By the dawn of 2013, I had done many stories that ‘took no prisoners’ about the army. The stories, in my honest opinion, were angled at understanding the Ugandan army more and also finding out which part of the army held the most power.
I’d done a bit on how Ugandan ferried guns had ended up in the dangerous Baakara arms market and how the Al-shabab had used those to fight our troops. This story, which was largely based on facts sourced from a UN monitoring report did not go down well with the army ranks.
In the story, I’d pointed out how AMISOM labeled bullets, meant for the Ugandan contingent, were in possession of terrorist elements in the Baakara arms market. I had specificity in the details I refered to, which I think angered the army chiefs more.
Subsequently, I’d get a call from army spokesperson Felix Kulaigye then who said that the army wanted to show the press their ‘commitment’ to the peace process in Somalia. Over the phone, he said that the army wanted to take journalists to the peace keeping operations training and command centre in Singo, Luweero.
Singo was a cool 2 hours drive to the North West of Kampala. It was a deserted village with surprise houses that popped out of large swathes of vegetation once in a long ride of the road. Our transport officer, only identified as Lt. Emma drove fast and only paused to respond to our complaints with a simple, “The general wants you in Singo by 11am”. Emma was broad-chested soldier with heavy muscles underneath his arms, he kept a pistol on the left side of his army uniform and wore a light green beret that was reserved for the peacekeeping forces.
The heat welcomed us into the dusty Singo together with far-fetched sounds of gun shots. The shots, we were told were of soldiers training to join the peace-keeping force in Somalia. After rounds of introductions and pleasantries, the Chief of Defence Forces General Katumba Wamala, who was flanked by Major General David Muhoozi, the Land forces chief signaled for us to board into a waiting green pickup truck.
We would later be told that the trip would wind in the Singo hills where we’d been hearing gunshots coming from. Our aide, noticing our discomfort told us we’d strap into bullet-proof vests and that the battle line was drawn out with a red flag, however, he quickly added that the army couldn’t guarantee we’d be safe afterall.
My heart sank. I knew I was confident about many things, just not standing in the middle of multiple gunshots and explosives. The closer we got, the less interested I got and by the time we were due to get off the truck, I’d braved my heart to accept any consequence that came out.
At the battle front, we found the CDF whose car had gone ahead of us. He’d strapped into his bullet proof vest and wore a metallic dark-blue helmet. He was calm, so were all the soldiers around us. The calmness was infact uncanny. The ground was shaking at each explosive fired and with increased gunshots, we grew more and more scared of our lives.
They drafted us behind a team of seven combat ready soldiers and we’d tail them into an erected structure of cloth punched through by bullet holes. The structure was a mock building to which soldiers would carry out a mock drill, only with live bullets!
Hordes of soldiers would occasionally pop out of bushes as we approached the structure, doing what in military terms is called ‘offering back-up’. The soldiers were soiled in black grease paint and covered fully in bullet proof vests over their green army uniforms. They had bags to their backs and guns in their hands. Only one soldier stood out with what looked like radio call TETRA communication gadgets. He was, as we’d later discover, the only contact the soldiers maintained with the headquarters.
When the drills were done, my ears had grown deaf with a constant buzzing sound, my balance on the ground was heavily affected, I could hardly see in the dust settling down after explosives were fired and neither was my sense of location any better. I simply tailed behind the soldiers. After we’d ‘captured’ the room with a red flag, the commander shouted loud for a ceasefire and momentarily all shooting stopped.
In over 45 minutes, my view of soldiers had completely been altered. I had a new found respect for people who staked their lives in Somalia, Central African Republic and South Sudan fighting objectives far-fetched from national security.
I fondly recall however in our return trip to the city how I’d stared at Lt Emma, a former peace-keeping soldier who’d landed with the first batch of soldiers into a Mogadishu that had been strewn with Al-shabab remanants. And in that stare, I kept asking, “How on earth does he remain calm after all this?”