‘Operation panda gari:’ They say it is ‘Serikali ya Obote’ killing them, not NRA

Saturday March 28 2020

An NRA platoon works through Gombe trading centre in July 1984

An NRA platoon works through Gombe trading centre in July 1984. PHOTO | WILLIAM PIKE 

WILLIAM PIKE
By WILLIAM PIKE
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This extract highlights some of the human cost of those killings. It also helps to explain the longevity, 34 years now, of President Yoweri Museveni in power.

While many Ugandans understand the need for democracy and accountability, they also remember, directly or indirectly, the anarchy that wracked Uganda between 1971 and 1986. Three-quarters of Uganda’s population may be under 25 years of age but many of them will have parents or uncles and aunts who died in the years of insecurity. So Ugandan voters have tended to vote for stability and continuity at election time.

The question in Ugandan politics today is for how long President Museveni can continue to enjoy the benefit of that fading memory of the years of insecurity.

Uganda has been largely stable since 1986. Fewer and fewer Ugandans remember those terrible years of insecurity highlighted by Pike’s book.

The other aspect highlighted by Pike’s book is the genuine idealism and simplicity of the National Resistance Army guerrillas, including their leader Yoweri

Museveni, during their armed struggle from February 1981 to January 1986. They were clearly willing to sacrifice their lives to build a better Uganda. But how true is that today? Many of those same NRA guerrillas who were in the bush have become embroiled in financial scandals, land grabbing and personal misbehaviour.

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Does this exemplary past enhance the reputation of the ruling NRM party or does it conversely expose how far it has fallen from its original ideals?

The passage of time will surely complicate Yoweri Museveni’s campaign to secure re-election in Uganda’s next presidential election in February 2021.

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A young man with two long scars on his head was hanging around. The scar across his forehead had healed but white gauze still stuck to the scar on the back of his head and the hair around was falling out in patches.

The scars obviously came from panga cuts since they were straight and deep. Edward Mugerwa was 29 years old. He seemed brain-damaged and told his terrible story in a slow, stumbling voice. “I was a builder working in the Muyenga suburb of Kampala. I was picked up in March by intelligence men who were not in uniform.

They said I was suspected of being a guerilla and they wanted my gun. At that time a lot of people were being picked up in an operation called “panda gari” (get into the car).

“I was taken to Nile Mansions where I was interrogated. I was beaten and nails were inserted under my skin. They asked if I knew Museveni but I was not involved with the NRA.”

“I was then taken to a house on Kololo Hill where they took my money, 8000/-, and my identity documents. They put me with six other people. Later all seven of us were put into a small Fiat lorry with around 30 other people, most of them from Kireka barracks.

“At Makindye barracks, the vehicle was refuelled and we were brought to Monde near Matuga, 13 miles from Kampala on the Bombo road. The driver was a civilian escorted by two soldiers and we were followed by other soldiers in a white Datsun”.

“On reaching Monde, the soldiers fired their guns and RPGs into the air to scare us. Then a Regimental Sergeant Major from Makindye barracks came and opened up the back of the lorry. As we came out one by one, the RSM and another man slashed us with pangas. I was almost the last one out. There was a pile of dead bodies and I was ordered to lie on top. I was chopped several times”.

“I regained consciousness after the lorry and the Datsun had left. I crawled to the forest to hide myself. The next morning I went to look for help. The NRA found me in a deserted house and took me to a camp where I received medical treatment. I am still here. It is too risky for me to try and contact my wife and four children”.

I asked if it would be possible to see where the lorry had left Mugerwa and the NRA said we could try.

Towering storm clouds were building up in the sky as we took the winding path out of Task Force. We walked swiftly through the deserted countryside. After a few miles, we branched off and walked a hundred yards across a grassy hillside that must once have been a large field. The guerillas had tramped down the waist high grass and heaped there a pile of bodies. This was where Edward Mugerwa had allegedly been left for dead.

Death by panga cuts

The bodies had become partially mummified and had not completely decomposed despite spending several months in the open air. The features on the faces were still preserved, grimaces of pain, expressions of repose. One corpse had its crossed hands resting on its breast like a mediaeval knight who had died on the battlefield.

Their clothes were still recognisable—a corduroy jacket, a pair of old trousers—but they had started to disintegrate and their empty ribcages were exposed. All the skulls had straight cuts deep into the cranium. One did not need to be a forensic scientist to recognise that these had been caused by a panga.

Mugerwa’s story that he had been picked up in a security sweep in Kampala and brought here to be murdered now seemed utterly convincing. I took a series of photos including close-ups of the panga cuts.

It began to rain heavily but I was in a trance and hardly noticed. After half a mile we came to a small cottage with square mud walls and a corrugated iron roof. The guerillas were sheltering under the eaves from the now torrential rain.

Inside an old couple was lying on the floor, the woman had fallen on top of the man who had been shot in the back. She had been shot in the side. Their bodies were drying out and becoming skinny and insubstantial. Their skin had become like crinkled paper. Their bones were protruding and about to break through.

The house had been looted. In the bedroom, the mattress had been pulled off the rusty iron bed. Three sacks of cotton had been pulled out of the roof and slashed open. One sack was still up in the rafters.

In the back room, furniture and plastic jerrycans were strewn about. Yellowing commercial calendars from the 1960s and a few religious books were thrown on floor around them. What did the soldiers find that was worth stealing? A kerosene lamp? A few bags of coffee?

The bodies I had seen at other killing grounds hardly seemed real. I took pictures and tried to estimate their numbers. Who were they? I did not know. But I could see the lives of this old couple in the scattered debris and it left me with a feeling of stunned incomprehension.

Could the guerillas themselves have been responsible for these killings? It seemed highly improbable. Not only were organisations like Amnesty International condemning the excesses of the UNLA but all the peasants we had met in the bush had been unanimous in blaming the killings on the “serikali ya Obote” or the “Acholi soldiers”.

The peasants that we had met on our long march greeted the NRA and shook hands with them. When we had passed inhabited dwellings, they gave water to the NRA soldiers.

It was also clear that the killings had taken place on a massive scale. The Australian TV programme 60 Minutes had caused a controversy in 1983 when it filmed piled bodies outside Kampala’s notorious Makindye barracks but these could arguably have been a few isolated opponents of a repressive government, casualties one expects in a country torn apart by civil war.

But in the Luwero Triangle there seemed to have been an attempt to eliminate the rural population altogether, first by herding them into camps and then by wholesale slaughter. The evidence was the bodies and bones littered everywhere, the testimony of former UNLA soldiers, the family losses that every survivor had sustained, and, above all, the utter emptiness of Mpigi and south Luwero.

‘Combatants - A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda’ by William Pike, is available at Bookstop Yaya Centre, Prestige Bookshop in CBD and Village Bookshop in Village Market, plus Aristoc and Entebbe Airport Bookshop in Uganda.