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A war worth fighting

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Uganda’s Revolution 1979 -1986: How I saw it by Pecos KutesaMaj. Gen. Pecos Kutesa, in his book; Uganda’s Revolution 1979 -1986: How I saw it tells the story of how Kampala fell to then-National Resistance Army rebels commanded by Yoweri Museveni on January 26, 1986. Below is his chapter entitled: The Fall of Kampala, pp237-249. It has been slightly edited due to space but we encourage you to buy Kutesa’s hilarious book for its full enjoyment.

The final assault

On 15 January 1985, when the CHC chaired a meeting of combat commanders and ordered a final assault on Kampala, most of us were exhilarated. This was what we had waited for all those years. We had the illusion that the war in Uganda would end with the capture of Kampala, so everyone was psychologically ready to reap the fruits of his sweat. Almost immediately every person became a brave and unfailing fighter, at least in words. The mood of the meeting was high animation, even chief cooks were ready to attack Kampala using their knives and pans, the chronically ill, were miraculously healed, forgotten battle songs were remembered, the tempo of our movements and speech was marked by a rare briskness and everybody was jovial. All wrongs among us were forgiven, everybody started viewing everybody else as a bosom friend. It was the mood of a winning team.

The plan was a multi-pronged advance on the city. The 1st and 3rd Battalions continued on the main road, while the 5th and 7th Battalions advanced on the left flank. The 9th Battalion had advanced further and attacked a UNLA/UA defence at Kammengo, not far from Mpigi town. In that attack Comrade Santos Okecho Okecha proved a very brave and resourceful combat commander. The combination of UNLA/UA was dislodged, leaving behind many casualties. In that battle, we started hearing long-forgotten names of former Uganda Army officers, the very people who had attacked our people in Bondo in 1981. The names of people like Alai Tata and even the infamous Isaac Maliyamungu floated around. One cannot be sure whether the Okello junta might have floated those names to rally support from the political north. Our fighters were not in the least impressed by those high-sounding names of self-styled generals. After all, we had seen them running away when the Tanzanians attacked Uganda in 1979. The Tanzanians had simply swept the whole lot away from their defences. The advance had started on 17 January and by 22 January we had half-encircled Kampala city. While the 1st , 3rd, 5th and 11th Battalions from Mbarara led the frontal attack from the direction of Masaka, the 7th Battalion was advancing from Hoima Road through Kakiri and had already reached Nansana. River Rubiji encircles the southwestern part of Kampala and would have offered good positions for a determined defending force. However, the UNLA did not use it to its full value.

The defenders of Kampala, with the help of Korean experts, had positioned their artillery pieces on Summit View, one of the highest hills in Kampala. On our part, Comrade Kasirye Gwanga (now a brigadier), who was in charge of our heavy artillery, positioned his weapons on top of Mutundwe hill. Mutundwe hill dominates Kampala. In fact, when you are on top of this hill, Kampala looks like a broad sheet map or a city seen from an airplane porthole. Those two, Summit View and Mutundwe, are good for target practice when using medium-range artillery, and Kampala is in the valley between the two hills.

The two major roads leading out of Kampala, that is the Masaka-Mbarara highway and the Mubende-Fort Portal road, start at the Busega roundabout. The UNLA had placed anti- aircraft guns and other artillery pieces at this road junction and they thought that they had effectively stopped our advance. It is a good tactical defence position but that is all it is - tactical - and not necessarily a strategic defence for a whole city.

Maj. Gen. Pecos KutesaFeeling actual fear

Our people have a saying that “the water pot usually breaks at the door steps”, meaning that even a well-executed plan can run into jeopardy in the final phases, or that “a boat can capsize near the shore after enduring high seas.” These and similar thoughts must have been going through my subconscious as I looked at Kampala city and all its grandeur. I developed goose pimples immediately. I started shivering and running a high fever. This was the sight of my long-term goal which now appeared to be within my grasp and which ought to have increased the flow of adrenaline. Instead, I was getting goose pimples. In fact, I developed fear, which was uncalled for. Throughout the war, I had never experienced fear at all. The CHC must have sensed my discomfort when I told him that I thought I was developing tuberculosis. Even today I tease myself about why that malady was the first to come to my mind. The CHC told me to stay at the tactical headquarters while my second-in-command Fred Mugisha, continued. We were in a meeting on 24 January 1986, when we received information that the enemy had withdrawn from the Busega roundabout without a fight. My “tuberculosis” disappeared just as miraculously as it had started.

