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The writer Dennis Katungi

1981 Mission Deemed Impossible: How Dorah Kutesa, Katumba Wamala Rescued Salim Saleh from Moroto Prison

posted onJanuary 27, 2024

By Dennis Katungi

What you need to know

Gen. Salim Saleh, the revered NRA Bush War commander of the deadly Mobile Brigade, who played a pivotal role in NRA’s capture of State power in 1986 -- was holed up in a Moroto prison while his brother, Yoweri Museveni, harassed UNLA in Luwero Triangle.  This is the riveting story of how Saleh left prison and joined the Bush War effort.  It is the classic stuff of Hollywood movies.
I have written about this mindblowing story before, albeit in part. I interviewed Maj. Dorah Kutesa for Tarehe Sita (2023). Only brief extracts were published due to space constraints.

These stories need to be told and told again for posterity. Gen. Salim Saleh’s survival chances in a UNLA jail were dire. He was already earmarked as one of Fronasa’s prime troubleshooters. Had he not led soldiers to rescue his brother Museveni when detained by UNLA at a Kireka roadblock?

For that, Saleh was locked up on the orders of the UNLA Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. David Oyite Ojok.On Museveni’s intervention, as Minister of State for Defence, Saleh was released but promptly deployed far away in Moroto.

It was felt by the powers that be, that his chances of causing trouble or rather quelling it were diminished. Lo and behold, while in Moroto, his brother Museveni together with 27 armed men stormed Kabamba Barracks and made away with some weapons and men.  Although the mission was not deemed successful by the rebels’ yardstick, they had caused reverberations across Uganda and the popular resistance army was born.  

Armed men, intent on removing the newly ensconced UPC government led by Apolo Milton Obote, had hit an army installation and gotten away with it.  Some of Saleh’s comrades who had the chance, run to join the nascent popular resistance. It was clear to the regime that Fronasa boys within UNLA were a ‘high risk’ category. Most, if not all of them, had the potential to join Museveni in the bush. Indeed, they did.

Gen. Katumba Wamala, in his book Endurance, tells the story of many of his Monduli cohort of officers dying mysteriously in that period. Others like Lt. Murari and the Late John Kamurari Rubahimbya were gunned down in cold blood in Bugolobi as they planned to escape to the bush. Indeed, NRA’s top Commanders, who ended up taunting UNLA in battles within the Luwero Triangle like the deceased Patrick Lumumba, Geoffrey Taban, Rwabantu, Pecos Kutesa, and many others ran away from UNLA to join NRA in this period.

The story of Maj. (Rtd.) Dorah Kutesa

Around April 1981, the late Ben Muhanguzi, a.k.a Dampa, came from Luwero. He did these dangerous errands regularly to pick up those heading to the bush and gave us updates from the war theatre. Dampa was an optimist and almost always gave us positive stories; that the bush war was progressing well.  He even spiced up his stories to excite us and to keep hope alive.

For example, on an earlier visit, he told us that the NRA had acquired a special gun that, when in use, froze the bullets of the enemy. In our naïve innocence, we believed and celebrated the acquisition of such a super weapon.
On this visit, however, he was uncharacteristically downcast. As we talked, he looked sad, holding back tears. This raw emotion was rare with Dampa. He was a hard guy.

After the brief struggle with his emotions, he went on to say: “The war will not end soon without Salim Saleh. Mzee is hurting, although, as a leader, he doesn’t show it overtly, but all of us his commanders know it.”

Bothered by the news, desperate for the war to end, I asked him to outline the predicament of Salim Saleh. He repeated that so long as Salim Saleh was in jail, the war effort would stall. It was the first time I was hearing this, so I asked why Saleh was in jail and where. From the story that followed, it was clear to me that his life was in danger.

Dampa told us the story.  One evening while Saleh was out with colleagues in Moroto, a girl passed by them and Saleh jokingly teased her, causing her to drop her Jumper on the ground. The girl threw a tantrum and ran away, abandoning the jumper. Little did Saleh and his buddies know that she was the concubine of a top army officer.

