By Patrick Kamara
In the very late 1990s, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel force was clearly gaining momentum and stretching the entire Ugandan army along the difficult terrain only the Rwenzori Mountain can offer. They were no longer just at the border points or in the jungle; Jamil Mukulu’s ragtag, Islamic fundamentalist army with its support from Al-Qaeda, were threatening the main towns in the area.
The first major attack had happened in Kasese district in 1996 at the border town of Mpondwe in Bwera. ADF rebels had carried out a major assault on this border post obliterating it and taking prisoners of war as well as killing scores of people. They launched their attack from the neighbouring town of Lubiriha in the DR Congo and it was more like a conventional war.
You could have been excused for thinking the Congolese national army had invaded Uganda because of the numerical strength, arsenal, and organisation of the rebels back then.
They caught the UPDF unprepared with the double-barreled lightning attack, pushed them out of town, and captured the town for five days. It was exactly ten years after President Yoweri Museveni had captured power following a five year guerrilla campaign. Museveni’s army had acquired the aura of invincibility as being one of the best fighting forces in Africa. It was like a phantom force in the bush wars. However here they were running away from the ADF attack in Mpondwe. That was in many ways difficult to comprehend.
In less than a week, the UPDF had managed to repulse the attacking force, push them out of the town and even go on a hot pursuit inside Congo. I think that was the launch of the ADF rebellion in Western Uganda and for the next four years they would cause mayhem in the region maiming, abducting and killing. The Rwenzori region was never the same again.
Years later, the ADF would attack Kasese town itself.
Their main target was the police station which they burned together with more than 30 vehicles at a public night parking space in the heart of Kasese. Even though the rebels were repulsed by the UPDF under the command of Lt. Col. David Kabangira, they had made a huge statement.
Attack on Njara
Sporadic attacks continued in the Rwenzori with occasional killings across all the districts and it was not long before horror returned to the gates of Fort-Portal town.
Apart from Harukooto Hill, where you find the palace of the Tooro kingdom ruler, Rukirabaijja Oyo Nyimba Rukidi IV, Njara hill is the other significant geographical feature in Fort-Portal.
It’s the second tallest hill. All the tall communication masts are located there and, just below it, are the Presidential State Lodge and the huge water tanks that supply the whole municipality.
Gunshots had rocked the area in the wee hours of one Sunday and by morning there was panic in town because some people near this hill were actually already on the run – fearing to get caught in the crossfire. I had to investigate this incident and run a story on radio. I got onto a motorcycle and headed to Njara; the site of the gun battle. Within minutes, I was there.
Atop this Njara hill was a government military unit and I found its commander Sgt. John Bosco Kizza in a jovial mood because he had apparently defended his men and held ground.
I pulled out my Maranz tape recorder and he began narrating to me how his unit hand repulsed the enemy. There was evidence of burned soldiers’ huts and you could tell there had been a fight or scuffle around.
While they had exchanged gunfire with ADF rebels they did not kill any of the attackers. Neither did they suffer any casualties. Sgt. Kizza could account for his men save for the burnt huts or “Mama ingia pole” as they were known.
Although I interviewed the unit commander, the man who had actually repulsed the enemy assault on this strategic location in the periphery of town, the standard newsroom policy of Voice of Tooro FM would have required me to ring the division commander 200kms away in Mbarara to confirm this incident and give me details. I disregarded that because I had been to the source myself and spoken with the foot soldiers and their platoon commander. It’s a decision I later regretted!
Acting independently, since I was the reporter, news anchor, news editor, and editor at Voice of Tooro, the story of an attack on Njara was my lead in the Lunch hour bulletin. I gave details of a gun battle, carried actualities of soldiers describing how they fought back, and talked about the burned huts and how the nearby radio transmitters and the municipality water tank had been saved.
Unknown to me, my description of Njara did not go down well with the soldiers superiors listening to radio from as far as Kasese and Mbarara. I had indicated and correctly so, that the attack happened about 200 meters from the Presidential State Lodge. This rubbed the army top brass the wrong way. Apparently it had showed how close the rebels had come to the seat of power; at least in Western Uganda.
A phone call at the station by Lt. Col. Nyakaitana, then-acting 2nd Division commander, was the first indication to me that I was going to have a long day with the security men. Two hours later the station was surrounded by a dozen or so of soldiers.
