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Uganda Army killings

What is driving soldiers to kill, commit suicide?

Recently, on June 6, Sergeant Isaac Obua, a UPDF soldier attached to Makindye Military Barracks in the southeastern division of Kampala sent the nation in shock when he shot and killed seven people including children. He was shot and killed by his colleagues, probably in an attempt to limit the number of fatalities.

Capt. Edward Birungi, a UPDF officer living in the barracks described Obua’s killing spree as a ‘moment of madness’. He blamed it on alcohol and probably drugs.

But Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the UPDF Spokesperson, said Sgt Obua probably had mental problems that could have led him to shoot people.

“That is what we suspect but we are going to constitute a board of inquiry to establish the facts,” he said.

Before that, in the early morning hours of March 5, Sergeant Christopher Odong, a Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) soldier attached to Soroti Flying School went to have some fun at Shooters Pub, one of the most popular entertainment spots in the eastern town of Soroti.

After swallowing a few beers, he realised his phone was missing. A frantic search ensued with little success.

Odongo left the pub, headed in the direction of his barracks, and returned – with a gun. He shot three people dead and injured nine before fleeing.

A month after, another UPDF soldier, Lance Corporal Moses Katwesigye attached to the 307th UPDF Brigade Barracks in the Southwestern district of Kanungu had shot seven people dead including two of his colleagues—one of whom was his partner.

The incident apparently followed a misunderstanding with his wife. He was arrested and is on trial in the army court martial.

And the list goes on.  Eight incidents have been registered over the last seven months where UPDF soldiers have either committed suicide (two cases) or shot dead civilians and colleagues (13 cases) in the most gruesome manner.

A Military Police officer tries to calm down vendors in Owino Market during a demonstration in Kampala. Most of the time, soldiers work in stressful situations which takes a heavy toll on their mental health. INDEPENDENT/JIMMY SIYA
A Military Police officer tries to calm down vendors in Owino Market during a demonstration in Kampala. Most of the time, soldiers work in stressful situations which takes a heavy toll on their mental health. INDEPENDENT/JIMMY SIYA

Parliament to debate

Concerned about the spate of killings, some MPs want the issue to be discussed in parliament. Kilak County MP Gilbert Olanya told The Independent that, after consulting with the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, he in particular wants parliament to look into the conditions of service of the lower rank soldiers who are committing these killings.

Olanya, who is also the Shadow Minister of Defence, Security and Veterans Affairs, says it appears most of the lower rank soldiers in the UPDF are unhappy with their working conditions. He says they are poorly paid and their conditions of service are bad, yet they have many responsibilities in their families.

“Most of them are dissatisfied and see no hope,” he said, “this could be why some of them run berserk and shoot and kill people.”

Many of the shootings have indeed been linked to domestic quarrels, brawls in drinking places, and failed relationships.

There has recently emerged claims that the army killings have the tell-tale signs of post-traumatic stress disorder—a psychological condition that develops in some people who have been exposed to violent events like military combat or terrorist attacks among others.

Dr. Paul Nyende, a senior lecturer of psychology at Makerere University has been observing the trends over the years and says many of the incidents are related to psychological factors that most members of society and even the army may not easily recognise.

Nyende says military work is generally traumatic and even for a soldier who has never been on the frontline, exposure to mental stress can lead to trauma.

“The working conditions and even the trauma that people in the forces experience could be one of the major reasons for the re-occurrence of this issue,” he says.

Ugandan soldiers have been seeing combat since the 1980s. Many have participated in peace keeping operations since the 1990s, including providing some troops to the UN Mission in Liberia. In the last 10 years, Ugandan contributions to the UN peace keeping have also increased, deploying thousands of soldiers in the Central African Republic, DR Congo and South Sudan as part of a UN-AU Regional Task Force targeting Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

These military engagements, psychologists argue, have not left the UPDF soldiers the same in terms of their mental state.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often has symptoms like depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other physical and mental health problems. The disorder is also associated with difficulties in social or family life; including occupational instability, marital problems, family discord, and difficulties in parenting. But experts in other countries like the USA that are battling PTSD say it is important for the patients to begin treatment early given its complexity.

Without treatment, combat-related PTSD worsens, leaves soldiers feeling out of control and unable to cope with the overwhelming emotions they experience.

Soldiers suffering from combat-related PTSD may distrust in others and mistrust their ability to remain in control around others which leads to social isolation or total isolation. But if a soldier feels as though he or she has no place in the world, the risk of suicide increases. Early treatment is important and may help reduce long term symptoms.

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