By Patrick Kamara
The story of the September 26, 1998 crash in the Rwenzori mountain ranges of an aircraft carrying Lt. Col. Jet Mwebaze and others from the DR Congo had been broken by Andrew Mwenda in The Daily Monitor. I wanted to do it better as I was nearer to the scene of the crash. My excited heart had been pumping with extra adrenaline since I heard from a military source at Muhoti Barracks and also from Andrew Mwenda, then Daily Monitor senior reporter, that the light Kenyan aircraft had disappeared off radar.
This was as at the height of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) insurgency led by Jamil Mukulu in the western parts of Uganda and the DR Congo and the Rwenzori Mountain jungle was infested with the insurgents.
Finding this wreckage and unraveling the mystery surrounding the colonel’s trip to the Congo at the height of the ADF insurgency was going to be the biggest story in this part of the world.
Without a passenger manifest to show who the passengers, crew, and cargo of the ill-fated plane were, I would be following rumours. Some suggested that on board were an Israeli businessman and Ugandans involved in the illegal trade. There had been rumours that the plane had been brought down by ADF’s Surface-to-Air missiles and that Col. Jet was carrying a plane-load of gold and diamond from the mineral rich Congo. Jet, as he was fondly known, was a decorated bush war guerrilla fighter of the liberation war that had brought President Museveni to power. I had heard so many stories of his bravery. His daring adventures could sometimes border on madness. He was also the young brother to Maj. Gen. James Kazini who at the time was the Chief of Staff of the Uganda army.
Gold or no gold, my editor needed that story and was relying on me to bring him the first pictures of the plane wreckage.
With my childhood friend Joseph Kash and our driver Milton Mwesige we made a plan of how we could get to the mountain top via Kisomoro off Fort-Portal Kasese road.
As a young broadcast journalist, I thought, this was the moment and the story to catapult me in the major league of reporters in Western Uganda.
So there was no turning back despite this area being infested with deadly ADF rebels.
Another incentive for me was that the official external broadcaster of the U.S. government, Voice of America radio, was relying on journalists like me to cover the bigger stories breaking out from western Uganda and the Ituri region of Eastern Congo.
About 30 kilometres from Fort-Portal town towards Kasese, we branched off at Kisomoro trading centre; a ghost town if you like because majority of the people had fled the ADF war. We took a road through a village called Kitumba and we left our car near an abandoned primary school known as Kinyampanika.
The Rwenzori is Uganda’s highest mountain. We had known climbing it would be tough and had carried our dry ration and in this case I mean bread, roasted cassava and bottles of mineral water. But as soon as we started, we realised we had underestimated the task. Climbing was a lot tougher without trekking routes. But with our youthful energy, we were determined that nothing was going to stop us from being the first journalists to reach the crash site.
Unlike me, my colleague Kash was well built, short and stocky with a six-pack tummy. We believed that when pushed to the limits of human endurance, he would go much farther.
Our driver Milton Mwesige whom we thought would stay in the car down below had changed his mind suddenly and joined us. Surely who could say no to good company on a trek to the jungle like this one? The potbellied Milton after all traced his ancestral roots from near this mountain. We thought we could rely on him for the terrain intelligence.
The few people we met could not believe us. “Are you crazy….,” one man asked us, “You will not return…the fools will kill you.”
He meant the marauding ADF rebels who were ferociously battling the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
I looked at the old man and decided not to tell him what we were after because, I thought, he would never understand. Instead, I assured him that we would return. As we trekked passed abandoned gardens and houses, it became clear that we, as town kids, had no idea what the jungle on this mountain was like. It was going be a grueling trek through an unforgiving terrain.
We walked on, leaving any form of human civilisation behind us.
Occasionally our quiet trek would be interrupted by the sound of scavenger birds hovering above while we navigated our way into the bushy undergrowth. We occasionally came across tracks of wild animals.
At one time I was surprised to see a baboon was staring me down from just a few meters. It jumped into tall grasses and disappeared as we approached. I was scared. Could it have been fleeing away from other predators; a lion or leopard?
Six hours into the journey, we met a group of young men. We were scared to death. Could they be ADF rebels? But they calmed us when they said they were picking wild coffee berries and we naively believed them.
After telling them our mission, they offered to guide us to the wreckage of the plane. One of them said he had been to the site with a group of hunters. In fact, he showed us a book he claimed he had picked from the wreckage. It was a book on aviation. In this remote jungle, I thought, this was to be the seal of our partnership.
We continued the journey. But now fatigue was setting in. We were slow and I was even slower. Everybody walked ahead of me and this continued for another hour. As we walked, I could only hear the voices of my team. I was unable to catch up. So they decided to wait for me.
It is then it downed to me that we were in “enemy territory” about to offer ourselves for slaughter. I started feeling uncomfortable with the new faces in our group. Why were they offering to guide us for free in a harsh terrain that is sucking life out of us?!
As “mission commander”, I told the group to take a rest and have lunch. I decided to share with these now suspicious looking characters. The trick was to understand them better or at least bond. Even a dangerous criminal can be won over. But I concluded again that they were innocent. I was wrong. I discovered this when soon we resumed our journey.
It was Milton Mwesige, who was ahead, who started complaining of a burning sensation in his back. The he said he was feeling it all over the body. He soon sat down.
