Monday, April 15, 2002


Defeated by small boys

In our second extract from Cross to the Gun, Col BERNARD RWEHURURU tells a tale of pity and horror: of how his Suicide Regiment killed untrained Tanzanian boy soldiers by the hundreds in a war that was already lost.


Idi Amin inspects his troops in this undated file picture.



After less than a week of fighting, some of the troops of the First Infantry Regiment who had replaced us at the front line started arriving at our barracks with their equipment, but did not give any reasons for their abrupt withdrawal from the battlefield.

A few days later, Abdallatif himself arrived with the rest of his men, abandoning Sanje to the advancing enemy. When confronted in the Mess, he said, without batting an eyelid, that the fighting was "too heavy."

A hush fell across the Mess. The rest of the officers, many of whom had been at the frontline before the First Infantry was brought in, were dumbfounded. It was not hard to tell what they thought of this colonel holding a half empty bottle of Uganda Waragi and making his stunning admission; the word "coward" was written all over their faces.

Abdallatif's confession left me shocked and angry. I had never been confrontational, but now I got up and told him that the "heavy fighting" his brigade had endured for less than a fortnight was peanuts compared to what Suicide Regiment had endured for three months.


Most of the officers in the Mess had been there for three months. They had all been to the front line and fought the invaders, came under fire from the Katyusha rockets and felt the bitter taste of the enemy's gunpowder in their mouths. I knew they would never side with Abdallatif, even as I insulted him in their presence...

The enemy took over Sanje before moving towards Kalisizo. It was at this point that a company of commandos sent to Uganda's rescue by Libya’s President Muammar Gaddafi arrived.

The arrival of the Libyan desert commandos was as surprising as it was annoying because we had all along made it clear to Amin and the entire Army top brass that all we needed was artillery firepower to neutralise the enemy's Katyusha and not more personnel.


The Libyan infantrymen, who were under the command of a captain, were dispatched to Masaka barracks, while their Air Force counterparts were left at the Air Base in Entebbe. They arrived in Masaka in the early morning and had breakfast with us. Before long, it became obvious that their involvement was not going to be too productive.

Communication was the problem. They spoke neither English nor Swahili. Attempts to use Nubian, which is a bit like broken Arabic, hit a dead end because they could not understand the dialect. We then resorted to communicating by hand signals.

Nor were their weapons and kit suitable for jungle warfare. Instead of assault rifles like G3s and the AK47s, they had light Uzi submachine guns and a wide range of machine pistols. Even the few artillery pieces they came with were a joke considering the intensity of the battle that was now raging.

We had no way of telling them any of this, so we simply let them go to the front. They joined the forces waiting for the enemy in Kalisizo. Sure enough, no sooner had they arrived in Kalisizo, than the enemy descended upon the area in force. Our troops suffered heavy casualties, but nothing like the Libyans, who of course failed to understand the orders to withdraw, which were issued in Swahili.


The following morning, trooping into Masaka barracks after the fall of Kalisizo, they were a sad sight. It was pitiful to watch those who were lucky to escape without injuries tearfully unloading their wounded and dead colleagues off their small trucks.

The rate at which we were losing ground was alarming. After the swift fall of Kalisizo, I had no doubt the enemy would soon be on the outskirts of Masaka. I called an impromptu meeting to discuss our next course of action. Lt. Col. Abdallatif and his sub commanders were invited to attend the meeting, which was basically held to decide whether to defend Masaka until reinforcements arrived from Kampala, or to abandon the town to the enemy.

It was agreed to defend the town and the different units were duly allocated their roles. Suicide Regiment was to defend an area that covered Mutukula Road, Mbarara Road and Bukakata-Nyendo Road. The regiment was also charged with blocking the hill that housed the television mast.


Other troops from the First Infantry Brigade and Chui Regiment under the Command of Maj Zziwa were assigned to the second defence axis – Buwala, Kitovu and the road to Bukakata, facing a large tea estate behind Kitovu hill.

Before we could move to our assigned areas, mortar and rocket fire started landing in our barracks, forcing us to rush up the slopes of Boma Hill near the hospital and prison. There was no threat of an enemy air raid so I decided to employ a 23 millimeter gun in ground roll. The marshes were sparsely covered, and no infantry could cross them and avoid our fire.