She ran to the officer and reported the incident. That’s how Saleh was framed for stealing a jumper. Saleh was well known as Yoweri Museveni’s brother. This was an opportunity. He was quickly arrested and locked up at a maximum correction center on a charge of theft, but anything could have happened to him. This was a holding charge.

Saleh was the brother of the most wanted NRA rebel leader. He had the potential to desert UNLA and join the NRA. He already had a record as a fearless Montepuez-trained Fronasa combatant who fought to remove Idi Amin.

Dorah Kutesa, a civilian young lady immediately offered to engage in a rescue mission.

She picks the story here: Dampa was delighted to hear my offer. The others laughed at me, wondering how I would tackle the seemingly impossible mission. I got the support of Margaret Tandekwire and the late Winnie Suubi and immediately designed an action plan. Margaret had a friend (Eddie) who worked for UNICEF, a British national. She also had an acquaintance with Araya Assefa, the Ethiopian Head of UNICEF in Uganda.  

We figured out that this was a good place to start since UNICEF had a presence in Karamoja. Araya was based in Soroti, which is where I needed to go through to Moroto. We met Eddie for lunch at his apartment on Kampala Road. I remember him serving us boiled eggs and Avocado. This was funny to me because a lunch appointment for a Ugandan meant having real food.

The meeting went well and Eddie agreed to give me a lift to Soroti as he was traveling the following day. I joined him at an agreed rendezvous as pre-arranged and off we left for Soroti in his UNICEF Land Rover.  We arrived late in the evening, and I met his boss Araya.
Eddie introduced me as Margaret’s friend, and we exchanged pleasantries.

The UNICEF boss, lodging in a hotel, offered me a room, and after a much-needed shower, I joined Araya and Eddie for dinner in the Dining area. For dinner, Araya had made a special order of mutton. An entire sheep had been roasted whole. I had never tasted mutton but had no hesitation as that was the only food available and I was hungry.

I devoured the meat, considering I had not eaten all day. Unfortunately, I spent the next two weeks smelling mutton, in burps, sweat, and even urine. Over Dinner, Araya inquired about the purpose of my visit. I explained that my uncle had been arrested and was incarcerated in Moroto Prison. He wanted to know what crime he had committed, and I explained that it was political persecution. Having lived in Uganda for some years, he was aware of the political climate. He showed empathy. He was kind to give me some goodies to take to my Prisoner. Cigarettes, biscuits, and other rations that UN Agencies normally distributed to communities they served.

At the time, I was unaware whether Saleh was a smoker, but when Araya asked if he was, I answered in the affirmative.  Later, Saleh told me the cigarettes were the most treasured item among the goodies I brought him. They were a rarity.
Araya told me that I could go with the UNICEF trucks taking supplies to Moroto the following day. He warned me that the road was not good both surface-wise and security-wise.  All vehicles to Moroto moved in a convoy, escorted by UNLA soldiers. We had to stop mid-way when it was nighttime. The entire convoy, including military trucks and escorts, camped at a mwanainchi’s compound for the night.

It was here, by campfire, with military trucks and soldiers everywhere, that I met Lt Katumba Wamala for the first time. He was a Quarter Master and as such, he frequented that route, taking supplies up there. We talked at length as he wanted to know why I was traveling to Moroto. I did not reveal my true mission of visiting Saleh but instead lied that I was going to visit Lt Murari, a Monduli graduate in Katumba’s intake of 17 Long. He had been based in Moroto for some time.

Katumba informed me that Murari had been recalled to Kampala weeks earlier. Both of us were blissfully unaware that he and a few other officers had been killed. Lt Murari not being in Moroto freaked me out because he was a big factor in my Plan. I was counting on him for support.

