By Patrick Kamara
April 6, 2002 is a day that Thomas Dyilo Lubanga, then-Congolese rebel leader with over 15,000 fighters in the Eastern DR Congo city of Bunia will never forget. At the time, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) fighting President Yoweri Museveni’s government had their bases inside the Democratic Republic of Congo. In areas of Mungwallo, Kasenyi, Butembo, and just around the western side of the Rwenzori mountain which stretches into the DR Congo.
Earlier in the late 1990s, the government of then-Zaire under President Mobutu Sese Seko in Kinshasa had allowed the Ugandan army to hunt down the ADF inside its vast territory of Congo. However this pre-emptive strike on rebel forces in Zaire ended into the toppling of the government of Mobutu who had been in power in the mineral-rich country for three decades. A combined force of anti-Mobutu fighters led by the Late Laurent Kabila aka Kabila Snr, supported by the Rwandan and Ugandan armies had finished off the Zairian dictator in a matter of months. But Uganda and Rwanda soon developed misunderstandings with Kabila Snr. and started supporting armed groups to oust him. Zaire, now renamed DR Congo, became unstable and a safe haven for myriad rebel armies in the region.
I had felt I needed to go to the DR Congo and see it for myself and it was not long before I was aboard an old Russian-made cargo plane to Bunia in the DR Congo. I and other journalists had flown on a military chartered Cargo plane knowing that we would be back in Uganda in two days but that was not to be.
The UPDF was largely in control of all the strategic areas of Bunia including the city centre and the airport. There was a sizeable number of the Ugandan army in town. Gen. Kale Kayihura, who is now the Inspector General of Police, was then a brigadier and in command.
Just outside Bunia town, Thomas Lubanga, the president and military commander of the anti-Kabila Patriotic Force for the Liberation of the Congo (FPLC) had tens of thousands of soldiers. Lubanga who was at one time military commander of the pro-UPDF Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML) under Mbusa Nyamwasa but he had become sidelined, split and formed his own group. He had become weary of the UPDF and no longer wanted Kayihura’s men in the Ituri region whose capital was Bunia.
Sexy Congolose women
Lubanga was a tall guy with a very imposing presence. He was either revered by the people or they feared him so much. He always wanted to be addressed as his “Excellency the president”.
He had always harboured a plan to fight the Ugandan army out of Congo. When Brig. Kale Kayihura was sent there as new commander, Lubanga was preparing for war. He understood the deployment of Kayihura to mean preparation for war.
He quickly summoned Brig. Kayihura to appear on a local radio and announce he was not there for war. Kayihura obliged. In fact, Kayihura understood that they were going to be attacked anytime but did not show any panic. However, his addressing Lubanga as “His Excellency” did not go down well with some of his men. They thought their commander should not salute or even show respect to a rebel leader. On this occasion, Kayihura showed himself to be a master of disguise, deception and hoodwinking. He presented himself as weak in the event of a rebel attack as if he was under their mercy yet he had superior weapons and was digging in and was on high alert.
Lubanga ordered Kayihura to withdrawal the UPDF unit that was in the middle of town and gave a deadline or else he strikes. Kayihura obliged. However his soldiers were angry that their commander was taking orders from Lubanga.
Lubanga organised a group of Congolese women to sing anti-Ugandan songs to the withdrawing forces. The dancing women sang abusive words like:
“Look at the cowards retreating,
Ugandan men are so weak
They can’t even sexually satisfy a Congolese woman.”
“…Mboro zenyu kafupi…afazali wanyarwanda…” they sang in Kiswahili meaning “you have short penises, at least Rwandan men”.
One of the withdrawing Ugandan soldier begged Kayihura to allow them to fight back.
“…Waca tumalize awo washenzi” he was saying meaning “Lets finish off these stupid people”. But Kayihura urged them to keep calm. He told them the time will come to fight back.
Kayihura calculated that there was a huge advantage in the withdrawal for the heavily outnumbered Ugandan soldiers. They were reducing the points of attack and they were going to be concentrated in one place, moreover, Bunia Airport. Here they had superior weapons and would be assured of reinforcement if that need arose.
When they were finally all at Bunia Airport, I realised that Kayihura’s men had something up their sleeves. They had been digging trenches ready to respond to any attack. Kayihura had ordered them never to carry big weapons like machine guns when moving in Bunia town. Some had developed a habit of wrapping chains of sub-machine gun bullets around their chests.
“…Nyinyi mukuwe kama cui” he told them meaning “behave like leopards in the jungle and don’t show your power unless you are provoked”.
I had heard stories that soldiers who show bravado externally by wrapping themselves in leaves and other elaborate camouflage, smearing themselves with red earth, or carry bullet chains on their chests are the kind who flee fastest after the first bullet of battle.
Lubanga’s poor intelligence
Despite Kayihura’s withdrawal, on April 6, 2002, Lubanga’s men launched an attack on the UPDF at Bunia Airport. Lubanga had poor intelligence and thought he was taking the UPDF by surprise. The UPDF response was swift and deadly on the poorly armed Congolese rebel soldiers.
