By BRIGHT ANTHONY MALERE
The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels are back in the news. They are said to be conscripting children as young as five years, according to a video clip the Uganda People’s Defence Forces released recently. But way back on Saturday August 16, 1997, the ADF rebels abducted students of St. John the Evangelist Minor Seminary, Kiburara, Kasese district.
BRIGHT ANTHONY MALERE was one of them. He recounts the harrowing experience and his escape from captivity
It was a chilly Thursday afternoon, August 14, 1997. The chill was made worse by the sense of fear that hovered over St. John the Evangelist Minor Seminary, Kiburara. As young seminarians, we could detect the apprehensive mood of the rector, Msgr. Landus Bwambale. For a week, he had been conspicuously pensive.
I saw Bwambale move up and about in the compound. All of a sudden, he came behind our dormitory, matchbox in hand, and burnt the grass patch that stood between the dormitories and the school farm. We didn’t know what to make of his action. Rectors in Catholic seminaries are always unquestionably right. We only muttered that he was lucky the spear grass was mature enough to burn under the chilly conditions.
Stories had been rife in the area that the ADF rebels would ‘visit’ us. Two days earlier, on August 12, they had ‘visited’ a family in the neighbourhood and killed them all. Without a survivor’s testimony, all we heard were conflicting stories. Some claimed the rebels wanted to abduct young boys for conscription into the ADF, while others claimed they just wanted food. With student banter, we started joking about it: some students said the rebels wanted virgin girls. It was believed that since ours was a boys-only school, the rebels would not have anything to do with us.
Other students said the rebels wanted medicine; but we still thought our small first aid facility would not attract a visit. However, the most probable explanation for the rebels’ interest in ‘visiting’ us was to take the school’s generator. Earlier in the week, they had been reported to have visited Saad Plantation Farm, which had a generator. Incidentally, they did not find it. The generator had been taken to Kasese town for service.
Kiburara and Kasese are 50km apart. After the incident of the massacre of an entire family, our teachers directed us to move in groups of four or five. That order took effect on Thursday. The seminary stands on the most prominent hill in Kiburara. If it were used as a military fortress, it would be difficult to attack. If it were a recreational facility like a hotel, the view of the rolling hills and savannah grasslands of Queen Elizabeth National Park, would give it a marketing offering.
But now, stripped of the spear grass patch, the seminary was exposed as an ugly patch. The school had a productive farm that provided most of our food needs - maize, cassava, bananas and potatoes. The animal section supplied milk and eggs; not to forget the meat, particularly during celebrations.
About 30 people from the surrounding communities worked and earned their living from the school farm. The labourers were our only source of information from the outside world. From the labourers, the rector is said to have learnt that the rebels had planned to attack the seminary on Thursday. But it is said they were warned: the generator was so big that they would need very many men to carry it.
The rector seemed to have taken the reports rather seriously. That was why he burnt the bushes around the school on that chilly evening, to deny the rebels any bush cover. Thursday night passed without incident. We later learnt that the rebels did not attack us that night because Nyamugasani River had burst its banks, so they failed to cross it.
The next day was Assumption Day, a big day in the Catholic Church. We had a big celebration at school - we feasted and prayed that the rebels would divert their minds from us.
By Saturday, we had sort of relaxed. The rebels seemed to have given up on ‘visiting’ us; or our prayers had been answered. That day, we were unusually left on our own, untended to by our teachers. We had our meals and nobody ordered us to go for prep. We treated the relaxed mood with an extension of the Assumption Day celebration.
The only activity on Saturday was saying prayers. In the chapel, we sang to the Virgin Mary and meditated about life. Finally, we were told that there were no more activities and that the generator was going to be switched off. We sat in the open space, between one dormitory and a laboratory block, enjoying the moonlight and sharing stories.
I sat under a bougainvillea tree, with four friends - Alex Balyebuga, Musinguzi, Bitambeki and John Baptist Kabyemera. Incidentally, even when the mood had relaxed, all we talked about was the rebels. We talked about how we would behave and hide in case the rebels attacked, everyone suggesting his best escape strategy. We even blamed the rector for burning the grass where we would hide.
As we talked, a silhouette of a man appeared from nowhere. At first, we thought it was our teacher. And all we feared was that a teacher had caught us speaking vernacular. We switched to English immediately. As the man stood over us saying nothing, we heard a commotion in the classrooms.
The truth was that as we were cowering under the watchful eye of the unidentifiable ‘teacher’, rebels had already surrounded the school premises. And the unidentifiable ‘teacher’ was a rebel. They seem to have timed their attack to when the moon was blocked by cloud cover. By the time the clouds had moved, the rebels had captured the students who were in the classrooms.
My childhood friend, James Opio, with whom I had joined the seminary, was one of the first students to be abducted. He had gone to the classroom after prayers, saying he would join us shortly. Even with what we thought was the commotion in the classroom, we did not understand what was taking place, until we heard gunshots. We ran for safety; we run in disarray. We were later to learn that two students, who were in the dining hall, had seen people whose identity they could not establish. With the unidentified people moving towards
them, they scampered for safety.