Our people advanced at high speed. The 1st Battalion, now under Fred Mugisha, advanced towards Republic House (Bulange), then the UNLA headquarters, while 3rd Battalion under Patrick Lumumba advanced on the Lubiri barracks. The UNLA had used the former army shop as an ammunition dump but how it caught fire is anyone’s guess. Soon bombs started blasting off. I was with the CHC when the sound of bomb blasts and smoke engulfed Kampala. The CHC at first thought that the UNLA was using BM rocket launchers to bombard the city. I had to point out to him that the bombs were air burst from the ground up but were not incoming shells.

It was getting late when the CHC directed me to go to Catholic Cathedral at Rubaga, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda, which was now under our command. He gave me some telephone numbers. He wanted me to call President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, to inform him that we had entered Kampala. This shows the high degree of respect the CHC had for the old man. The CHC instructed me to request Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga, who was the head of the Catholic Church in Uganda and a staunch supporter of the NRA, to allow me to use his phone to ring President Nyerere.

On the way, we found many civilians curiously watching this new group which had captured Kampala. Kampala people had been used to seeing one group of soldiers overthrowing another group and announcing a new government. It was not a new phenomenon to Kampala residents, right from the 1971 coup of Idi Amin, the 1979 takeover led by Tanzanians, to the then recent 1985 coup of Okello Lutwa. They had been accustomed to coups and to them ours was no exception. The only divergence was that these new coup-makers were talking the local language and their physical features resembled those of the local people. We did not look or act intimidating. We looked just like everybody else, not like “soldiers” in the Ugandan context. They were asking themselves: “When will the looting start?” They told us: “We warmly welcome you, but now what new rules have you got for us? Should we show you good shops to loot from?” and things of that nature.

One of my cheeky sergeants informed all and sundry that we, the new liberators, had three cardinal rules we wanted the people to follow religiously:

Rule No.1: No looting or grabbing anything which does not belong to you.

Response: ‘Ah, you mean no looting, sir?”

Sergeant: “Yes, no looting. Anybody caught looting will be shot.”

Rule No.2: Do not harbour any enemy soldier or abandoned weapon. Report all immediately.

Response: “That is very well sir, just allow us to get our hands on them. All you will find is ashes.”

Sergeant: “Please no extrajudicial killings.”

Response: “Mmm, but they have been killing us.”

Rule No.3: No girl or young woman should have knickers on.

Response from ladies: “Now what have our knickers done?”

Rule No.3 was of course a crude joke contrived by the sergeant. It had nothing to do with army rules or the ladies for that matter.

Nevertheless, to the law-abiding residents of Kampala, these were taken as a serious departure from the norm, but rules which had to be followed to the letter.

When we reached the cardinal’s place, we found our fighters surrounding the place. The person in charge was Musoke Kyenvangunywa, the Musoke of the Kampomera anti-aircraft episode. He told me that everybody had run inside except a few brave nuns. I talked to the nuns. I told them that I would like to use the cardinal’s phone to make an important call. They said they were tired of the pseudo-liberators and reminded me that a few years earlier the UFM people had used the same Rubaga hill to provoke the UNLA, then they (the UFM) had run away and left the cathedral people to face the music. I insisted that we were different from the UFM, but they would not buy my argument. To put the message across more emphatically, Musoke fired a mortar shell from the compound of the cathedral. The nuns and priests all ran inside and hid themselves in the basement of the place. There was little I could do. So that important message from the CHC to President Nyerere was never sent. It was becoming dark, so we just dug in around the cardinal’s place and waited the night out.

In the meantime, the battle for Republic House was raging on but the most furious fight was at the Lubiri barracks. This Lubiri, at the time the former palace of the deposed Kabaka of Buganda, has a fortification wall. It was the 1966 storming of the Lubiri by Idi Amin, then colonel, under orders ostensibly from President Milton Obote, that led to the occupation and conversion of the palace into an army barracks. This place is of historical significance in Uganda.

Comrade Lumumba’s 3rd Battalion stormed Lubiri. The enemy soldiers put up a determined defence. When one recalls Kayira’s UFM attack on Lubiri, it seems the UNLA expected a repeat of that fiasco. However, our fighters were more serious than the UFM. Our combatants were using real 60 mm mortar bombs and not RPG shell air bursts. The combatants tried to scale the wall, but it was hard, so they sieged it and poured in bombs, grenades and sustained machine gun fire. When I met the Kenyan contingent of the monitoring group of officers, they told me that the sustained machine gun fire frightened them badly. GPMGs and anti-aircraft guns produce a very unnerving sound if one is on the receiving end. When we later talked to these officers, who were senior in rank and service, they asked me in Kiswahili which types of weapons we were using? These officers, who had been in the army longer than me, had never had weapons fired at them with the intention of killing them. If anything, they had fired weapons at targets, on range grounds. Now they were witnessing actual combat. The 3rd Battalion continued sustained fire on Lubiri barracks till morning.

