Col. Kasirye-Ggwanga’s recollection of the 1981-’86 war continues our Bush War Memories series. From his house in Makindye, Kampala, the former LC-V chairman of Mubende told his story to Bernard Tabaire & David Kibirige on May 25: -
I joined the bush war out of anger. After 1979, they took us [Amin soldiers] as prisoners of war. We were surprised because those exiled [Ugandans] who were with the Tanzanian army had sent messages that we shouldn’t run away because they needed us to start a new army. So we never ran away.
We surrendered our weapons here in Kampala after fighting a heavy fight. I was in Chui Battalion. I was commanding heavy mortars. I fought against Kikosi Maalum in Lukaya and we chased them up to Mpugwe – about 9 miles from Masaka. Then the Tanzanians again came – [with] Saba Saba. Most of our boys were not used to it.
[Anyway] I had already read about the Geneva Conventions. I knew when you were a POW there is nothing that can happen to you. So we surrendered. They told us that they were taking us for training. But we got suspicious when we got to Kyotera. That’s when they started undressing us. We had good shoes. They took them. We said, ‘Okay, if we are going for training why are they doing this to us?’
When we got to a prison in Bukoba [in Tanzania], we found some of our friends who had gone in first. After three days they shackled us – legs and arms. I told my friends we were in trouble. Most were so naïve. They said, no, no, no they are just shackling us for security. Security, my a***! They [the Tanzanians] drove us to the Indian Ocean into a prison called Maweni. We spent there one year and some 42 days.
Then in June 1980 they brought us back to Uganda. I was transferred to Kirinya (we were more than 1,600. From Tanzania we returned about 2,900. Only one person died there).
In Tanzania we were treated good. But when we got here, we used to eat maybe twice a week and people started dying. Everyday an average of nine people died. We said, ‘They are killing us. Why are they putting us here?’ We were young. I went to prison when I was 27 years old. [Yet] we were growing old, sick. We started getting really mad. We said this was unfair. We were just serving – like any other person in the army.
I joined the army in 1972 and trained in Bombo. I was posted to Kifaru Mechanised in Bondo, Arua. I never worked in central region. We in upcountry battalions never knew what was happening here – people being put in the boot. So we were asking people with us in prison, those who were in State Research, in the marines, ‘what were you doing here for Gods sake? Why do they hate us?’
It started after losing the  war. People were shouting, agasajja ago bagatte. Then we started dying one by one. I don’t have friends here. All my friends died. They were not tough like me. I told them you got to work out every morning. That little food you eat should be assimilated. If you don’t work out, you just s*** it. They didn’t believe me. Like people say Kasirye is a mad person, is what happened – and they died! And I got out. We were released on October 7, 1981.
So here we were released with one trouser. I had a t-shirt with a cap given to me by the Red Cross and canvass shoes. Releasing us to where? To the wilderness! Like me I was working in the north (West Nile) when I went to war. All my property remained there. I never got nothing back. They gave us Shs 100.
They were taking us to district headquarters. I come from Mubende so they took me to Mubende. The next morning I arrived home in Katakala in Mityana. My parents made a party – slaughtered a bull and invited people. The UNLA soldiers came and ate most of the meat. I was there. Amin’s soldier. I couldn’t say anything!
Then I told my dad, ‘Look here father, I can’t stay here. I feel uncomfortable. These guys have known there is an Amin man who has been released from prison. Suppose they come back at night and pick me up? Let me go to Kampala.’
All the relatives were uncomfortable with us – having an Amin man in the house. When I got to Kampala a friend called Dan Kasule – he died recently – took me in at his home in Lungujja.
A brother is killed
I didn’t have any profession at training. Then a brother-in-law suggested that I go into maize milling. Being a smart person I had to do some research about maize milling. I came to Katwe. I talked to the people who were all looking white because of this unga thing. I stood and said, Oh Lord, from soldiering to maize milling! Why are you doing this to me?
By then the machine was ready. I went to Lugazi, got the electric [power] people, connected three-phase and all that then I came back home.
