The Rwenzori Mountains were always the tricky side of Uganda’s patched up state. Seated on the fence with the mineral rich but conflict ridden Democratic Republic of Congo and valleyed with a large Lake Albert, they always served up many conflicts of administration.
The Ugandan government’s stance to sustain the colonial administration of their cultural heritages under the lucrative but poorly managed Tooro Kingdom didn’t boil down well with the local leaders. Even in their own profiles, many of the leaders of the local kingdoms and chiefdoms tucked in the mountains were hard, war-built and fierce fighters. The king of the Rwenzururu Kingdom, Charles Wesley Mumbere, was a soldier, so was his father who started a rebellion together with the Badhingiya to break away from Tooro Kingdom.
My own understanding of this history and region as a journalist was largely built on the influence of many family contacts who held administrative positions in the army and local administration. My uncle had been a part of the Rwenzori brigade which had been deployed to avert attack of the Allied Democratic Front rebels who’d set many families and schools on fire during their insurgency. My father had volunteered to print the much hyped European Union funded research of the conflict in the region and so many of its copies had littered our living room and I did well at nibbling away page by page.
So when the first call came in from a local journalist friend that the region had erupted into a conflict, I was the best placed – at the time – in the newsroom to handle the story. I quickly worked the lines and got a primary picture of what had happened.
The sources I primarily contacted said, a group of youths armed with machetes and a few rifles had come descending down the mountains and pounced on unsuspecting police officers and soldiers and made off with their ammunition. Their next target after acquiring ammunition was to rob stanbic bank to keep their coffers strong to sustain a siege on the region. The attackers then retreated to the mountains that morning.
Given the nature of the attack, many army leaders had become panicky of the motives of the attackers.
Back in the newsroom, it was a mix of excitement and panic. Just how long would this attack last? Was it the defunct ADF attacking again? How many lives had been lost? Who are the attackers? Why are they attacking? Why Rwenzori?
I was a young journalist and the phrase ‘no story is worth your life’ didn’t actually ring many bells my way. It wasn’t foreseeable for me that the ‘Rwenzoris’ had now become a war zone in which lives could potentially be lost. All I had on my mind was, ‘Lets head down there and tell the story”.
When the newsroom met, it was resolved that we pitch and draw funds and head to the Rwenzori mountains to tell the story. In the meantime, we’d rely much on local journalists and radio presenters.
There were severed photos of bodies that kept popping into my phone through my whatsapp from my journalist friends in the region. The bodies had been lined up on the streets and bore bruises indicating beatings and shooting. The whole town in Bundibugyo had closed for business save for the few shops which were run by former soldiers that had ammunition (I later learnt they were part of the reserve force of the army).
Bundibugyo was fast flaming up and many reports of mass graves had started to filter through. Back in Kampala, it was resolved we’d not travel until it was safe enough to camp in the region. The army had started conducting house searching operations and making many arrests.
Brigadier Peter Elwelu, the division commander and in charge of operation was a friend, we’d met after he’d finished his stint in Somalia and kept in close touch. When I rang him, in his calm but rather anticipatory voice, he’d assured me that the army had everything under control.
Police had, by this time, rounded up over 400 people and thoroughly caned and bruised them in the process. The station we visited when we first arrived was beaming with young faces of scar-bruised men, half naked, with no shoes on. They looked timid and innocent but the army didn’t believe them.
On the tarmac highway that connected Bundibugyo to the DRC were dotted army check points where cars were searched and turned over for potential ammunition. At one checkpoint, a private was questioning a driver on why they had a panga in their backseat. Given the urgency I was on, I didn’t stay to watch its end….