They were outgunned and out-manoeuvred in a battle that lasted six hours. When it cooled, Lubanga’s forces had been pushed about 70Kms outside town. The Ugandan army took control of this area until it was handed over to the Uruguayan contingent of the UN peacekeeping force.
That night there dancing and singing because of the victory. There was a rumour circulating in Bunia that the UPDF had gotten help from the Eritrean army. It was not plausible. Probably that was the only battle in the Congo debacle that the UPDF won outright. The other battles had happened years earlier in Kisangani with the Rwandan army where UPDF lost a lot of men and equipment as well as the media propaganda.
We stated in DR Congo for a long time.
The DR Congo war was brutal. Many fighters and civilians died. There was mass rape, killings, and torture of civilians by Lubanga’s men and reprisal attacks amongst the Lendu and the Hema ethnic groups.
Lubanga had even recruited child soldiers that were trained to terrorise the communities in Ituri region. While the Hema were fighting for their ethnic survival against the Lendu, Lubanga had a political agenda and was looking at Kinshasa as the top prize in his war effort.
In the mix were the ADF that the Ugandan army was hunting while there were always geopolitical interests from the neighbouring countries in the background. With vast mineral resources in a lawless region the stakes were really very high.
Lubanga was later indicted by the International Criminal Court and arrested on charges of crimes against humanity and conscripting child soldiers into his rebel ranks. He made history when he became the first person to be sentenced by the ICC after ten years of its existence.
I had a habit of moving with my rucksack with all my essentials and it paid off in Bunia. After spending many days in then Congo, I saw a light aircraft descend on the airport. It turned out that this Ugandan Eagle Air chattered plane was there to pick a senior UN staff that had fallen sick. As soon as it landed a UN ambulance drove to the tarmac. They had an elderly man who had a problem of high blood pressure. He had to be flown to Uganda for specialised medical attention.
Suddenly the pilot asked: “Is there anybody going to Entebbe?”
“Here I am,” I said. There were two or three other people including the Daily Monitor photo journalist Eddie Chico. They wrote our names and we boarded the plane – just like that!
An hour and half later, past 8pm in the night, we landed at the Old Airport in Entebbe in a heavy downpour. It was tricky walking from that place by then it looked bushy from the military airbase to Kitoro where I picked a taxi to Kampala.
Gen. Aronda’s politics
A few months later in April 2003, the UPDF had to withdraw from Congo leaving the area in the hands of the Uruguayan forces. The withdrawal of such a big force takes time and it is also a carefully planned military operation. As troops withdraw, they can be vulnerable to attack. So they have to be guarded and the routes secured.
The last batch of the UPDF soldiers Uganda entered through Bundibugyo after crossing the Semliki River. One soldier perished on the river when he fell off the boat.
There was a ceremony for the 59th battalion in Rwebisengo sub-county to mark the total withdrawal of the UPDF from Congo. As a journalist I was on the list to fly in a military helicopter gunship to Bundibugyo with Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, who in June 2003 was the newly appointed army commander Gen. Aronda Nyakairima.
We went early to Entebbe airport and waited for Gen. Aronda who came in a fast moving convoy of cars and his gun wielding men. Immediately he reached we set off to Bundibugyo.
I remember flying over the hills of Mubende when the aircrafts was hitting turbulence and somehow everybody was craning to check the weather. At one point I realised my head was brushing against another person. Little did I know that here I was unknowingly competing with the army commander to look through the window. Then I recalled how he had arrived at the airport with all that pomp and security detail but then here, in the turbulent sky, we were all equally vulnerable. It showed me how all power is vanity.
We flew without an incident and landed in Rwebisengo where the last withdrawing force of the Ugandan army was camped. How times change!
You should have seen the former External Security Organisation (ESO) boss, David Pulkol, working the army crowd with his rare gift of the garb. He praised the 59th battalion for having prevailed in the Congo battles. That day Pulkol bought a bull to slaughter for the soldiers.
I recalled this when I met him seven years after his “Damascus turn around” to become a critic of the regime in Kampala having joined the opposition Uganda Peoples’ Congress. I asked why he was so venomous in his views about his former boss, President Yoweri Museveni’s NRM and yet he could not have seen the same pitfalls when he still served the party.
“Bwana,” he said, “Its different man…it is like when you are flying you cannot understand issues on ground unless you get down.”
One other thing was evident. Gen. Aronda speaks like a politician on a campaign podium while addressing his troops. But that is a story for another day. After Gen. Aronda had addressed the troops and had thrown them a party, it was time to fly back to Entebbe.
As we hoped on the chopper, I remember Henry Baguma; a journalist with Uganda Broadcasting Cooperation who had moved around to get that extra sound bite, was left behind. I saw the agony in his eyes as we lifted off. He was too late; the helicopter doors had been closed.