During the night, Andrew Kayira and his group, UFM, attacked Lubiri [Barracks]. This was February 1982. People were getting excited, oh the boys have come, the boys have come. But when I heard the machine-gun, it was a 50-calibre. From the way they were shooting it, I knew these were amateurs. Kabisa!
And when they planted their 60-mm mortar to shoot into the Lubiri, they put it on Rubaga Hill. How do you put a mortar on top of a hill shooting down in a valley? Are you sick? If they wanted to hit their target, they should have put that one in Natete and used a map and a protractor to shoot the hell out of that place.
But now here they were because they want to shoot direct. Direct? A mortar person shooting direct! After about two hours the fire fizzled out.
Very early in the morning I walked to town and met my brother. He was an air force pilot. I asked him what had happened. He said, ‘I don’t know.’ He was a carefree person like me. He said, ‘Ah, that’s crap. Those guys don’t know what they are doing. They are going to get people killed.’
He was staying in Wandegeya. That evening they [government soldiers] picked him up. They were looking for me because they knew I am an artillery person and I had been released. They took him to Makindye. [Captain] Ageta ordered his beatings. From morning to evening they were asking: Where is your kid brother? They killed him.
I got the news two days later. By then I was sleeping in – I had made a small tent – right in the bush around Lungujja. What! They killed my brother James! Flt. Lt. James [Kasirye]? I told my sister who brought the news [that I was] going to kick ass. She said, ‘Please, we are making arrangements. You’ve got to get out of the country.’
I said no I am going after those people who killed my brother because I was not involved and he was not involved with the Kayiras.
That is why I went to the bush. Forget about this f****** patriotism. It doesn’t work with me. Not after they [the bush war leaders] had left me and my friends to rot in jail. Good enough when we were fighting in 1979 I knew we were going to lose the war.
So we buried some guns. Grenades, anti-tanks. I buried a heavy load. So I got [a gun] plus some anti-tank and I went hunting. I stayed six months alone hunting those guys and I killed some [UNLA people].
But then I was stacking a lot of weapons. So I looked for these guerrilla groups and I happened to get to the Kayiras first. When I saw Kayira, I said to him: Why did you attack [Lubiri Barracks]? My brother got killed. You look so disorganised. How can you have more than 3,000 people 15 miles from Kampala? What are you feeding them on? You are stealing people’s food.
When you are fighting a guerrilla war you are in groups. Squads. Because you sting, you sting, you sting, and you run. But you’ve got 3,000 people: kids, women, what, what.
They said, ‘That’s Amin’s soldier!’ But then the Amin boys who had joined them earlier came to me. I was a staff sergeant. They said they were from the frying pan into the fire. We stuck with [the Kayiras].
I found the Kayiras in Bujjuko on Mityana Road in forests near River Mayanja. They were just doing nothing. I said I am in trouble.
So I sneaked out of the country.
I went to Nairobi trying to find out about these [guerrilla] organisations – Museveni’s and Kayira’s. I looked at Kayira’s organisation and saw trouble. So I wanted to know more. Who was financing them, their political affiliations.
When I got to Nairobi, I found s***. And it was Samson Kisekka, Prof. Kanyerezi, Edward Mugalu, Wasswa Biriggwa who got me down – because my friends had talked about me. They said if there is anyone who can really do it – I’m not blowing my trumpet and you don’t have to print this – why don’t you look for Kasirye-Ggwanga.
I asked them; exactly, what are you fighting? They said we’ve got to fight but when you go back why don’t you talk to Museveni.
I had never seen him.
So out of curiosity I said I will go. I came back to Uganda and started looking for their camps. Alone. I got to Kyaligonza’s camp – Black Bomber in Gombe, around Matugga.
I got there and told them I want to see Museveni. There was Sserwanga-Lwanga, Jet Mwebaze, Samson Mande – the rogue soldier now, you call them rogue soldiers.
They took it a little bit funny seeing someone saying he wants to see Museveni. So they said: You think you can see Museveni just like that?
I said: What the f*** are you talking about? He is a rebel. I am a rebel. You didn’t bring me to your camp. I found you and I sneaked here. So don’t give me no crap; I want to see that man. I have got some messages for him anyway. So they took me. We walked for about three days. They were in Ngoma. By then they had chased them out of Bulemezi.
