. Then a pair of scissors was brought and her breast cut. But she still refused to admit. Then a metal chair was brought, then a charcoal stove was put underneath.

It was being fanned electrically. She still refused. Then a bed was brought, she was laid on it. Then an iron bar was brought and pushed into the private parts. She was quiet through all these tortures. She died and her body was taken away,” revealed Muyanja.

‘‘On the 24th day of February, 1982, barely after Andrew Lutaakome Kayiira’s rebels were repulsed at Lubiri Barracks, many people, including children, were arrested in Makindye and Kibuye. 

“They were told to lie down and struck with tyre levers on their heads— and whoever was arrested on that day, nobody survived. After we were lined up at the scene where a lot of dead bodies were lying, we were told to pick up their dead bodies to be taken to our go-down,” Muyanja told the commission.
Many of those arrested were carted off and detained at Argentina House, which had been converted into a human slaughter house. 

Sula Kiwanuka was one of the few who survived a ‘trip’ to this infamous house. 
According to the witness, the house was kept by a cruel sergeant, whose name no victim knew. 

“You can count yourself dead because here, we do not have a book where to write that you are the people who have been opposing the government,” the sergeant usually said.
When Kiwanuka and others were taken to the house, they found, among others, Cissy Kagodo and her brother Nsubuga and another man. 

All the inmates were in a poor state of health. 

The witness continued: “The gentleman with Cissy and her brother actually had a big wound on the head out of which you could see maggots. The man was not taken to hospital, instead the jailers asked each other whether it was not better to kill the man because he was in too much pain. He was pulled out into the sitting room and shot dead because he was in too much pain.”

*Part Two runs next Sunday, March 13.

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