Dr Kizza-Besigye, now retired army colonel, fled the country in August 2001, citing state harassment and persecution following the disputed presidential elections in March of that year, in which he stood against President Yoweri Museveni. He is the chairman of Reform Agenda, a political pressure group, and is exiled mainly in South Africa. In this thirteenth part of our continuing Bush War Memories series, Besigye a medical doctor, recounts his story of how he worked with hardly any instruments during the bush war.
I was generally not interested in politics in my early life, while going through school. My parents had died (from natural causes) leaving us, six children, to fend for ourselves in a difficult environment.
Since I was the oldest boy, the traditional responsibility of keeping the family together and taking care of the other children through school rested on me. It was a big hassle making ends meet during the time of the “Economic War” declared by Idi Amin’s military regime.
It was the military regime that invaded my cocoon, tore it apart and brought me into direct confrontation with the tyrannical regime. This started in February 1977 when a law degree finalist called Sserwanga was shot dead outside University Hall by soldiers of the Uganda Army. The whole of the Makerere University students’ body decided to demonstrate by marching to Kibuli Secondary School where Sserwanga’s parents lived. The demonstration ended generally well, save for some incidents where vehicles from the military and intelligence tried to crash into the procession to disperse it.
However, that night the university was heavily attacked by soldiers, commanded by Taban Amin, Idi Amin’s son, who had recently enrolled to study English at the university though he had not had any other significant formal education.
Many students were beaten up badly while others sustained serious injuries attempting to jump out of their storied residences. Many girls were raped and brutalized. The day came to be remembered at Makerere as “Black Tuesday.”
Taban Amin was residing in a flat meant for Resident Tutors in Mitchell Hall, which was my hall of residence, and was always moving around swinging a pistol.
All this was horrifying and generated a very serious revolt inside me. About a year later, while I was at the Imperial Hotel Restaurant for dinner with a friend, some two men known to be intelligence officers of the regime beat me up because I had greeted a girl they said was “theirs”.
My biggest frustration was that there was nowhere I could report to seek redress. It became clear to me then that I had no rights and freedoms as a person, and this was completely unacceptable to me.
When at the end of 1978 the Tanzanian government decided to fight the Idi Amin regime, I, like so many other young people, were recruits-in-waiting. It was therefore with a great sigh of relief that the regime was toppled in April 1979. This euphoria did not last long, because insecurity in Kampala continued, and even worsened. Many prominent people were gunned down, including some of our senior doctors at Mulago Hospital.
It was due to all this that as a young medical doctor, I decided that it was important to play a part in the post-Idi Amin political struggles. This is how I became a member of the “Third Force” and Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), which I aggressively campaigned for during the 1980 elections.
The manner in which the 1980 elections were stolen intensified my frustration and sense of dejection. When I learnt that Museveni had declared war on the fraudulent regime, I felt a mixture of hope and distress. I was worried about the violence of another war shortly after the Amin war. It is possible that I may never have joined the war myself if it had not been for another direct assault on me by the regime.
In March 1981, while I was in the lobby of the Kampala International Hotel (current Sheraton Hotel), some two people whom I later learnt were intelligence officers violently arrested me. They produced pistols, kicked and slapped me in the process of forcing me onto a pick up truck that was parked at the main door. I was taken to an illegal detention center at the Nile Mansions (now Nile Hotel), where I was heavily tortured. Many of the people I was with in that cell have never been seen again.
When I was miraculously released and told to continue reporting daily to room 226 of the Nile Hotel, I knew that this was the time to go and if necessary, die fighting for my rights.
I fled to Nairobi assisted by a Ugandan businessman; accidentally meeting with Jim Muhwezi and David Tinyefuza (who had run away earlier) on the Kenyan side of the border, as they tried to make their secret re-entry into Uganda. I was feeling as revolted by the impunity of the regime in Kampala as I was in 1978.
Joining the bush war
I spent one year in Nairobi while looking for connections to join the NRA bush war. During this time, I worked at the Aga Khan Hospital and Kenyatta Hospital, although I constantly followed the developments in Uganda. Eventually, it was Mr. Sam Njuba, then in exile in Nairobi, who got me a person to guide me back to Uganda and on to the bush in 1982.
The journey to the bush was uneventful; traveling by public means all the way from Nairobi to Kampala. We crossed the Malaba border through one of the many unguarded footpaths known as “panyas”, and stayed overnight in Kampala. The rendezvous with the bush guide known as [Benjamin Muhanguzi] Dampa (RIP) was at Ambassador Katenta Apuuli’s residence in Mengo.
We drove in a pick-up truck, dodging the government roadblocks, until we arrived at the headquarters of the National Resistance Army (NRA) then located at a place called Kitemamassanga, near Semuto in Luwero District. The vehicle was parked at the house of an NRA supporter known as Ssonko, and we walked a short distance to the forest where the camp was located.
I was pleasantly surprised by the calmness, orderliness and fairly decent conditions of living at the Mondlane unit, which housed the NRA Headquarters. There were neatly built huts and benches for sitting on, arranged in clusters according to the seniority of the occupants. The ordinary combatants had their quarters, then the Non-Commissioned Officers, the Officers, and the High Command.
I was given accommodation in one of the huts at the High Command, and I met with the Chairman of the High Command (CHC) Yoweri Museveni almost immediately. I had developed a very strong liking and admiration for Museveni because of his bravery and personal sacrifice in fighting tyrants, opposing neo-colonialism and imperialism, and a reputation for honesty and distaste for corruption.