The rebels, in their haste to stop the running students, shot at them; these are the shots that announced the rebel attack to us. My friends and I ran to the dormitory.
“Open the door!” they commanded. “We shall shoot your colleagues if you don’t open the door!” The students who had been taken captive pleaded with us to open the dormitory doors. We opened the doors. Dormitories were ransacked, shooting was sporadic; we all lay there, at the mercy of the attackers, who were being commanded by a lady. They were fierce.
I was a young seminarian training to be a Catholic priest, with a personal ambition of becoming a bishop later in life. There were 41 of us abducted that night and taken to the wilderness in the Rwenzori mountains. We were conscripted into the rebellion. From the seminary, we were asked to carry the entire luggage that the rebels had laid their hands on. We moved through the school farm, where some goats were picked, along with two farm workers.
We continued through Nyamugasani River and went northwards. At that point, I could not trace where we were headed as I had no idea of the area. The rebels moved so fast that most of us struggled to keep pace with them. After what seemed like a very long trek, we rested.
At this point, one student asked the rebels to let us return home. They were friendly. They said we were only carrying their loot and that we would return to school. This brought some hope and we soldiered on.
After about two days of walking, we arrived at a camp in the mountains. We were welcomed and given people to guard us. We were given a meal of beans and posho. After eating, one of the commanders briefed us. We were going to help them fight the Government. That killed any hopes we had of returning. We became disillusioned. What kept us together were prayers.
LIFE IN THE JUNGLES
We were introduced to military drills and political science. Alex, who excelled, immediately earned the admiration of the commanders and was put in charge of other students. While in the camp, one commander recognised one of us. They were from the same family! He immediately made him his escort, to protect him from harsh conditions. That enabled him access good food. He later became our source of provisions like salt and cassava. Unfortunately, he was arrested in DR Congo, where he had gone to buy food for the rebels.
During the training, one of the cooks we had been abducted with attempted to escape with James Opio. They were intercepted. The cook was killed immediately and Opio was given 100 strokes of the cane, which inflicted wounds on him that later turned infectious. Due to lack of medication, he eventually died.
After a brief training and with increased risk of students escaping, we were separated and deployed to different camps. Occasionally, we would hear from one another if a member from one camp visited our camp or was carrying an errand. They gave us updates of how our friends were faring; who had escaped and who had disappeared during an attack. The rebels always told us that there were no people in Kasese and that they had all either been killed or were rebels. But that did not deter us from planning our escape.
I was determined to escape. I always discussed this with my four colleagues. We were lucky the person who was guarding us did not speak English. In the disguise of praying, we would pray and after a short while start speaking to each other on how we would beat the security. When he asked what we were doing, we always said we were praying.
We did not know the way because we had never gone for any operation. It seems we were staying at the head camp since other camps always came to meet commanders and get instructions. Other friends would tell us how they had been involved in operations.
From our planning, we had mapped out the weakest point, where security was not tight. We agreed that since we had come walking upwards, we would run downwards, until we reached Bushenyi, since ‘all people in Kasese had either been killed or were rebels’. I assured my friends that I knew Bushenyi since I had travelled there several times. I told them that if we walked up to Katunguru, we would get assistance to reach safety.
On D-Day, after our mandatory prayers, we signaled and simply run down. This caused momentary confusion in the camp as we could see other people running in disarray. I think they thought the camp had been attacked. We ran downwards as per our plans. The bullets that followed only injured us. I was shot in my left arm, my friend got hit in the thigh, but we continued running.
After the ¬first day, we moved at night to avoid detection. We would spend the day hiding in shrubs. At some point, we came across a group of rebels but successfully hid from them. One time, a group we recognised as UPDF passed by the shrub we were hiding under, but for the fear of being shot, we remained concealed. It took us four nights of movement to the lowlands. We did not mind since we expected to be moving to
One night, we recognised electricity from afar. This gave us hope and courage. Unknown to us, we had reached Kyalhumba in Kasese. One of us recognised the Catholic Church Parish building. Kyalhumba is a town deep in the mountains beyond which there was no motorised transport.
Since we could not approach the town at that time, we decided to hide in a shrub that was in an old woman’s garden. In the morning, we could hear people speak. But the old woman seems to have suspected something was amiss in her garden. We could also sense that there was something wrong. She noti¬fied her friends.
On the fourth day, UPDF soldiers surrounded the area, with guns on the ready. They ordered us out of the bush, with hands raised. We explained that we were seminarians who had been abducted. They asked us the name of the seminary, names of some teachers, the rector’s name and the name of the Kasese Diocese. We gave them the right answers.
We were then ordered to move forward with hands raised and they safely took us into their custody. We were checked into hospital for treatment. Some of the abducted seminarians managed to escape, others were rescued, but many did not make it back. James Opio, Francis Kadole, Francis Bitambeki and Musinguzi all died in the wilderness.
The last batch of the abducted seminarians to be rescued was picked as they came to attack Mutundwe Hill (in Kampala) in 2000. Some of those rescued have been integrated in the UPDF, while others have been integrated in civilian life.