“Where is the damn news editor…you can’t run lies as news on this station…this is war, are you giving morale to the rebels…Where is the editor?” One soldier who had come to the newsroom had demanded to know. It was the tough talking Lt. Frank Mutabaazi, an internal security operative attached to Kabarole District. He was breathing fire so to speak.
“I am the news editor and I did that story,” I said as I stepped forward.
You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed.
Even if I had committed an offence, which I had not, I would have expected the police not the army to come calling at the station. However, that was the reality.
“Can you lead us to the scene of that attack and we verify that story…” Lt. Mutabazi asked. I had no option but to oblige. They almost dragged me down the staircases to their waiting Suzuki Maruti car. We sped off along Lugard Road.
There were other soldiers outside on two pickup trucks armed to the teeth. I sat between two soldiers with Lt. Mutabazi in the co-driver’s seat.
Many people had meanwhile gathered on shop verandas along the street, watching in fear and awe. I could see the look of pity in their eyes and I soon realized I was deep in real trouble with the soldiers.
We headed for Njara through Boma. As we drove past the gates of Mountains of the Moon Hotel, one of the soldiers in the car broke the silence.
“Why are we wasting our time fighting rebels in the bush yet people like you Kamara are the real enemies living amongst us?” he asked. I kept silent. He kept on ranting.
Then there came the psychological torture.
“What does it take to do away with you,” he asked. That question still makes an echo into my innermost ear up to today.
We reached Njara military detach and again I spotted Sgt. Kiiza from a distance. The foot soldiers appeared excited to see their senior officers arrive at their encampment after that morning battle. The burned-out huts were still smoldering and the entire platoon was on high alert just in case there was another daring move by the ADF rebels.
“Adui alikua hapa?” Lt. Mutabazi asked in Swahili about whether it is true the enemy had struck.
“ Ndiyo Afande,” was Sgt. Kiiza’s reply in the affirmative.
“Mulimazi wangapi?” Lt. Mutabazi wanted to know how many enemy troops had been put out of action. “Wanshenzi wote walikimbiya,” was the answer, meaning “All the fools had got away”.
It was clear the senior commanders did not want these foot soldiers to even utter a word that there had been an attack but Sgt. Kiiza and his men could not comprehend this. They went on talking about their heroic exploits until they were silenced.
The foot soldiers’ stories confirmed my story and I told Lt. Mutabazi that I was going to report the new developments in my next bulletin.
“Kamara…,” Lt. Mutabazi fumed, “if you continue reporting about this…I can assure you will regret”.
Enter Prime Minister Katuramu
That afternoon former Tooro Kingdom Prime Minister John Sanyu Katuramu was in Fort-Portal. As the Chief Executive of the station I reported for, he also got interested to know where the soldiers had taken me.
He sent his driver one Baba to follow the military pickup truck and the Suzuki Maruti which had taken me. Since we had gone to Njara at the vicinity of the radio transmission equipment part of the radio premises, they could follow us without being questioned.
As I was still getting my warning from Lt. Mutabazi I saw Katuramu’s state of the art Cross Country Mercedes Benz gliding up the hill. They came to where I was and parked their car while they waited for me to finalise my talking with Lt. Mutabazi.
“Don’t continue with that story…that’s my advice to you and your station,” were the last words from the soldier.
Baba drove me back to the office. I still remember that smooth ride in that German made monster machine. It was the first time I had driven in the CEO’s Mercedes Benz. The second and last time I got into his car was in Kampala while exiting King Oyo’s palace at Luthuli Avenue in Bugolobi. That day, it was Katuramu himself driving.
He said something I still remember.
“Kamara,” he turned to me and said, “you are being driven by the prime minister himself…it must be feeling good…you are a big man!” He was joking of course. I did not know how to respond to his jokes.
Anyway back in the newsroom on that horrible day, I was advised to drop the story and I reluctantly did. It made me to think that perhaps the real enemy of the media in Uganda is not politics but the business interest of media owners. Katuramu and the station General Manager Earnest Nkoba had calculated that it was better to bury the truth and continue tapping the advertising revenue from government.
In Uganda back then, you could do an investigative piece about the president and his cronies and you get away with it. You could criticise the most powerful people in political positions and nothing happens. But try doing that to a big corporate establishment and the story would never see the light of day. You could even earn yourself the sack. The big companies, especially the multinationals, were the untouchable cash cows of media houses.