The first question I asked him was: Why did you lock us up? We died in prison. You people never even remembered us because we waited during your [1980 general] campaigns if you could talk about Amin’s soldiers. You never uttered a word.
He said the situation warranted you people to be in jail because we didn’t trust you. I said okay, you’ve talked like a man. So, what’s up now? Fun, fun, fun
I shared a tent with Salim Saleh and Fred Rwigyema – three in a tent. They took to me very fast. I told them stories, telling them their mistakes. Man it was fun, fun, fun.
During that brief meeting they attacked us. So I was studying their way of movement, their reaction to fire. I saw some kind of organisation – these Otafiires.
God, you can’t imagine. In fact, Saleh is a good commander but he was lacking, he was not really what I could but you don’t just go into someone’s organisation and start dictating. So I was just looking at them until I went back to UFM. That was September 1983. I spent about two weeks with them.
I went back to UFM. By then Kayira had ran away. He ran away on August 24, 1982 with a group of people when we were in the middle of a battle by the way. He ran to Kenya. He told us that they have got a meeting. I said excuse me, no commander ever leaves soldiers fighting.
He said no, no we’ve got to go. I said you are a f****** coward. He left us in Naddangira on Hoima Road. He never came back. Forget this crap they are talking about. Kayira came back in 1985 after the coup and pitched camp at Speke Hotel with his group of people from Kenya. These [Francis] Bwengyes.
When I left Museveni, I got the [UFM] people who had remained behind – because when Kayira ran, UFM went into disarray. People started running home. I remained with 638 people. We ended up in Busujju, where they trailed and attacked us. People were getting wounds, I had no medicine, no contacts.
I was just running about. I thought of leaving them by the way but I knew they would be massacred. So I got them from Busujju back to Bujjuko. I said hide here I am going after Kayira.
Going to Kayira [in Nairobi] I saw nonsense. When I got to him, we went to a supermarket. He wanted to buy some things. He gave me the trolley. I was pushing. Him he is just picking, me I am pushing. I looked at the guy. I said, ‘Ah my God, I’m in trouble.’ When we were parting company with that man he gave KShs 10.
So I told these boys, forget about Kayira. You joined the struggle, you became rebels, you’ve got to fight it out. But now I’m going to train you. I formed a school called Haganah School of Combat. I really trained. And then started going on operations.
In 1984, George Nkwanga, who had run with Kayira, came back because they had heard we had organised ourselves. They didn’t have guns. We had the guns. So they told me they had changed the organisation’s name – it’s now called Fedemu.
I said you people I didn’t come here for names. I want to get the hell out of the forest. Let’s fight a war and we get out. They started calling it Fedemu. Me I was carrying out my operations but always with a mind on Museveni knowing that we’ve got to merge to kick these guys. By the time Nkwanga came back in 1984 we were about 930. I was commanding them.
Arrests and rearrests
When the coup [that overthrew the Obote II government in July 1985] took place, I was far away in Kubulasoke on a hunting mission for weapons. I rushed to the Fedemu headquarters, which was in Butambala. By then Nkwanga was the commander. I had no argument about ranks and all that. I never care about ranks.
When I came back to the camp I smelt fumes. In the bush it’s easy to smell fumes. We sneaked into a certain place where we used to buy booze. They said Nkwanga the commander has gone to Kampala. What! With who?
That there was UC Benz, which came for him. I said, Oh s***. Paulo Muwanga had invited him for talks. They came back during the night and told us stories about how we are going to join the new government. He said these are good guys.
I said what are you going to tell these people who have been giving you food. That you are going to join that army? Are you sick? But they had political connections. I was just a military person. So we came. By then people were flooding in from Nairobi.
[But first] I contacted Saleh saying we had a problem: these guys are talking to these [junta] guys. Me I can’t. What do I do? He said go in there and try to look around. So we came [and] they got us a hotel called Lunar somewhere in Muyenga.
