Hero. As the NRA marched to Kampala towards the end of the Bush War, they encountered heavy fire from UNLA soldiers that halted their movement for three days. It took the bravery of a teenager to clear the way, writes Faustin Mugabe.
On February 6, 1981, the National Resistance Army (NRA) fired the first shot that marked the start of the five-year Bush War that climaxed with President Museveni’s ascension to power.
As the war was coming to a climax and the NRA rebels were advancing towards Kampala, they encountered the government army, the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), which was stationed at the Nsangi-Busega stretch, about 16kms on the Kampala-Masaka highway.
Among Ugandans who recall the Nsangi-Busega battles is Aswa County Member of Parliament Reagan Okumu. As a young man from secondary school in Kampala, he had been conscripted into the UNLA at the peak of Acholi-Langi friction in the national army.
He told a brief story about his encounter in 1999 when he was hosted on the Desert Island Discs on Capital FM, then hosted by William Pike. Okumu said for three days the UNLA soldiers did not get any food, water or reinforcement.
Whenever their commander asked for refreshment or reinforcement he was told to keep engaging the enemy so that they don’t advance past the huge Busega papyrus bush which was giving the rebels natural cover. After the war, Okumu returned to school and later joined Makerere University.
For days, neither could the NRA advance nor would the UNLA dislodge them. Using heavy Katyusha fire, UNLA had halted the NRA advance. The artillery was shooting at the NRA from a distance about 4km away.
In the pre-Global Position Service (GPS) era, even the binoculars were rendered useless because they cannot see through a forest or behind a hill. The NRA had a daunting challenge to locate and liquidate the Katyusha that had for days given the UNLA fire power advantage.
It was thus devised that human intelligence was the only option to use. When the NRA commanders said someone should go and spy on the UNLA artillery position, everyone was unwilling, apart from kadogo (child soldier) Christopher Lubega.
Without doubt, the mission was suicidal. Dressed like a village girl in a gomesi, a Kiganda traditional dress, Lubega set off for the mission.
Underneath the gomesi, Lubega had strapped six hand grenades – his favourite weapon— two pistols and military radio transmitter which he was to use to call his base if he succeeded. He was also given a water container.
The order was that once he reached the soldiers manning the Katyusha, he was to haul the grenades at them. Lubega, aged about 15 or 16 years at the time, was battle-hardened. He joined the NRA rebels in February 1981.
With a container in his hand, off Lubega went into the enemy territory, about 4kms away.
Lubega was to act as if he had lost his parents to the NRA rebels and so he was looking for water to take to his siblings.
When ‘she’ saw the soldiers, ‘she’ started wailing, which attracted their attention. And that is what Lubega wanted, he told Drum, the South African monthly magazine of August 1986.
At the time Lubega was perhaps the most popular kadogo in the NRA ranks. When asked about the toughest operation he participated in, Lubega responded, “My toughest operation was during our advance on Kampala to overthrow Tito Okello. When we arrived at Nsangi Township…we were met by UNLA’s heavy artillery defence. Though we exchange fire with them for two days, we couldn’t advance…”
“As I approached the UNLA, I started crying bitterly and begged for water… I was stopped about 500 metres away by a crew manning the heavy Katyusha gun. I gave them my story while crying and sobbing bitterly. I could see the doubt on their faces and at the same time my feminine appeal getting the better of them. The Major ordered them to allow me in and give me water.”
Lubega was beginning to develop goosebumps. He felt frightened. His life was in the balance. Should they discover that he was a boy and not a girl before he did anything he would be finished. When he was about 20 metres from the Katyusha he saw them relax and eye him with lust. At last he was in their compound and the Major ordered one of them to take his container and fill it with water.
“Meanwhile, he held my hand and uttered consoling words, but in his eyes I could see naked desire. I knew that if I waited for the container to be filled, my mission would be foiled, so I acted swiftly. I removed my pistol from under the dress and shot the Major before he knew what was happening,” he said.
The other soldiers were caught unawares, and Lubega took advantage. He pulled the pins from two grenades and threw them one by one at the surprised soldiers. There were screams of pain and three of them died.
He threw another grenade and it killed the remaining soldier immediately and seriously injured a second. He pulled the second gun and ordered the remaining soldier to surrender, which he did without resistance.
“I then radioed my base and told them I had one soldier alive, six dead, a Katyusha heavy artillery gun, six sub-machine guns, two light machine guns, several grenades and food. Within minutes my comrades had arrived. From there we marched to Kampala. In Kampala we found that the UNLA troops had run away and the only a few who wanted to surrender still remained.”
Lubega was one of the many Ugandan orphaned by the Luweero war. In early February 1981, at around 3:30am, in Luweero, the UNLA soldiers stormed their house. They had been tipped off by Lubega’s immediate neighbours who disliked them because his father was a Democratic Party (DP) supporter.
“I was woken by mother’s weeping. I saw a soldier with a sub-machine gun standing over her and her head bleeding. My father lay groaning in pain from bayonet wounds on his things. I started crying and one of the soldiers hit me on the head with a butt of the gun and I passed out. When I regained consciousness the soldiers were gone. My father and mother lay dead on the floor and my sister was nowhere to be seen. Up to this day I do not know whether she is dead or alive,” Lubega told Drum magazine.
Days later, alone and frightened, Lubega decided to join the NRA rebels. He was 11 years old.