In the meantime, the 151 Battalion had overrun the army headquarters (Republic House) and continued to Radio Uganda. In the 1980s the battle for the capture of the one and only national radio in any African country was the ultimate aim of any belligerent force. National radio stations signified the only link between the leaders and the led in Africa. All one had to do was capture the national radio station, and then announce a regime change.

The Okello junta and their cohorts put up a spirited defence of this radio station but our people were more than determined to capture “power”.

While all this was going on, Commander Kasirye Gwanga kept the enemy’s heavy artillery occupied, while 11th Battalion under Comrade Chefe Ali was moving on foot and climbing up Summit View. The Korean experts and UNLA artillery officers never quite knew what hit them. While all their attention was on Mutundwe hill, they found themselves surrounded by infantry soldiers who ordered them to put up their hands. Although it is said that all is fair in love and war, I think a member of the artillery personnel feels betrayed when he is captured by a mere infantry person because, despite the artillery person’s fire superiority, an infantryman sticking the barrel of his small firearm in your face and telling you to give up, renders your fire superiority worthless. A person with just a pistol can capture someone behind a BM 40 mm rocket launcher.

That is what the 11th Battalion infantrymen, under Chefe Ali, did to the UNLA artillery people. They just sneaked up on the UNLA’s artillery positions and disarmed the soldiers. They then radioed Kasirye Gwanga’s people to stop firing. Thus there was a lull in artillery fire but small arms fire continued throughout the day. At around 3.00 p.m. the enemy abandoned Lubiri and comrade Lumumba’s people entered the one-time headquarters of hell in Uganda.

Fred Mugisha had carried out most of the fighting for the capture of Republic House (Bulange). He went on to storm Radio Uganda. Many UNLA soldiers believed that losing Radio Uganda meant losing power. They put up a spirited defence and the battle for Radio Uganda was consequently tough. However, 1st Battalion under Fred Mugisha emerged victorious. The conglomerate of factions which had partitioned Kampala among themselves started fighting one another. The first casualty we saw was Captain Nkwanga, the leader of FEDEMU, whose body we found lying on the roadside near Silver Springs Hotel on Ggaba Road. Apparently, the Okello clique had invited him to the hotel together with other faction leaders for a meeting, but it seems that when he went to attend that meeting he was shot in cold blood by Bazilio Olara Okello. The FEDEMU people started joining us individually and not under any central command. On our part, we welcomed any deserter from the more than five groups that had held Kampala for the six months the junta was in power.

The 5th Battalion under Ahmed Kashilingi was supposed to capture Entebbe International Airport. However, they encountered a bigger force. Apparently, all the former UA personnel and a big group of UNLA had converged in Entebbe. While the 5th Battalion was advancing towards Entebbe town, they met this big force of the enemy, who were trying to vacate the town. Apart from Lake Victoria, there is only one outlet from Entebbe, the Kampala-Entebbe road. Our people met a force of more than 1000 enemy soldiers at Kisubi, about 20 km from Kampala. The enemy broke through the 5th Battalion ranks and advanced towards Kampala.

By then the CHC had set up his tactical headquarters at Bulange, the former Republic House. It was a tense moment since the enemy was now advancing from our flank. The 3rd Battalion under Patrick Lumumba, which had captured Lubiri, was dispatched to hold off the advancing soldiers. It was late, so after a little firefight both sides took cover to wait for morning. The civilian population was very hostile to the withdrawing government forces. In fact, a number of UNLA/UA soldiers were captured and lynched by the civilians. This was the fate of one Lt. Ojok. The poor fellow was captured by angry civilians and burnt to death.

Ironically, this happened in the very same area where a former UPC lady chief had earlier on staged the infamous roadblocks. If there are ghosts, then that place, Kitubbulu, about two kilometres from Entebbe town, must be haunted. The place has always been a withdrawal outlet for government soldiers whenever a coup took place in Uganda. The Libyan soldiers who had come to Uganda in 1979 to beef up Amin’s troops lost many comrades at that location. When Okello overthrew Obote many UNLA soldiers were killed there. Now the withdrawing UNLA soldiers met the same fate there. Even the commandant of Entebbe Air Base, a captain, was gunned down there while withdrawing from Entebbe in his brand-new Mercedes Benz.
His car was looted and then set on fire. The charred remains of that captain and his five bodyguards remained on the roadside for days.

