It is seven years since the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) deployed in the war torn nation. Unknown to many is that among the 7,000 troops of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), there are 62 Ugandan women at the frontline, exchanging fire with the al-Shabaab. Carol Natukunda interacted with a few of them
Lieutenant Halima Kabahingu was only 12 when she decided enough was enough. “There were all these tales about Obote, so I woke up one day and went to Karugutu, high up in the mountains on the Fort Portal-Bundibugyo Road and started military training.
I was happy they did not chase me away for being young,” she recalls. But she had not told anyone and her parents were particularly worried. “Someone tipped my father and he came fuming to pick me… I refused,” Kabahingu recalls. “After pleading and pleading, he gave up.” Kabahingu has been in Somalia since 2007 and she is stationed at different checking points within Mogadishu.
She does not take anything for granted. “Some men dress up like women to hide improvised explosive devices. Even women hide a lot of things in their traditional apparel. I always have to be on the lookout,” she explains. She adds that she has also had situations where she goes to the battlefield. “I know how to station myself, calculate my moves and shoot. I don’t look at myself as a woman, but as any soldier,” she says. Isn’t she scared of being in a war zone with the most wanted terror group? “No way!” she says emphatically and bursts into laughter.
“God created us to die. There is no formula about life even if I stayed in Uganda,” she says, adding that she has all the experience to know how to attack the al-Shabaab. At 42, she says, she had chosen to retire, but later decided to go and beef up security when the army asked veterans to apply. Yet, she confesses, she is sometimes worried about her children.
“Al-Shabaab means you have to be alert 24/7. In between this, your child beeps you and your heart skips thinking something bad has happened to them. Relatives think because we are in Somalia, we are earning millions of dollars, so they never stop calling with all sorts of problems,” she says. She hints that her husband, who was once a soldier himself, ‘dumped’ her.
She does not want to say why. But remembering her role model (Brig Nalweyiso) keeps her going. “I had my first four children in the bush and I would go for combat until towards the last months of pregnancy. “Nalweyiso used to look after our babies during the bush war and even give us special food and shawls for our babies as we fought. For me, serving in a high risk area like this is to inspire other younger women soldiers,” she reasons. Kabahingu urges veteran soldiers not to overlook themselves. “They should stop sitting in selfpity. President Museveni knows us. They should stop focusing on tension when there is a lot they can do,” she says.
Even though she is a caterer, Deborah Kirunda is armed and ready to face the al-Shabaab
At 24, she is one of the youngest female soldiers at the frontline having been deployed to Somalia in September 2013. She calls herself the “gunner.” “I gun even from the aircraft,” she says, as she heads out heavily armed, ready for the next operation.
The small bodied Kirunda is one of the oldest serving AMISOM officers. The 49-year-old mother of three works as a caterer for the UPDF officers based at the Sea Port unit in Mogadishu. It is a busy and heavily armed port as it is the only entry point where logistics are supplied. Kirunda does not just stop at cooking. She also has her gun and firearms nearby to contain the al-Shabaab should they attack when she is busy with the saucepans.
Kirunda joined the army in 1982 at the age of 15. At the time, her father had been murdered by the then government forces over claims that he was supplying guns to the then NRA freedom fighters. With a heart so full of revenge, she and her four siblings decided to join the NRA
They went for military training and the rest, as they say, is history. Although she should be retired by now, she feels she still has the energy to fight. “I came to Somalia in 2012. I never went to school, but all my life I have been in military. This is the only job I know,” she says. “There is nothing to fear about the al- Shabaab.
They are a dying force. My job like the rest of my colleagues is to keep the enemy away,” she says. She also reveals that her children keep her going. “My husband died long ago, I don’t have a house yet. In Uganda, I stay in the barracks with my children. One is at university, one in S6 and another in S3 — she is an albino and faces a lot of stigma. I have to fight two wars; al-Shabaab and for my children.”
She joined the army at the age of 14 in 1985. Under AMISOM, she is stationed at different check-in points in war torn Mogadishu. There have been times she has had to exchange direct fire with the al-Shabaab. “Sometimes, they just want to see how alert you are,” she says. Birungi also ensures there are no suspicious characters around the military bases. And even with the sound of gun shots and explosions being commonplace in parts of Somalia, the last thing on her mind is to run.
“The helmets and chest jackets are all bullet proof. As long as my brain and chest (heart) are protected, I can still be able to shoot back, even if my legs were injured,” she says without any sign of worry on her face. A single mother of five, serving under the AMISON has been largely rewarding for her. “They give us an allowance and the rest is forwarded to the bank accounts.
I have been able to build a small house in my village in Mbarara,” she says, but quickly appeals to the Government to consider putting in place a special monetary package for the women at the frontline. “Most of us have broken relationships because a man will simply look for another woman since you are not with him all the time. You find you are overwhelmed with caring for the children,” Birungi says
Grace Birungi’s work involves mostly guarding various check-points to avert any attacks by al-Shabaab
Women soldiers are the moral strength of the army
Composition Since the beginning of the peacekeeping mission, Uganda has sent a total of 219 women soldiers under AMISOM, 62 of whom are still active in Somalia, according to UPDF spokesperson Lt. Col Paddy Ankunda. “Women soldiers in the UPDF represent the moral strength of the army.
They played an important role during the liberation war and continue to do the same even today,” Ankunda says. However, women soldiers comprise only 4% of the entire army. World over, there is a debate on whether women soldiers should be at the front line.
The US only lifted the ban on women soldiers in combat last year. Women are often in fighter jets and behind the trigger of M240s that are mounted to the sides of Black Hawk helicopters and they are superb at their jobs — as good as any man in any unit. But on the ground, it can be tough. With heavy body armour and ammunition, climbing in, jumping out, on your feet, on the ground, running, dragging, day after day, night after night, week after week, for months on end — can prove to be hectic for some women soldiers.
However, security sources dismiss these claims. “After our rigorous and continuous training, you cannot be the same again,” says a senior army officer. The defense state minister, Jeje Odongo, says whereas in the past the army has attempted to give women softer deployments, they later realised that is not necessarily what women want. “Surprisingly, the women are the ones who want those difficult tasks.
They want to be where the men are because they feel they can handle what a man can handle,” observes Odongo. He stresses that Uganda has policies that encourage women to join the army. “When a woman gets pregnant, there is special consideration for them. We allow them to have their full maternity leave as the law requires. We are also building the capacity of a female soldier so that their numbers are increased.
Through the directorate of women, we want girls to be encouraged and given an option to join the army as a career,” says Odongo. He states that it might be difficult to have a special financial package for the woman soldiers who have families. “The problem is with the African society. We need to sensitise their spouses about the life of a career woman and the nature of the job. That way, they will appreciate their work,” he says.
Hats off to the women on the frontline