Since the hills had been strategically occupied, we knew that the Masaka valley, which was actually a pineapple farm would be easy to defend in what we hoped would be the turning point in the war. All units dug in.

By then, bitter divisions had cropped up within the rank and file. Most senior officers, especially those of Sudanese and Congolese origin, plus a few from West Nile, had abandoned all pretence at patriotism. The West Nile men seemed to think the war would never reach their area. It was not unusual to be asked questions like, "So, how is your war going?" There were many gun and fist fights over the issue of whose war it was, and we soon asked all those who had begun making it a habit to ask such questions to shut up lest they stopped a bullet.


Another problem was that most units felt that it was Suicide Regiment who had sparked off the war by attacking Tanzania. The general feeling was that the defence of Masaka and indeed the rest of the country was Suicide's responsibility.

Sure enough, a few days after we had divided up the defence of Masaka, Chui Regiment and the First Infantry Brigade deserted their assigned areas and went off to Lukaya, 40 kilometers away.

Information about Chui's desertion seems to have quickly got to the enemy, for before we could make fresh arrangements to defend Masaka from that side, the enemy attacked through Kitovu, Nyendo and the pineapple farm, all of which were behind our backs, before descending on Masaka in force.

We knew that we were out numbered, so when the charge was made through the mayor's pineapples, to the East of Masaka on the way to Nyendo, on Kampala Road, I withdrew my troops through the Saza route, crossed the marsh and settled on the road to Villa Maria facing Masaka which we had just abandoned.

As we marched out of Masaka, we realised that Suicide Regiment was alone in the battle theatre. However, we resolved that we would not cut and run without a fight. We withdrew from the road and took up positions on Villa Maria hill.


From the hill, we watched our beautiful Masaka being mercilessly set upon in an orgy of destruction. The Governor's building fell with the loudest bang one could have imagined, while the grass thatched huts erected for recreational purposes were set ablaze. No sooner had the enemy set foot in the town than the looting began in earnest.

After the fall of Masaka, news items on Radio Tanzania in Luganda, English, Lugbara and Kakwa began hitting the Ugandan airwaves, seriously denting the morale of the soldiers. Among the senior officers, especially at the Army General Headquarters, there was total panic. Most, immediately began looking for ways of bringing the war to an immediate end.

While the Ugandan officers wanted to save areas still under our control from destruction, some officers of Sudanese and Congolese origin saw this as the only way they could stay on in Uganda, where they not only wielded power, but also owned sizeable assets.


The senior officers, led by Sule, decided to depose Amin. With Amin out of the way, they reasoned, they could enter into negotiations with both the Tanzanian government and the hundreds of Ugandan exiles who had joined them.

This information was passed on to the frontline. We were ordered to prepare white flags to raise in case the mission was successful. Arrangements were made for the senior officers to meet Amin at Cape Town Villas, Ggaba, at eight o’clock at night and brief him about what had already turned into a very fluid situation.

Though Amin agreed to meet the officers, he was suspicious of their intentions and the motive of the meeting. Word had spread that there was a general loss of morale among the fighting forces and that a section of the Army High Command would rather throw him out of office and negotiate with the invaders than die fighting or go into exile.

Amin sensed that the night meeting could end in a gun fight leading to a coup. He therefore took preemptive steps by inviting Emilio Mondo and the Air Force Chief, Gore. While Mondo was invited as both a senior officer and Secretary for Defence, Gore was invited to bolster Amin's security and ensure that nothing went wrong. The understanding between the two men was that Amin would only leave his bedroom and join the rest of the senior officers after Gore's arrival.

When Gore wanted to impress on people that he was a jungle-smart fighter so vicious he could take on and destroy a whole platoon single-handed, he would smoke marijuana and dress like a combat-ready commando, armed to the teeth.

The senior officers arrived at Ggaba, placed themselves strategically and waited impatiently for what they expected to be the last time they would address Amin as their Commander-in-Chief and president. But Amin did not come out of his heavily fortified bedroom. He instead sent word that there was a document he needed to finish studying before he could meet them.