The 3rd Battalion had linked up with the 51st Battalion in Najjanankumbi, just five miles from the Kampala city centre, and they had taken up positions in order to advance at daybreak. I had also linked up with my 1st Battalion and we were meant to advance along Jinja road. We passed through the town and while in Bugolobi, a suburb of Kampala, I remembered our people who were in Luzira Maximum Prison. A group of our soldiers, with the now long-gone Dampa as their guide, had been captured at a roadblock as they tried to escape to join us in the bush in 1981. This group had been travelling by-pickup to our rendezvous in the bush. However, they were captured at a roadblock with all the evidence of deserting soldiers - weapons and uniforms, which had been disguised as luggage. Dampa evaded capture and reported to the bush. This group had been in the condemned section of Luzira Prison for the duration of the war. Among them was Lt. Napoleon Rutambika who had been with us in Monduli. Napoleon was later to serve under me and attend Ghana Armed Forces Staff College (GAFSC) in 1990.

This time I decided to go to Luzira and rescue him, together with 14 or so other privates who were with him.

I left my unit under Fred Mugisha and took along a platoon in order to advance on Luzira Prison. Members of the police and prison services in Uganda are civil servants par excellence and they are never bothered about political changes in the country. Regimes have come and gone but the police and prisons have always been left intact. This time it was no different. The prison officers were ready at the prison quarter guard to salute whoever had become the new leader in Uganda. To the prison officers, their routine was not to be changed an iota. I was saluted smartly by a potbellied prison officer, then asked politely to fill in the quarter guard master book. Then I was escorted courteously to the prison gates. Here we were asked to surrender our weapons to the soldiers outside. No weapon except that of the prison officers is allowed into the cells. I had the capacity to open the prison gates and allow all the inmates out but I did not. I had great respect for the police and prison services, despite the fact that I had been a rebel for five years. I told the prison officers that I only wanted Lt. Napoleon Rutambika and his group.

There is an unsettling feeling when one enters a prison cell.

Huge padlocks are opened, then you enter and immediately the gates are slammed shut behind you. The place was silent and the atmosphere calm. After passing through three gates my two escorts and I were told to stop. We could see many people peeping at us from behind bars. The prison officer called out the name of Napoleon and he came forward. Only Napoleon could explain what he felt when he saw me, but on my part I was speechless. He did not appear as emaciated as I had expected him to be, but in all respects this was a very changed Napoleon. He did not in any way look like the Napoleon Rutambika whom I had known since 1979 and with whom I had trained in Tanzania. All the same, he had maintained his sense of humour. The last gate was opened and Napoleon embraced me, and for some time we just hugged each other without speaking. Then I teased him as to how he, a soldier, could be kept under guard by prison warders, but he just laughed. I told him that I had come to rescue him and the people under his command who were in prison, as well as anybody else. He gave the prisons officers the names of his comrades and they were called out one by one.

Before we left he reminded me of two other prominent NRA supporters who were in prison. These were Lt Col Bigo Byamugyenyi (retired), who had been in charge of formal education in the then Uganda Army. This old man, a relative of mine, had joined the army in the 1960s and was one of the few educated officers in the Uganda Army. That is why he was in charge of formal education till the fall of Idi Amin, when he was locked up as a prisoner of war throughout the time of the Military Commission, the Obote regime and the Okello junta. The second person was Ephraim Rwakanengyere, former commissioner of local police, who had earned himself notoriety during the first Tanzania-based guerrilla invasion of Uganda in 1972, by posing with captured guerrillas and telephoning President Idi Amin while standing at full attention. I added these two gentlemen to the 14 comrades together with Napoleon and took them out of the prison. I had to sign for their safety, which seemed ridiculous. I could not imagine why the prison officers thought that their former detainees felt safer in prison than outside in freedom.

I took the former inmates to Republic House (Bulange) where the CHC’s tactical headquarters was. I handed them to the CHC, who was happy to see them. However, he advised me to return the two gentlemen, Rwakanengyere and Lt Col. Bigo, to Luzira since they had civil cases to answer which had not yet been resolved by the judiciary. I drove these two gentlemen back to Luzira. All the same they were very grateful to me for having secured their release no matter how brief their freedom had been.

That evening the UNLA soldiers in Entebbe started surrendering to us. On 26 January 1986, the troops who had surrendered numbered about 900. The battle for Kampala had ended.


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