By Patrick Kamara
In the late 1990s, 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. They would descend from here to terrorise western Uganda. To flush them out, the government of then-Zaire under President Mobutu Sese Seko allowed the Ugandan army to hunt them down in its vast eastern territory.
Later, the Ugandan forces allied with Rwanda and the anti-Mobutu fighters of the Late Laurent Kabila aka Kabila Snr, to kick out the Zairian dictator in a matter of months.
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. The giant Ilyushin planes were being flown by Russian pilots. I reached the Old Entebbe Airport in the morning as directed by then-military spokesperson Maj. Shaban Bantariza. We were quite a big group of both local and foreign journalists all eager to cover the events in Congo.
The pilots were quite cocky; arriving in a saloon car driving at a supersonic speed before jumping into the aircraft. When they reappeared, they seemed to be doing some mechanical work on the aircraft. Soon, however, they lowered the air-stairs for us and the cargo to go on the plane.
The Russian-built Ilyushin looked quite nice on the outside but when I entered it is when I realised it was old and dirty with sucks of posho and beans as well as other dry rations for the military. There were many white plastic chairs inside and all sorts of things. It looked like the inside of a disused warehouse and here we were, about to fly!
I recall my colleague, Charles Mwanguhya, who had earlier been a reporter at Voice of Tooro but now was reporting for the Daily Monitor, he pulled one of the chairs and sat as we waited for the engines to kick into life and we lift off.
Forget the usual passenger safety information that is given on board. Here we were flying like cargo. The engine kicked into life and slowly we started taxing on the runway. The plane noise was deafening and to talk to a colleague near, one needed to scream.
As we took off, I saw Mwanguhya tumbling down and being tossed to the tail end of the aircraft. He had made a mistake to seat on a plastic chair in the middle of a cargo plane. He himself up and literally crawled back to where the rest of the pack was clutching on anything solid, including any loose hanging wires in the aircraft.
An hour and a half later we were touching down at Bunia international Airport in the Ituri province of the DRC. The landing was equally horrific. As we descended, my eardrums almost burst because of the unregulated cabin pressure. The pain was unbearable and unimaginable. I moaned in silence until Mayanja; a senior journalist then who is now a Democratic Party politician, gave me a tip that instantly stopped the excruciating pain. He told me to block my mouth and nose at the same time and then try to blow air out. I got instant relief!
I always joked with colleagues that, on landing, we hit the tarmac like a meteorite. I heard a loud bang, followed by a whizzing sound, and realized we were speeding on bumpy ground. That is what the Russians built the Ilyushin for; landing in rough terrain. No wonder these were Second World War planes, flying in the 21st century. They were obsolete but the thing could still fly.
Soon after we landed, another cargo plane carrying soldiers appeared. It kept on hovering above. Circling the area and later it disappeared. It could not land because a small aircraft had crash landed at the airport and was at the time still there in the middle of the runway. Apparently there were also cracks on tarmac so it was deemed not safe to land. I am told the plane flew back to Entebbe.
We disembarked and, with no immigration procedures to go through, we were moments later in this town of French and Lingala speaking people.
If it was not for the war, Bunia is a beautiful city. With its Belgian-style of large boulevards, it still has that colonial hangover. The people have large houses that are very different from our Ugandan homes.
One thing that stood out was the resilience of the people in this ancient land of the Congo. They had been through a devastating war, Mobutu’s 30-year dictatorship, and the pillaging of their land by colonialists, and invading forces. Amidst all that you could see Congolese men and women dancing to their local tunes at any time of the day as if all these nasty things had not happened to them.
I remember one monrning; it was very early and the horizon Bunia was still covered in mist when I spotted a young woman walking from her home towards me. She was incredibly beautiful. Tall and slender, with sparkling white teeth, like she was the gazelle of Mbooga.
I tried to greet her in Lingala their native language.
“Sango nini,” I said.
“Sango Malamu,” she replied.
Unfortunately my Lingala language could not go beyond a simple greeting yet here was a lady willing to speak to me. I think she had realised that I was journalist and she wanted to tell her story. I could she was hurting. We looked at each other for a few minutes, and when she started moving away, I asked what her tribe was in Swahili.
“Mimi iko muhema,” she said, meaning she was from the Hema tribe.
What I knew was that the Hema were a people speaking a language very close to Rutooro. For some reason people are always speaking Lingala; a language of no particular tribe which had evolved like Swahili in the East of Congo. People there rarely speak in their languages. Some actually do not even know their mother tongues. I asked her what name was.
“Kabahita,” she revealed.
I realised that maybe I could speak to her in may native Rutooro. So when I spoke in my language and she answered we were both stunned and extremely happy. Even though her language was not exactly the same as mine we could comfortably hold a discussion.
In fact the cattle-keeping Hema people of Congo have similarities with the Hima of Ankole. In Congo they are called Bahema, in Tooro they are called Bahuma, and in Ankole they are the Bahima. People speaking a Rutooro-like dialect are more in Congo than in Uganda.
In a rather trembling voice Kabahita told me the worries of her family and how their kinsmen had been attacked by their neighbouring Lendu community. She was rushing to the nearby church to pray because that is all she could do.
Apparently they had been warned that the Lendu warriors were coming after them. The clash between the cattle keeping Hema and the Lendu had been going on for months. There had been several reports of massacres, rape and total pillaging of the Hema villages. To instill fear in the Hema community there was a rumour circulating that Lendu warriors were cannibals. This was mostly part of their war propaganda to deal a psychological below to their neighbours. I recorded her story and went about looking for the Lendu people to get their views.
But luckily enough there was an organised trip by the UN to Drodro about 80KM from Bunia town. I hoped to balance my story when I got there.
When all of us converged at the UN helicopter, they realised we were too many and they could not take all the journalists and their UN staff. They decided to take international journalists only even though we also claimed we were international journalists since we were not Congolese nationals. That is when one of us tried almost successfully to masquerade as a foreign journalist.
Peter Busomoke, a photo journalist with the New Vision is a very witty gentleman. His knowledge of the French language coupled by the latest technology gargets he carried plus his fair skin complexion gave him an initial pass without a hurdle.
When the Helicopter blades started to rotate we knew Peter had beaten us to the story by his trickery. However, it did not take long before one of the UN staff members recognised him as a Ugandan journalist. He was shown the exit and blamed his woes on us.
We hired a truck and attempted to drive on very rough road to Drodro.
The roads in Congo are incomparable! I think Eastern Congo has the worst roads in the world. This 80Km journey took us several hours passing through densely forested areas. In some places we had to stop and push the vehicle through the muddy road.
We finally reached Drodro the scene of the alleged Lendu attack. I saw gory images that have stuck in my memory bank since that time. An alleged Lendu militia had attacked a hospital in Drodro and hacked to death whoever they found.
They had gone through both the female and male wards plus the pediatrics corner and killed all the patients. The images of pregnant women and children who had been brutally murdered were heart breaking. That day I sat aside in the corner of the hospital and wept! I wept for Congo, wept for Africa and wept for humanity.
We drove back to Bunia but we were all in a sombre mood. There were none of the usual journalists’ jokes. The horror we had seen was beyond imagination. We had flown on a military chartered Cargo plane knowing that we would be back to Entebbe in two days, but that was not to be.
Next week: Read about Brig. James Kazini’s unusual style of fighting the ADF in Bundibugyo.