[At some point] we went into a meeting with Wilson Toko, Loum, Bazilio Okello, Eric Odwar. They were telling us to hand over guns. I said why should we hand over our guns when we have been looking after them all these years. You want to disarm us? That is not feasible.
They smelt something about me. After the meeting I told the Nkwangas that there was no way the [Lutwa] government was going to survive. ‘You be sure Museveni is going to take them. You are making a mistake. Me I feel uncomfortable.’
I was right.
The next day I was arrested in Nakasero – around the market. The UNLA arrested me late July 1985. They took me to Nile Mansions and I found Eric Odwar who asked why they had brought me in. He had noticed me during the meeting.
I told him point blank that if you kill me now, you are just going to cause yourself problems. I got nothing against you guys but I don’t like your ideas. They released me. I was against Fedemu joining them. So they thought I was a spoiler.
After about three days they again arrested me in Katwe. It was Mpiso. This so-called Maj. Fred Mpiso who saved me from Lubiri Barracks. When they released me, I contacted Saleh and I left in late August 1985. I linked up with the Ikonderes in Mityana.
They took me down to Masaka and we started fighting coming towards Kampala. When I got there Museveni promoted me to senior officer. I went alone with my driver. About 300 people followed me.
I was one of the first people to enter this city. I was commanding these heavy guns –(artillery pieces) – with Rwamukaga and Mugarura. I took on Kololo [Summit View] – they, [government soldiers], had some big 120-mm mortars. They had Koreans operating those guns. I was supporting Chefe Ali, [commander of the 11th Battalion].
[But initially] we sneaked in. It was afternoon. We were in Kyengera drinking, playing about. And I said but these guys must have run away from [nearby Busega] roundabout. Others said no. I insisted. And we said why don’t we sneak there. Me, Kaka, Ikondere, Sabata – he died the next morning in Ndeeba. Kakaka. No response. Kakaka. Eh!
I said these guys are not here. I remembered the 1979 experience. How Amin’s soldiers were fleeing. When we reached the roundabout, we found TVs, radio cassettes. They [were indeed] gone. So we sneaked down to Nateete and people came out and we said, ‘Where are they?’ They said they ran that side.
We sent a message [to headquarters] that we were in Nateete. Where! We are in Nateete. Are you people crazy? We said there is nothing. Then Fred Mugisha came through Kabojja, then Afande Saleh came, Afande Kyaligonza. They said we are capturing the city; I said we are capturing the government. We saw the city falling. That’s the story for you.
In a thicket
When Kayira had run we went [about] blindly. Kids were saying, I know a forest in that area, I know a forest in another area [and instead] we would end up in a thicket.
[One time] I went out to recce. Reports had reached Mityana that we were in the area. So soldiers came very early in the morning. Soldiers were shooting in the forest. The boys started running. We let them.
That night we crossed a river called Kitenga in Busubizi area in Mityana – Kawezike forest. We were so tired we decided to pitch camp. I sent out an OP early in the morning to climb up a tree fearing the UNLA soldiers could surprise us because they knew the direction we took.
After 45 minutes he came back to say they are coming. By then we had about 11 guns. This was in September 1982. We laid an ambush on the mouth of the river where they were supposed to get out. I positioned my people and told them where to shoot.
Like you are checking from this end to the other. When I went back the second time, most of the people had run away from the ambush [operation].
I remained with Juma “Billy Bomber” and late Maj. Ssebagala. Three! Out of nine! I said if we go away from here we are all dead. Just rely on me.
So they [UNLA soldiers] came walking along a pole, and we crashed them. We collected about six guns and boots. I was frightened. The most exciting day. The toughest.
Date of Birth: August 26, 1952
Place of Birth: Katakala in Mityana
Father’s Name: Yovani Kasirye Salongo
Mother’s Name: Susana Nalongo Kasirye
Family Position: Number 5 (I am a twin. My twin sister died) of 9
Schools Attended: Mityana SS, Kibuli SS
Wives’ Names: Salome and Margaret
Children: 9 (6 sons and 3 daughters)
Favourite Dish: Pizza, prawns with caviar and roast things
Pastime: Hunting game, playing chess