Massacre. To consolidate his hold on power, President Idi Amin ordered the massacre of several Luo, even those that had chose to work with him. Tobbias Jolly Owiny shares an account of a Mutukula massacre survivor.
President Idi Amin appeared to consolidate his rule in the months after the coup that saw him grab power from President Apollo Milton Obote. However, by July 1971 he was facing a revolt within his forces, a fighting which to a larger extent had been precipitated by Amin’s operations to dispose of Luo officers from his forces. The July fighting culminated into the November 1972 massacres at the Mutukula prison camp.
Mr Rufino Akena, commonly known as Kamanyola, is one of the few survivors of the gruesome Mutukula massacre by Idi Amin’s soldiers in which more than 650 were killed. In his book, I saw Oyite Ojok die, published recently, Mr Akena (ranked as captain then and a guard to late Gen Oyite Ojok) did not only discuss his account of Gen Oyite’s helicopter crash, but also how he survived the massacre.
“During the coup, the army comprised only four battalions: First Battalion Jinja, Gonda Garrison in Moroto, Tiger in Mubende and Simba in Mbarara of which a large percentage were Luo officers. In order to effectively control and personalise the army, Amin set out to rid it of Luo soldiers, an ethnic group of his arch-rival Obote.
Remembering how kind Amin was to me in Kenya, I did not anticipate a series of devilish plans he had lined up against us.
As soon as he captured power, not only did he massacre many Luo commanders and politicians, he also conducted mass arrests of Luo soldiers who had chosen to continue serving under the new administration. Without any case brought against us, he locked up more than 700 ethnic Luo soldiers in Luzira prison, indefinitely.
After staying in detention at Luzira for more than a year, it was time to kill all of us. One morning in 1972, the regime crammed us in dozens of trucks and buses; drove us to south-western Uganda and put us in Mutukula prison. From an urban prison to a rural one, we feared every next minute of the process, for we understood so well how blood-thirsty Amin regime had become.
We were then herded in groups and locked up in several prison halls. Later on, I learnt that as we were being transferred from Luzira to Mutukula, human rights organs in the country had caught wind of the plans to butcher all of us. So, some local and foreign human rights activists tried to follow our convoy but were seized, roughed up and forced to abandon the pursuit at Mpigi, few kilometres from Kampala.
The next morning, Maj Gen Francis Nyangweso, Amin’s top army commander addressed us. For the first time we breathed a slim moment of relief and we were immensely excited. The general broke the wonderful “good news” that relaxed our sick and worried minds.
“Keep calm brothers. Tomorrow morning, you will all be set free,” Gen Nyangweso promised. There had never been a happier night in my life. For a while that day, my prison mates and I hung on to the promised freedom and hoped for a new beginning and life come the next day, but little did we know that everything was set to change very quickly.
On the third day, still kraaled inside our halls, scary scenes started unfolding around us. These were moments of heightened and complex emotional mind-set that we couldn’t bear. The scenes were so terrifying that the passage of time neared us to uncertainty, uncertainty gave way to worry, worry gave way to fear and fear gave way to depression, depression……….
One of the scary trends that we witnessed was when Amin’s soldiers would on several occasions swing our doors open, choose some high ranking colleagues, handcuff and lead them away and they would never return. As we endured the continuous dreadful removal of many of our brothers such as Maj Oyet, Capt Atyang, Capt Agona and Lt Amwata Oruru by the mean-looking Amin’s slaughter men, we terribly feared for our lives.
At dawn around 5 am, the next day then came the mother of all terror. This was the wicked moment of fear that triggered uncontrolled panic forcing us to swing into action.
It started with the scary arrival of Amin’s slaughter men, who upon violently pushing our door open, head-counted 21 of us in darkness and ordered us to follow them. I had a habit of sleeping at the door area for easy exit just in case anything unusual happened.
Thus, when the murderers head-counted us starting with me saying: one, two, three…up to twenty one; I smelt a rat and I instantly asked myself, “Why count twenty one of us and order us to follow them in darkness? More still, all of our colleagues who were selected and led away have never returned.”
