By Patrick Kamara
Katojo is one of the biggest government correctional facilities or prison in south western Uganda. Located about seven kilometres from Fort-portal town it is sandwiched between the Muhoti Military Barracks and one of the deepest crater lakes in East Africa, Saka. This is also the home of Mountains of the Moon University.
It is within this location where Tooro’s only airfield is located. The prison, I must say is located in pristine environment; cold, evergreen, and gentle rolling hills. I always wondered why this was the place chosen for a prison and not in the other barren and ragged areas of Tooro…for example (I don’t want to offend anyone) the rocky Kyaka now known as Kyegegwa district.
The Batooro who opposed the idea of a prison being built in their homeland am told they would always blame it on the late John Babiiha; the only Mutooro who managed to reach vice presidency level in Ugandan politics. They claimed and I think unfairly that when the colonial government had asked what they could do in Tooro, John Babiiha suggested they could build a state of the art prison.
Anyway this facility is almost a stone throw away from Babiiha’s ancestral home. May be that is why people associated it with him. What I know, however, is that Babiiha was a great man who transformed the agriculture ministry. In my opinion there is no government official who impacted on the agricultural ministry in Uganda than him! But that is not why I am writing this.
Instead, one morning I woke up to the sound of gun fire coming from the west of Fort-Portal. Ever inquisitive to know what was going on but also scared that the war had reached the gates of my town so to speak, I sneaked around for information.
It was scanty and indicated that the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel fighters of Jamil Mukulu had attacked the government prison and released all their colleagues who had been captured by the government and locked up there. Many had been arrested and jailed on charges of treason. I decided to get to Katojo as soon as possible.
There was always a bodaboda motor-cycle taxi hire stage at the entrance of Voice of Tooro FM station. One of those lads would always come early to transport people going to the bus park at the break of dawn. I knew he was there and was not wrong.
We went through Kabudaire at day break and less than ten minutes later we were approaching the gates of Katojo.
Hard core criminals had been set free, this was a dangerous place. There were claims they had taken the arms with them because they had broken into the armoury.
I saw the usually closed heavy metallic doors widen open. There was smouldering fire in some buildings and smoke. I saw one elderly prisoner who had survived the onslaught.
“Everybody is gone,” he said, “It was hell on earth here; I am lucky to be alive.” A few inmates, some in the condemned section, had also survived. The ADF rebels had not spotted them because Katojo is a complex facility with many cells within.
But my mind was on three people, my nephew Lt. AmonLutenta who had been arrested on charges of inciting mob justice. He had been around when a group of angry people attacked a family they considered to have collaborated with the rebels. There was loss of life in that incident.
As a retired army officer and secretary for security at the district, he was arrested by the police even when he pleaded innocence. So he was on remand in Katojo. The other two were my former workmates Milton Mwesige; the driver, and the General Manager of voice of Tooro, Ernest Nkoba.
As luck would have it, these three people had also survived the rebel onslaught. An elderly inmate led me to their cell. They were scared to death. I looked at the haggard Milton Mwesige first and then Nkoba and later Lt. Lutenta.
They wanted me to give them news about what happened within their prison compound and I told them the little I had gathered. All of sudden there was sound of gunfire everywhere. I hid in one of the bathrooms for a few seconds. Now, here I am caught in the gunfire inside prison walls!
The rebels return
At that moment, I concluded, the inside of the prison was safer than outside. When the shooting subsided one person came running inside. He said the rebels were coming back to free more of their comrades and hence the gunshots. You should have seen us at that moment. Lt. Lutenta was in the cell kicking the walls wondering why the prison guards had not set them free in such circumstances. He was pacing around. Meanwhile the firing continued. “Oh my God…Uncle they are going to kill you in my presence,” he said. He said he was afraid that when the rebels arrived, they would hack me to pieces there and then.
So he directed me to a little room near their cell where he said I could possibly hide safely. I headed there, squeezed in, and attempted to stay as quiet as a lizard.
This time the Lutenta’s survived the attack by standing upright on the wall to the side of the entrance. When the rebels looked through the door in a hurry they had thought it was empty. They did not even see Mwesige’s protruding stomach. He must have held his breath for some minutes to survive.
Outside, the shooting continued. But we later realised that the firing was after all being done by trigger happy UPDF soldiers down in the valley in hot pursuit of rebels.
I tip toed out of my hideout only to be questioned by prison guards who had returned but were not there when I was entering. I identified myself but still they were not contented they took me to their commander whom I knew.
I wanted to interview him for my story and at the time a number of other local journalists had arrived at the scene. We sat in his office and as he started explaining what had happened, hell broke loose, there was shooting again.
All of us, including the prison guards, went down on the floor for cover. This obese prison guard was on top of me while trying to shout orders I could not comprehend. The shooting was just outside the prison. He declined to continue with the interview, it was insecure.
One prison guard started narrating to us how he had survived the rebels.
“Okello and I… were chased by rebels….I swear Okello jumped that perimeter wall…I tried and tried but I could not jump it. Then I saw Okello running on the edge of the wall….I think he wanted to jump down. I hid in the water tank that was half full just before a barrage of bullets was fired at Okello….by the way did he survive…..?” He was still panting breathlessly as he narrated. Clearly, he believed he had survived by a whisker.
The attack on the prison and the freeing of these ADF prisoners just few meters from a military barracks was a blow to the army and may be a morale booster to the rebels. There was no doubt this was one daring move.
The late Maj. Katende who was a commanding officer at the time looked like he had been embarrassed by the rebels move. He was a shy man with very few words. Katende had a weakness for the bottle and women. He would go drinking up to late in the night and you would always see him in the company of skimpily dressed women. His trembling hands made him look like he was suffering from Alzheimer’s but I think it was because of the excessive booze that also gave him red eyes. I wondered how he had attained the rank of major. Everybody was wondering how an attack like that could have happened near the notorious Muhoti barracks!
That evening the ADF spokesman Rogers Kabanda called me bragging about their military prowess.
I engaged him in an objective discussion fearing that just in case anyone is tapping the conversion I should not be caught unaware. He told me he would attack the neighbouring Harugongo village in a few days. I wondered why because the area had no military significance. Sure enough he made good of his deadly