I therefore felt very honoured and inspired to be under his command, and this energized me to offer all I could under my new environment. The other residents of the High Command at the time included Eriya Kategaya, Moses Kigongo, Commander Magara, who was the Overall Commander of the NRA Units, and Gertrude Njuba. The commander of Mondlane Unit was Jack Mucunguzi, and his Command Post was adjacent to the High Command.
Shortly after my arrival, Museveni shifted his quarters to an isolated fortification that was constructed for him in the same forest; and this arrangement, where he stayed apart from everyone else continued thereafter.
Life in the bush
I started military training almost immediately, with a group of mainly young university graduates, who included Aronda Nyakairima (now Lt General and Commander of the Army) and Benon Biraaro (now Brigadier and Chief of Staff). I enjoyed the training. I also started offering medical services to the officers and combatants as soon as I arrived in the bush. This was a completely new experience, as I had to deal with serious surgical and medical cases with almost no facilities.
I was the anaesthetist, nurse and surgeon during operations. The only assistants I had were to help in fighting off the swarm of insects that would be attracted by the open wounds, to boil and re-boil our few surgical instruments, or to hold down the patients wriggling with pain from inadequate or absence of anaesthesia.
I stayed and worked from the NRA “Mobile” Headquarters most of the time during the war. I was specifically responsible for the medical services of the “mobile” forces, while my colleague (later Colonel) Dr. Ronald Batta (RIP) was responsible for the Medical Headquarters and Sick Bay.
My responsibility, therefore, required me to be a part of all the major military operations, like the attack on Hoima town in June 1983, Masindi in February 1984, Kabamba in January 1985, and Mubende in 1985.
Most of the battles, however, were conducted by smaller mobile units which were designated as “A” Coy commanded by (now Brigadier) Steven Kashaka, “B” Coy under (now Major General) Joram Mugume, and “C” Coy under (now Colonel) Pecos Kuteesa. The commander of these mobile forces was the late (Maj. Gen) Fred Rwigyema, assisted by Commander Salim Saleh (now Lieutenant General).
There were three small zonal forces- Lutta Unit in the areas of Kapeeka under Commander Barihona; Kabalega Unit in the areas near Kiwoko under Commander (later Colonel) Stanley Muhangi (RIP) and Commander Kaggwa; and Nkrumah Unit in the areas of Ssingo under Commander Tadeo Kanyankole (RIP).
The most difficult period was during the year-long government offensive under Brig. David Oyite Ojok which started in December 1982 until his fateful helicopter crash in November 1983. The greatest majority of the people who died in the Luwero triangle died during this time, many succumbing to hunger and diseases like dysentery. The vast savannah grasslands of Ssingo and Ngoma were littered with dead bodies, especially of children and the old. It was very painful for me to meet the civilians in those conditions- hungry, sick, naked and desperately hopeless.
I met an old lady I had known before the offensive and was completely overwhelmed with grief. Her name is Malita Namayanja, and she had struck me by her kindness, hard work and determined support of the war. She had one cow called “Tusuubira” (we are hopeful) which she looked after like a child, and it reciprocated by giving her a lot of milk. She would dilute the milk many times over, and prepare “tea” with it for all soldiers who stopped by.
When I met her in Ssingo, Tusuubira had been stolen, and she was in a very depressing state. Contrary to our instructions, I decided to bring Malita and her niece to our camp, and she was to remain with me for the whole duration of the war. She now leaves in Kampala and is popularly known as “Mama Chama.”
Hazardous boat trip
In 1985, after the Kabamba operation, I accompanied the CHC (Y.K. Museveni) to Nairobi, traveling across Lake Victoria. This was a very difficult journey, and our small boat nearly capsized during a heavy storm. We were in the middle of the lake with no island in sight, and we had no life jackets. We all sweated profusely for more than an hour to keep the boat afloat. The boat was manned by Commander Andrew Lutaaya, assisted by Paddy (RIP) and Busaggwa(RIP), and I think we owe our survival in part to their heroic battle against the storm.
I left Museveni in Gothenburg, Sweden, where his family was, and had to return urgently to Luwero carrying an operational message. The journey back was difficult too, because after Lutaaya landed me back onto the Mukono shores of Lake Victoria with my rifle, I failed to link up with Commander Sserwanga Lwanga as planned and it was quite scary. Having luckily linked up with him later that night, we had to run about 40 miles to Namugongo where we had the only stop-over, and in order to meet the deadline given to me to get to Commander Saleh.
Through those difficult years, we fought the good fight. We fought for what was right and our struggle succeeded.
After the capture of state power in 1986, I served as Minister of State in the Office of The President, Minister of State for Internal Affairs, National Political Commissar, Member of the Army Council, Member of the High Command, Member of the NRC (the Parliament) and the Constituent Assembly.
I served as Commander of the Mechanised Regiment, Army Chief of Logistics and Engineering and Military Advisor to the Minister of State for Defence, before retiring in 2002.
All in all, I faired reasonably well during the war because of being very flexible, eating anything and everything, sleeping easily in any conditions and relating easily with all types of people. Above all, I was totally committed to the struggle, and my spirit was unbreakable. Unfortunately, having gone through the difficult resistance war in which many people lost their lives, I am increasingly getting a sense of déjà vu, while looking at the NRM actions in government.
The violent rigging of elections have become the order of the day. Taban Amin is back in the security system. Protesting Makerere students have been gunned down. Illegal detentions in “safe” houses are the norm. Plunder and unprecedented corruption are standard. During the 2001 presidential elections, I witnessed the violent arrest of Hon. (Major Rtd) Okwiri Rabwoni, which was very reminiscent of my own arrest in 1981. I have had to cross the borders through the “panyas” again. The struggle is on. God save our country.