So, as the counted people made their way out, I stealthily ran to the back of the hall stepping on many people. No sooner had I settled at my new spot than the killers came back in the room shouting, wapi moja? (Swahili word meaning; where is the other one?)
Gripped by fear, colleagues called my name, “Akena, it must be you because you were by the door side.” I quickly reprimanded them, “It is not me, and stop calling my name. If you want somebody to be the 21st, why don’t you volunteer?”
Amin’s men were so determined to take 21 men and so they grabbed one more person nearest to the door and led him out. The next thing we heard minutes later was, “tah…tah…tah...” The gunshots compelled us to peep through the windows and see what was happening outside.
What we could witness was vicious. We saw Amin’s soldiers shooting our brothers in the head at close range and those who did not die instantly were clobbered with axes. We watched in horror as our brothers cried in our mother tongue before dropping silently every minute the soldiers axed them and merrily mimicked their dying cries.
Wherever their dying victims screamed helplessly in pain, the killers would happily mimic them. Faced with deep-seated fear about the obvious danger that we saw waiting for us, outside in the compound of doom, the death row feeling which we had lived with in Luzira returned to haunt us.
Consequently, we desperately debated which actions were possibly executable at that moment before they returned for the next 21 candidates. Fortunately, even though momentarily, there was a lull during the day from the executions and the leading away forever of our people, thus giving us an opportunity to plan some escape actions.
As if all the evidence of the determination to massacre us that we had been witnessing throughout the last two days in Mutukula prison were not enough, a definite proof and a turning point befell us through a whistle blower. At around 11am, a certain Luo prisoner who had been deployed to the mass grave by Amin’s soldiers to bury the dead prisoners, shouted to us over the window in Luo as he passed by the hall.
Eyi wun ba! Ineno wunu kit ame remo obalo kede bongo na? Ngol wunu diro pien greda okunyu twon bur adit dok otye atongo ngut jo-wu ote bolo gi iye (Hey people! Death awaits you unless you find your way out and escape. Do you see how bloody my clothes are? A grader has dug a big mass grave and your mates are being hacked and buried into it!)
A plan to escape
After hearing the whistle blower’s alarming message, we became even more desperate. Everyone was saying that we better escape and get killed while trying to escape than undergo this gruesome hacking.
While others suggested that we should break the asbestos roofing above us, others opposed it saying that the noise of tearing the roof would alert the killers who had formed a ring around the buildings. Finally, we resolved to apply our saliva, urine and poop on one spot of the wall to dampen it for easy breaking. So, to identify a softer spot of the wall, we went round test-knocking the wall with our fingers.
Once we discovered a weak spot, we embarked on a slow painful process of breaking/creating a hole on the wall. With our fingernails, hands and feet and with a lot of energy and skills, we desperately and collectively scratched and knocked a spot, and by wee hours of the night, we had broken a hole through the wall. On the other hand, as we struggled to break the hole, some of our colleagues shouted a message over the wall telling our colleagues in the next hall also to do the same.
At last we had a hole, but everyone was so desperate not to venture out through the narrow channel that took one from one hall to another. The dilemma for us at that moment was; do we sit inside and wait for Amin’s soldiers to keep on removing us in groups to be killed in cold blood or try to escape through the hole that we knew for certain would land us straight into the compound of death surrounded by Amin’s trigger-happy killers?
I remember trying several times to defy the odds and push my head through the hole just to be pulled back by mates claiming that my action would alert the butcher men hence attracting sudden death for everyone. Just as we struggled to solve our dilemma, an abrupt eruption of heavy gunfire rocked the prison. The prisoners from the neighbouring hall had started escaping through the hole when Amin’s soldiers noticed them and opened fire.