Though Gore arrived more than an hour late, he did not disappoint Amin. He made his entry accompanied by a platoon of paratroopers. Gore himself was dressed in battle smoke fatigues and armed with a machine gun, ammunition belts, grenades, commando knives, ropes, a pistol and a package of scale rations.

The huge amounts of marijuana that he had smoked had given his eyes a redness that sent chills down the spines of the other officers. That coupled with the fatigues and military gear made him look like the deadly commando that he never was.


Immediately he was informed of Gore's arrival, Amin came out of his room. He feigned anger and started upbraiding Gore for delaying the meeting, but the latter had played his part well, for he had recaptured the Villa, which the senior officers had virtually taken over.

The meeting was then called to order, officers presented some papers and briefs, files were uneasily turned over, but what was discussed was militarily inconsequential. After the briefing, Amin called for more loyalty and commitment from his officers. He told them that he appreciated the fact that the enemy's propaganda machine had dealt a major blow to the morale of the soldiers, but urged them to go back to work. It was during that same meeting that it was declared a crime to listen to Radio Tanzania.


The news that the plan had failed hurt more than any physical blow could have done. I was soon torn in two, finding myself thinking more and more about choosing between the cowardly action of cutting and running like most of our Sudanese and Congolese friends had done, and continuing the fight against the invaders.

At the time, it was easy to run away, for there was no organisation among the fighters. No one in the high command seemed to be bothered by the rate at which soldiers were abandoning their sectors and nothing was done to stop the mass desertion.

However, deep down, I felt I had a duty to myself and my country. I had taken an oath on the day of my commissioning as an Officer of the Uganda Army in which I had declared that the security of my country would come first, the needs of my men second and mine last. The words kept coming back to me as if I had taken the oath only the previous day. I found inspiraton in Julius Ceaser's famous saying: Nihil iucundius quam pro patria mori. (Nothing is more pleasant than to die for one's country).


The fall of Masaka clearly had an effect on the troops on both sides. While the Tanzanians’ morale was higher than ever, ours hit an all time low. We were simply in total disarray. The ease with which our troops on the Masaka-Kampala axis fell prey to the enemy was testimony to this.

Suicide Regiment now made a decision to defend Villa Maria by blocking the road junction to Kalungu and Bukomansimbi to Kabamba via Sembabule. I then radioed for reinforcement and fresh supplies from either Mubende or Kampala.

While we were making our preparations, the enemy, buoyed by their relatively easy march into Masaka, followed our withdrawal line. They took the Mbirizi route and crossed heading out to Sembabule through Matete, while another group headed for Kampala, following the main road. One group took the Kalungu route with the aim of capturing Mubende after cutting it off from Kampala at Mityana while another had intentions of capturing Kabamba School of Infantry by making a series of speedy troop movements through Sembabule.


I decided to intercept the groups that were heading out to Kabamba School and Mubende. I moved my troops from Villa Maria to Bukomansimbi and then on to Sembabule, so that I could block the route from Matete to Kabamba and the one from Villa Maria and Bukomansimbi to Kabamba. Our meeting point would inevitably be Sembabule. Suicide Regiment dug in at Sembabule.

We became a thorn in the invaders' ribs, keeping them at bay for longer than even we had expected. Soon the invaders ordered a company of their soldiers to move from Matete and take Sembabule. By a stroke of luck, we intercepted this communication, so I ordered Capt Tali to move ahead of the enemy and smash them at a point eight kilometres away from their target.

A few minutes after Capt Tali and his troops had moved out, sounds of light artillery and small-arms fire were heard. We knew then that Tali had come into contact with the enemy.

Down a gentle slope from the county headquarters on the route from Sembabule to Matete, lay a stretch of open ground which one had to cross before climbing a low hill covered by large banana plantations. It was an ideal place for staging an ambush and it was there that the two forces met.

Though my orders to Capt Tali had been that his force abandon their vehicles and cross the open ground on foot, they drove down the hill with another officer. A few metres down the slope, they met two men dressed like civilians, but when the officers stopped to inquire about what was ahead of them, the two men dashed into a nearby bush. The officers jumped out of the Landrover, but before they could give chase, an RPG launched from the direction the two men had run hit the Landrover and it burst into flames. A 20-litre can of fuel fanned the fire which destroyed, among other things, our operational maps.