I also wanted to work through him to recruit those who wanted to join the struggle. I was expecting a lot of help from him. It dawned on me that I had to come clean with Katumba Wamala, at least the part about visiting Saleh. I told him that apart from visiting Lt Murari, I also wanted to see my Uncle Saleh who was jailed in Moroto Prison. He empathised with me and having inside knowledge, assured me that Saleh was indeed still in jail.  

I asked if there were any mutual friends with Lt. Murari from their coursemates in Monduli who could be of assistance. He mentioned Joram Mugume, now a retired UPDF General. I asked if he could ask Joram Mugume to come and meet me at the Moroto Hotel where I was going to spend a night. He promised he would inform him.

I checked in at Mt. Moroto Hotel where we found no food. I was very hungry but had to do with tea. The Hotel just provided a kettle so one could do their tea. I observed a group of people drinking Ajon in the hotel compound and they really looked jovial.  Because of the hunger pangs, I felt tempted to join them but remembered my clandestine mission and passed.

The ambiance of the hotel and its amenities were a welcome respite from the night before on a campfire being feasted on by mosquitoes. The next day, before 10am, I set off for Moroto Prison with the help of a UNICEF vehicle. At the Prison, I went through the routine protocols and checkpoints and finally got ushered into a waiting area.

After a little while, a tall thin man with curly hair was escorted into the waiting area by prison guards.  Saleh looked like a Somali to me. I could see in his inquisitive eyes that he had many questions for me but was not at liberty to ask.  Filled with curiosity, he kept scrutinizing me with amazement. I opened my bag and handed over the goods I had brought him. He was more delighted by the cartons of cigarettes than by the biscuits and other foodstuffs I had gotten from UNICEF.  

He inquired how I had come, who I had come with, how I had gotten all the goodies, and a lot more.
I narrated the story of my journey and how I finally got to him. I then asked him how we could help him get out. He said that escaping was the only way out. We spoke in hushed tones or code words because of the Prison staff nearby. He now elaborated on the escape plan. He said that the chance to escape would be on the day he was to be taken to Court. All he needed to pull this off was a Pistol with enough rounds.  He asked if I could smuggle in a Pistol.  I assured him that if I could land on the weapon, I would smuggle it in. He asked how I would do that.  I told him it would be concealed in cooked food. I had read such stories in novels. We mulled over the plot with his guidance until he seemed satisfied that I could execute the plan.  He told me to ask Katumba and Joram Mugume for the gun.
Later, when I broached the idea with Katumba Wamala, he vetoed it and retorted in Luganda: “Saleh mumanyi agenda kweta nga afunye emundu." [Saleh will commit suicide if availed a gun.] That is not a good idea. We should not even try that.  I suggest we find money to bribe the Judge.  They are so corrupt he will release him if we give him money.”  He asked if I had the money for the task. I answered in the affirmative despite the fact I knew I had none.  We agreed that he was to establish the amount of money needed to execute the plan. In my heart, I had my doubts that such a plan would work, though I never said so.
That evening, I met Joram Mugume again and still broached the idea of smuggling a gun to Saleh. I asked if he could avail of a pistol. Joram, like Katumba Wamala, discouraged me, telling me how unwise and dangerous such a plan would be. Discouraged by both soldiers, I now decided to return to Kampala and work on raising the bribe money.  

Katumba Wamala offered me a lift in his Army truck as he headed to Kampala for supplies. I traveled with him as well as Joram Mugume in the Lorry.  As we parted, Katumba Wamala assured me that he would be back to pick up the ransom money and Saleh would be a free man. This was the project I was now to dwell on.  

Joram Mugume had come with his personal belongings from Moroto. He left them at our house and requested that we convey them to his family. He was picked up by George Sikubwabo, one of the contacts who used to ferry those heading to the bush.
The money agreed on for bribing the Judge was Shs350,000. I did not have a single coin. I decided to approach the late Eriya Kategaya through his sister Gwenie to see the possibility of raising this amount of money. It was a hefty sum. The answer was negative. They could not trust a young girl to execute such a complicated mission.
My sister-in-law, Norah Kakamba, seeing the commitment me, and being my confidant, quickly devised another plan. She told me: “We can sell blankets.” In those days commodities were scarce. The few that were manufactured like sugar, beer, blankets, etc., were in high demand. Well-connected people were making a killing getting factory allocations of these items and then selling the chits (allocations) to middlemen, hence making a clean difference without even touching the goods.

