By Dennis Katungi
This year’s Heroes day falls on June 9th 2018 and will be commemorated at Birembo Primary School Grounds, Kakumiro District. The theme is pertinent. ‘Remembering our heroes who kept the faith and fought the fight; the duty is ours to enrich their gains- Some of us have had the privilege, if I may call it so, of living through Uganda’s dark as well as brighter days.
You would have been excused thinking that Uganda was at a new dawn when Amin captured power in 1971, but the excitement was short lived as the reign of terror began.
I will dwell more on the bush war (1981-86) and onwards since I was engaged with the struggle. I had been an active pupil as a UPM youth at Kazo during the 1980 general elections. We composed UPM songs and trailed candidate Yoweri Museveni wherever he went in Kiruhura District. We travelled on the back of a School Lorry. When the NRA war began, we provided information, accommodation & safe passage for fighters going to the bush. My family home in Kazo was a rendezvous for clandestine work.
UPM supporters were mainly young people, fed up with the old stories of UPC/DP. Our parents had recounted the ugly 1960’s encounters of the old parties - I still remember tales of agents moving about with rotten eggs to throw at their opponents on rallies. These stories made us despise DP/UPC politics. Although DP eventually won the seat for Mbarara North in 1980, UPM had remarkable support in the area. This goodwill quickly turned into support for NRA.
As youngsters we were in awe of Yoweri Museveni’s security detail as Minister of State for Defence. My own classmate who left school to join the FRONASA forces in 1979 was at the time of 1980 campaigns one of the bodyguards of the future President. His name was Robert Kabuura, one of the 27 to attack Kabamba.
I can roll off the names of the Kazo fighters who deserted the UNLA to join NRA. These soldiers did not go in one batch. They grabbed escape opportunities to desert UNLA. The soldiers and volunteers who joined the struggle - are my heroes. I agree with Tom Hanks when he says: “Heroes are ordinary people who make themselves extra-ordinary; they walk into the unknown”.
Some like John Kamurari Rubahimbya were killed in the process of escaping. He was gunned down in Bugolobi when information leaked that he was about to desert UNLA. In this group, I will include civilian volunteers who simply joined the struggle. People like James Kamuntu, Tumusiime Koozi, Rugambwa, Rutembana, Dorah Kutesa most of them now deceased save for Dorah, wife of Maj. Gen. Pecos Kutesa. A good number of them assembled at our home in Kazo before Maj. Gen. Stephen Kashaka came to pick them.
The Kiruhura group is phenomenal within NRA, later UPDF. They were in command and control of the Luwero war theatre. I will mention those I know in no particular order of seniority. Many of them are long deceased, but I will not separate the dead and the living. Some of those mentioned here are now Generals. Yoweri Museveni, Elly Tumwine, Salim Saleh, Joram Mugume, Stephen Kashaka, Burundi Nyamunywanisa, Sam Kavuma, Fred Mwesigye, Rwashande Kyamuzigita, Skaagi, Francis Kashaka, Hannington Mugabi, Chef Ali, Patrick Lumumba, Geoffrey Taban, Kankiriho, Lauben Ikondere, Kagumire, Muhanguzi Kimosho, Frank Kamuninga, Akanga Byaruhanga, Robert Kabuura, Kamwerere, Poteli Kivuna, Geoffrey Katumbuza, George Rwaibanda, Katuuku, Fred Kashoma, Kakwezi Kachamu, Rutembana, Kagina, Muharabu, Kazahura, Kusasira Butimbire, Koodi Nunguri, Mugabi Muyari, Tom Mihirane to mention but a few. These fighters & others of course, played a pivotal role in the NRA armed struggle and will eternally be my heroes.
They were bolstered by yet another cohort of fighters in 1985 and onwards. This group, though not exclusive to Kiruhura became critical to the force development and professionalization of UPDF. The current CDF, Gen. David Muhoozi and his compatriots – Gen. James Mugira, Nobel Mayombo, Moses Rwakitarate, Mathew Gureme, Abel Kanduho, Don Nabaasa, Richard Karemire, Muhoozi Keinerugaba, Hebert Kyabihende, Kanyesigye, David Kamukama, Stephen Mugarura, Dr Amos Mukumbi, David Mpeeka, Napoleon Namanya, Keith Katungi, Jackob Gowan to mention but a few.
UPDF is a national force, it’s impossible to list its commanders in a single article. I wanted to highlight the contribution of these few on behalf of the many.
The battle I witnessed was in Lira in 1987. I was in S.6 vacation and decided to visit my relative Col. Patrick Lumumba who was then commanding the 3rd Battalion. Lumumba and Senior Officer Stanley Muhangi were camped at the former residence of the late Milton Obote in Lira town.
This was their command post. 1987/88 was the peak of Lakwena’s rebellion. Commanders Lumumba and Muhangi were surprised by my naivety that I could anticipate a bit of adventure in a war-zone. I had hiked a lift from their drivers returning to Lira from Kampala. I found them eating goat muchomo on a camp-fire at 8pm. I could not miss their naughty eye contact over me, implying: ‘Look at this silly boy; he doesn’t know what he is walking into! They had intelligence of an impending attack within hours!
Lo and behold, Lakwena’s rebels attacked Lira at dawn of the same night I arrived. I did not know that Senior Commanders pick big guns to fight at the frontline; until then, I assumed commanding officers do it from the safer rear. I watched as Lumumba and Muhangi grabbed sub-machine guns and fell-in with their soldiers in the dead of night. All I could hear was gunshots all around.
Only I and Katema the battalion doctor, later found to be a quack were left behind with sentries. ‘Dr’ Katema continued treating NRA soldiers until he was rumbled as an S.6 leaver in 1992. He was demoted & dismissed from his unit in the north.
I observed as he stabilized casualties brought in with injuries. It is amazing how one can successfully pretend to be a Doctor for such a long time undetected. At the Lira battle, I saw him pull a curtain to remove a bullet lodged in the skull of a soldier. Meanwhile, a helicopter in which Maj. Gen. Fred Rwigyema, over all Commander of the war theatre in the north landed at Lira. The chopper was used to airlift the casualties to Kampala.
Guns fell silent around 9. 00 am and Lakwena had lost most of the attacking militia. We went out in the field to count bodies of the rebels. I couldn’t get beyond 40 as I was overwhelmed by nausea because of the smell of human fresh & gunpowder in the air. I observed the fresh smell of war!
NRA lost 2 soldiers and 4 were injured. Amazingly, the soldier operated on by ‘Dr’ Katema survived! I had planned to spend the whole of my vacation in Lira; I quickly changed my mind when the late Col. Lumumba suggested that I return to Kampala with his driver. He had earlier successfully persuaded me not to join NRA.
Dennis Katungi is the Communications & Media Relations Manager, Uganda Media Centre. @Dennis_Katungi