The bush full of troops which was following the Landrover stopped. Soldiers on the roof of the bus provided covering fire with machine guns as their mates inside the bus tumbled out.

The battle raged for half an hour. When the guns fell silent, the invaders had withdrawn. We counted 112 enemy soldiers dead, and four on our side. Three of our soldiers were injured. This showed us that if the war effort had been well planned, the enemy would have received a good beating.


The following day, the enemy forces positioned in Bukomansimbi decided to outflank us, attacking at six in the morning and engaging us in a bitter fight that lasted till six in the evening. But as before, we proved superior to them. By the time the fighting was over, two Tanzanian soldiers had been captured while 65 lay dead. We had no casualties.

We interrogated the captives only to discover that one of them, who identified himself as Wasiwasi, was a 15-year-old schoolboy who had been pulled out of a classroom in Standard Six and given some basic training before being sent to the front. Though his new AK47 had a full magazine, he had not fired a single shot. At the time of his capture, he had 75 bullets, which he told us he had been issued while they were stationed in Kyaka. The bullets were still neatly wrapped up in a paper bag.


He also revealed that every evening after school, he and his schoolmates would be taught how to strip and assemble guns, but that they had never been taught how to aim and shoot. Indeed, up to the time they were deployed to the front, many of them had not fired a single shot.


Having seen the type of soldiers that we were fighting, the morale of my soldiers rose. There was a feeling that if we could not throw such small boys off Ugandan soil, we would at least not allow Sembabule to fall to schoolchildren.

As a commander, I was happy, but the parent in me was horrified. I could not imagine my son, Paul, who was then only 12, carrying a gun and attacking a band of trained, battle hardened soldiers like the group under my command. I could not imagine an army full of children winning a war against us.

The more I questioned Wasiwasi, the more I thought of my own children, but what hurt most was the realisation that Wasiwasi's parents, so many miles away in Tanzania, probably did not know where their son had been taken after school on the fateful day when he was marched to the frontline.


As a trained officer, I knew about the rights of Prisoners of War as provided for under the Geneva Convention. That coupled with the sympathy that I felt for Wasiwasi and his unfortunate fellows, saddled me with the role of protecting them from some of our overzealous colleagues.

Radio communication was made between Sembabule and the Military Headquarters. Amin dispatched a military chopper to pick up the boys. In Kampala, they were paraded on UTV and interviewed on Radio Uganda to "show the people of Uganda the kind of people that President Julius Nyerere had conscripted into the TPDF to fight Uganda." Despite the pity we felt for them, it was hard for anyone to identify who was a child among the enemy forces advancing on our positions. 


Every day, the guns would roar and boom. Our location was littered with decomposing bodies.

Our regimental doctor advised us to burn the bodies in the bush or abandon the area, otherwise there would be an epidemic. Since there were no more rations or supplies coming in from Kampala, it would be foolish to commit fuel to burning the bodies, as we would need it in case we were compelled to retreat. Instead of burning the bodies, therefore, we opted to move out of the location and away from the stench, which was becoming increasingly unbearable.

After weeks of fighting, we realised that the enemy was losing many of their soldiers in our sector. Their radio transmissions, which we intercepted on a daily basis, revealed the extent of their losses. One particular message from one of the field commanders to their overall commander was a complaint about the TPDF commander of the Sembabule sector who, according to the message, was continually reporting huge losses without reporting any corresponding losses on our side.


As the days progressed, a routine emerged on both sides. Daytime was for fighting while the night was for feeding and resting. Though by then those in charge of replenishing our supplies had already fled to West Nile and the Sudan, food was never a problem.

Most civilians in the area had fled their homes, leaving livestock and banana plantations which we descended on. One family had left its pigs behind, and these were roaming the countryside in search of food. The pigs, which the soldiers began fondly to refer to as Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicles (ARVs), provided us with meat, which the troops feasted on with relish.


One day, when I inquired about the ARVs, the soldiers told me that save for the "workshop," a huge sow which had most probably mothered all those that we had eaten, the rest had succumbed to the butcher's knife.