Norah was a Private Secretary to the General Manager of Uganda Blanket Manufacturers then, Mr. Oroya.  She introduced me to her boss and requested help with an allocation. Mr. Oroya was kind enough to sign the allocation of blankets. Since she knew how the system worked, she assured me of finding the middlemen to buy the allocation.

I left the signed chit with her and in the evening, she turned up with a lump sum of money. She had sold the allocation. As we waited for Katumba Wamala to update us on his next trip, I made one more attempt to find a gun and smuggle it to Saleh as he had requested. I traveled to Moroto again. I was determined to find a gun by hook or crook. I even contemplated buying one from the Karimajong and finding a way of relaying it to Saleh.  After all, that was his request.

As I was in Moroto town the following day looking, not only for a decent restaurant to have breakfast but also for helpful contacts, I met a group of soldiers who spoke Runyankore. One of them accosted me asking if I was the girl working on Saleh’s release from jail. Till then, I thought I was on a clandestine mission, how did this fellow know this detail? I pretended not to know what he was on about and hushed my voice to show that I was uncomfortable discussing such a sensitive issue aloud. I asked how he knew such. He replied that everybody in their circle knew that a certain girl, Saleh’s sister was in town for his release.

He added, “If you dare step in the barracks, you will be arrested.” I was terrified. I was in Moroto on my own this time, with no contact at all.  Katumba Wamala was in Kampala, Joram Mugume was already in the bush, I knew no one else in Moroto. I felt so vulnerable.  There was now a real and present risk of both Saleh and I being locked up or eliminated. Only one soldier in that group came to my assistance.  

His name was Kankiriho Rwamafa, a young man from Kazo. I knew his parents but not him. He was a signaller. As the rest left, loudly discussing me as a risk, he stayed behind in the restaurant and talked to me, calming me down.  He promised he would arrange a lift for me back to Kampala the following day. The catch was that I had to go to the quarter guard at the barracks where I would meet him. He told me that his boss, a Warrant Officer, was traveling to Kampala and that he would request him to take me with him.  

Although I had a nerve about entering the barracks, he reassured me there would be no trouble. I believed him and at the appointed time, I headed to the barracks and luckily, I spotted him waiting for me from a distance. The 20 minutes I spent there waiting for his boss felt like an eternity. I was scared. I then saw an open Landcruiser approach. Kankiriho spoke with the occupants and beckoned me to come. He then introduced me to his boss as his sister and I was given a seat in the front cabin. I felt relieved that I was leaving Moroto even though I had not accomplished my mission. I was disturbed by the turn of events and decided not to return to Moroto. In my mind, I reverted to the default plan of Katumba Wamala.

True to his arrangements, Katumba Wamala went ahead with his plan and visited the judge who was from Mbale. Saleh’s case was scheduled, and he appeared. He was acquitted that day. One afternoon around 2pm, we saw a familiar army truck entering our compound.  I recognized it was Katumba Wamala’s since I had traveled in it.  He alighted, followed by a thin tall Somali looking-man.

I was thrilled. I introduced Salim Saleh to Norah Kakamba who was so elated.  She began preparing a meal while our VIP ex-prisoner went for a shower. I refunded Katumba Wamala’s ransom, given that he had cleared the judge. I gave Katumba a thumbs-up as he exited. After this successful rescue mission, Saleh spent a few days in Mbuya, and through our usual conduits, he joined the Armed Struggle. The rest is History.

Dennis Katungi of Uganda Media Centre interviewed Major Dorah Kutesa for this article. A retired UPDF officer, she currently works as a Foreign Service Officer.

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