“We rather die fleeing”
Realising that it was just a matter of time before we would be wiped out, we became even more determined not to be incinerated inside the hall without trying to break free. I cannot forget the desperation we exhibited when we energetically jostled and forced our way out through the only hole. That was a terrible moment when we had no choice but to jump from hall to hall. A moment our souls and minds were spinning with several pairs of conflicting feelings such as bear or fear, pray or cry, run or burn, flourish or perish.
It was so overwhelming that we literally gave up hope of ever living again. So, in the chaos of the rocking gunfire and stampede, I pushed hard to get myself out but the intensity of the firing outside was so overwhelming that many people who had already escaped started to push their way back into the hall.
Nonetheless, I was determined to face the gunfire rather than wait to be burnt alive inside the building. Thus I thrust myself through the hole, and out in a rain of bullets. I had never been this too close to death. Constantly keeping myself as low as grass level, I ran and dived outwards.
I couldn’t count how many times I felt the ferocity of flying bullets missing by dear head by a tinny whisker. Just before I could run any further, I bumped into Hassan who had also escaped and took cover behind a tree. “Please run! We are going to meet in heaven,” he shouted at me. Sadly, Hassan’s luck ran out when all of a sudden Amin’s soldiers traced his voice and hacked him several times. Hassan was an Asian lawyer Obote had hired to prosecute Amin, but quite to the opposite, it’s Amin who imprisoned and killed him.
Out of the compound of death
Scampering through the bushes just minutes away from Mutukula prison, the centre of slaughter and destruction, I stumbled into a giant mound of freshly excavated soil. As I quickly redirected my escape route away from the mound and rough terrain that only slowed down my flight, I saw a huge pile of dead bodies stacked by the side of the humongous mass grave.
Their eyes glowed brightly like bulbs dazzling with electric light, and their bodies undergoing extreme obesity due to decomposition. The bright moonlight perpendicularly illuminated the earth, shamelessly isolating from darkness, the workshop of humiliation, executed by the barbaric Anyanya warriors, and directed by the devilish master, Amin.
Every minute of the night counted dearly, for I knew that the further and faster I ran away from Mutukula prison area before daybreak, the greater my chances of avoiding getting recaptured by Amin’s soldiers in daylight. Realising that I was somewhat off the hooks of the exterminators, my instincts told me at once to flee in the direction of Tanzania, the nearest safe destination.
Out of the blue, a brilliant idea popped into my mind, “consider your shadow below your legs.” The moment I took a look at my shadow mirrored by the gracious moonlight, I thus decided to take the direction from which the moon rose. As I fled, the sound of heavy gunfire that rocked Mutukula prison throughout the night suggested a scene of war involving the use of heavy war machines like tanks and grenades.
It later emerged that when the gunfire filled the prison, a multitude of prisoners stampeded helplessly while others massed themselves inside the halls hoping for mercy. Unfortunately, the savage heartless Amin’s soldiers bombarded the prison wiping out all the 700 detainees.
In Tanzania, at last
Ironically, Mutukula is near the Tanzanian border; and so for a while I didn’t noticed that I had already strayed into the Tanzanian territory. Surprisingly, at daybreak as the new day’s sun rayed down upon me, a group of well-armed Tanzanian soldiers spotted me and rescued me.
In the end, a total of 23 of us who escaped the massacre and ran into Tanzania were rescued on a case by case basis from the bushes around Mutukula. Even though the Tanzanian soldiers rescued me, it was only possible after a chase and catch episode between me and them.
When I saw the Tanzanian soldiers, my heart shrunk so I took off fleeing thinking that Amin’s men had cornered me. As I ran they chased me and as one of them neared me, I heard him plead with me: ndugu, ndugu, usiogope. Tumakuja kukusaidia (brother, brother, don’t fear. We have come to rescue you.)
According to the Tanzanian soldiers, they had picked intelligence report of plans by Amin to massacre my group, but their deployment came too late to counter it.
My entry into Tanzania marked the beginning of my eight-year long struggle against Amin, where I joined more than 1,000 anti-Amin combatants at Kigwa camp.”