While we continued to hold Sembabule, the enemy forces operating along the Masaka-Kampala axis relentlessly continued their advance towards the capital. It was then that real mobilisation of troops for the defence of Kampala began. Even among the foreign legions that had long become our national army, the word being passed around was that the enemy had to be repulsed.

Men from the Air Force, the Marines from Bugolobi, the border guard units from West Nile, Air and Sea Battalion, Tororo, the Mountains of the Moon Regiment, the Chui Regiment forces who had earlier run away from their assigned locations in Masaka and others from the Mbale-based First Brigade joined a host of others from the Signal Training School, the Masindi based Artillery Regiment, and the Army Transport Corps.


The State Research boys, who had acquired a reputation for heavy drinking, chasing after women and driving around Kampala in search of both real and perceived enemies of the regime, were forced to abandon their sleek Honda Accords and Honda Civics plus their civilian attire and dark glasses. They were given guns and battle fatigues, put under the command of Capt Mzee Yosa and sent to the frontline at Lukaya, where they hoped to begin a systematic annihilation of the enemy. Sule, then the head of the Lubiri-based Paratrooper School, moved in with his paratroopers and they took command of the operations in Lukaya.

So important had the issue of the defence of Kampala become that even people like Gowan and Maliyamungu joined Sule in boosting the morale of our troops. While Sule was welcomed by the soldiers, many of the troops in Lukaya viewed Gowan and Maliyamungu as harbingers of ill luck. Indeed, they claimed that no sooner would the two arrive at a troop location, than enemy rocket fire would start landing there.

Efforts by some embarrassed junior officers to explain to the troops that the enemy, aware of the two senior officers' presence at the front, were raining down as many rockets as possible with the hope of killing one of them, fell on deaf ears. The two were so hated by the troops that they were soon referred to as bisirani, meaning bad omen, and each time a rocket would land in an area near where the two men happened to be, the echo from the troops would always be "Muna wona?" (Did you see that?).


It finally dawned on Sule that the two were turning into liabilities, and he asked them to leave the frontline to him.

Despite the menace posed by the enemy artillery and the large numbers of troops that they threw at our positions, Sule, with a handful of experienced tank drivers and battle hardened sub commanders, held out in Lukaya for six days giving the enemy a totally unexpected fight.

Messages that I intercepted from my holdout in Sembabule revealed that the enemy forces had received a thrashing from our troops and that there were chances that they would be repulsed. This lifted my spirits. Despite the scarcity of resources, we still managed to hold a small feast to celebrate the enemy's severe losses in Lukaya. The next day, I intercepted yet another message from an unidentified Tanzanian commander: "I have been hit from the front, left and rear. If I am hit like this again, I shall withdraw to Masaka."

I rushed to my field map. A brief examination revealed that the mysterious commander had not talked about being hit from the right because what was to his right was Lake Victoria and there were no Ugandan troops there.

I quickly sent word to the men in Lukaya and to those who were still listening in at army headquarters, urging them to strengthen the Lukaya axis, but I did not get the response that I had anticipated. I was instead informed that Sule had been killed. Radio inquiries yielded two conflicting reports. While some officers claimed that Sule had been killed by enemy fire, other officers claimed that he had been crushed by one of the very tanks he was commanding. When we insisted on finding out the details, an anonymous voice told us to mind our business before switching off the radio. With that, Sembabule lost all contact with Lukaya.


Sule's death was the turning point on that axis. The minute the news trickled down to the troops, the entire command and organisational structure in Lukaya simply fizzled out. Foot soldiers and officers alike abandoned their locations and fled, making the enemy's advance to Kampala a cakewalk.

Suicide Regiment now lost all communication with other fighting forces. We were left with no option but to dig in and continue defending our location in Sembabule.


On the afternoon of April 11, 1979, I gave one of my platoons orders to engage a company of Tanzanian soldiers who were reported to have pitched camp at the nearby sub-county headquarters. I was, however, forced to put my plans off when a warrant officer II called Constantine approached me and advised me not to send out any soldiers before listening to the five o'clock news bulletin on Radio Uganda.


The waiting was tense. We smoked continuously. At five o'clock, we gathered around the radio. A voice I first heard in 1965 was speaking – the deep, unmistakable voice of Maj-Gen David Oyite Ojok.


Amin had been overthrown.