“I will not make it up,” he said, “I think you will find me here on your way back.”
I had to decide whether to leave a weak, trembling man in the middle of nowhere or to abandon the mission and we carry him down the hill or just continue. Milton seems to have read my mind.
“I will slowly walk down…you must not abandon your story,” he said, stood up, and started walking downhill. So we too continued up.
Less than half a kilometre away, we were to get another casualty.
The strong and stocky Joseph Kash was after all not strong as we had thought. Because he had moved ahead I found him lying under a jacaranda tree, sweating and panting.
“I have never told you this,” Kash started, “I have a heart problem…I think am getting a heart attack!” This was like a terrible blow.
After Milton, and now with Kash lying almost motionless, our so-called mountain guides announced they were continuing without us. That was very strange to me. Whom are they guiding, I asked myself. I removed my sweat drenched shirt and started to use it to fan fresh air for Kash.
“It is over,” I said, “We can’t continue…what a pity!”
On hearing that, Kash miraculously regained consciousness. He stood up and started to move downhill at a brisk pace as if nothing had happened to his heart. That is when I realised that Milton and Kash were not tired or sick at all. They had been overcome by fear. Soon we met a platoon of Uganda army soldiers walking in a fighting stance. I realised immediately that something was wrong. They ordered us to identifying ourselves and we did. That is when they told us they were pursuing “three dangerous ADF rebels”. Immediately I recalled our guides. Could be a coincidence or were these the dangerous rebels? The soldiers told us how the group had days earlier ravaged the low-lying villages and fled after committing atrocities. When later we met a native of the area, he confirmed he had also recently survived abduction. Their trick, we were told, was to move with us until we reach their weapons. Then they would have captured us. They had, apparently used this trick on other people. I realized how narrowly we had survived. We needed to get out fast. Surprisingly walking down the mountain is very painful especially if one has spent good hours climbing up. You get a muscle pull kind of strain. We reached our car in the evening. While still at Kanyampanika School we heard that sound of helicopter gunship commonly known as Surambaya. It hovered above us and finally landed at the school playground.
Brig. Lakara arrives
We waited to see who was disembarking. It was the new Second Division Commander, Brig. Nakibus Lakara. He was a smart, tall, and fearless-looking soldier from the Karimojong tribe. I tried to get close and ask for an army escort to return to the crash site. But he could not even let us talk to him. It was impossible even to get near him.
In Kinyampanika village there was a hunter who had apparently reached the site. We sat with Muhindo for an interview. He was surely our only link to the story. We returned to the newsroom in Fort-Portal late at night and started filing our story.
Andrew Mwenda and the VOA journalist Shaka Sali called me that evening and I gave them the version of a tough terrain that had made it impossible for us to continue and reach the crash site. I also gave them accounts of the native hunters that had reached the site.
Two weeks later, the body of the late Jet Mwebaze was discovered at the banks of River Nyamwamba. He had a wound, supposedly from a gunshot. It surprised many that the colonel still had his pistol. One woman survived the accident.
This reminded me of the history about the adventures of the Belgian King, Leopold II, in the Congo where, through explorers like Henry Morton Stanley, he had managed to control a big chunk of land seventy times bigger than his kingdom.
At the hands of greed explorers and adventurists, the Congo had suffered untold pain. Her people around the river Congo were killed, women raped and resources plundered.
The quest for rubber and the construction of a railway line had caused devastation. Leopold had tried to own Congo as a private property for him to plunder or even sale as he wished.
Meanwhile Leopold and his liar acquaintance, Stanley, had hoodwinked the whole world that they were doing humanitarian and developmental work in central Africa. In reality they were the real savages maiming and killing as they wished.
For more than one hundred years, the Congolese were at the mercy of the Belgian colonialists and their European helpers. Then the plundering had changed from the Belgian colonial masters to one mad man by the name of Mobutu Sese Seko who ruled Congo for another 30 years.
This mineral rich vast country had been so unlucky to be controlled by greedy and inhumane characters for more than a century. After the fall of president Mobutu, with a little bit of a push from Ugandan and Rwandese military, the country had been pushed even farther into a theatre of war that sucked in armies of more than eight countries. By 1998, eastern DR Congo which is rich with minerals had been lawless for many years. This is where it is believed Jet Mwebaze and his associates had rushed for gold and other gem stones.
No wonder, years later, Ugandan army generals and their Rwandan counterparts were to face UN accusations of plundering the resources of the Congo. Uganda still faces a US$10 billion reparation charge to be paid to DR Congo for allegedly plundering her minerals. That was the state of affairs in the DR Congo when Jet Mwebaze’s plane crashed. Col. Jet was missed by the youth of his native Kasese town where he had spent hours in their company; in bars and clubs enjoying the evenings. There is a particular group he had even taken to the DRC in the middle of the war.
When he died, the story goes; the other commanders simply gave them guns and sent them to the frontline. They were civilians with no military training whatsoever.
“Who are these people in a war zone?” the commander had asked, “If they are not soldiers, why are they here? Send them to the frontline.”
They fought. Some died. Those that survived were conscripted into the military. I know of one boy from a prominent family in Kasese that has since risen in ranks in the national army.