Twenty eight years ago, the National Resistance Army (NRA) took over Kampala after a five-year guerrilla war. New Vision reviews the war and its outcomes.
By Joshua Kato
The early morning breeze sweeps through the thick papyrus swamp creating an eerie atmosphere as one approaches the bridge at River Katonga.
The place has been partially filled up with earth as part of the construction work on the main Masaka Road. However, when the waters are flowing normally, this river, 48km before Masaka and just a kilometre from Kayabwe, is difficult to miss.
This bridge is the obvious gateway to south-western Uganda; one that every traveller to the west has to cross, whether on Masaka Road or through Gomba.
In December 1985, this bridge was a battlefield. Hundreds of National Resistance Army (NRA) fighters lay in their defences in the southern edges, while Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA ) soldiers battled to break through from the Kampala direction.
These battles that started around September, and only ended almost at the end of December are etched in the realms of Uganda’s history as some of the bloodiest battles the country has ever witnessed. In fact, as soon as the NRA crossed the bridge, Kampala was but a walk over!
This river should be one of Uganda’s heroes – that is if places are to be celebrated. No wonder, an unmistakable symbol of this contribution, but one that has never been officially launched stands out domineeringly just after crossing it from Kampala.
The huge structure bears two photos both of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and late Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi in different poses.
Although the flow of the river has been slowed down by the ongoing construction work, in the late 1970s and mid-80s, it was flowing from the Gomba side towards Lake Victoria, joining the lake near Golo landing site.
A battle-laden history
During the 1979 war that toppled Idi Amin, most of the Libyan soldiers that were fighting alongside the Uganda Army (UA), the then nation army, were killed around the Katonga area and on the 16km stretch to Lukaya.
At the time, the UA deployed units of the then ‘feared’ Suicide Regiment and Chui at Katonga, to supplement the efforts of the Libyans. But after the death of Col. Godwin Sule in the battles of Lukaya, from Katonga, the odds were stacked against the UA.
“Since the death of Sule, our tanks became disorganised,” said a senior army officer at the time.
Some of the residents of Kayabwe saw the bodies of Libyan fighters strewn all over the stretch and over the bridge. “
They were there, both on the road and in the swamp. It was scary; the battle was tough,” says Edward Biruma, a resident of Kayabwe.
The killing of the Libyans not only at Katonga, but through the entire stretch from Lukaya, marked the final stand for the Uganda Army. To remember them, a symbol was set up a few years ago. The huge plaque, however, has never been officially opened by the leaders and may never be since Gadaffi is long dead.
A bridge too bloody…
But it is the fierce battles of December 1985 that likened Katonga to ‘Waterloo’ in Europe, Kandahar in Afghanistan and Misrata in Libya.
This is where the common phrase, Olutalo lw’e Katonga, used in reference to a bloody battle originated.
“If the UNLA were well-trained, there is no way we could have crossed that bridge. They had the means to outflank our positions using the lake and the floating islands but they did not do it,” says a senior UPDF officer, then a young fighter in the NRA.
It was easy for the NRA to realise how the crossing was a strategic achievement, militarily. They had used similar tactics in Luwero to defeat big UNLA offensives. Such crossings included Kikubanimba near Kiwoko, Lumansi near Wobulenzi, Nabisojo near Ngoma, Kalongero on River Danze near Semuto and most of the crossings on River Mayanja and Kafu.
Earlier between August and October 1985, the NRA had swept through most of the western and central Uganda, after Fred Rwigyema and his 2IC Julius Chihande captured most of Rwenzori, Fort Portal and moved further to take over Mbarara after several fierce battles and encirclement of government forces. They had captured Mubende, Mityana and Busunju too. They then moved northwards towards Masaka.
On September 24, the siege of Masaka began with elements of the NRA 3rd Battalion, commanded by late Col. Patrick Lumumba leading the onslaught.
However, according to various accounts, the real battle for the town did not take place until nine or 10 days later after UNLA troops attacked Salim Saleh’s headquarters in Masaka and tried to capture it.
Elements of the 3rd Battalion under the command of late Col. Patrick Lumumba repelled the attack, said to have been coordinated by the then UNLA Lt. Julius Oketta (now a UPDF Maj. Gen.) and army MP. They chased the UNLA straight into the barracks and sealed it off. The siege of Masaka Barracks had begun!
With the NRA was in control of all the high grounds in the town, including Bwala hill, Kitovu, Kako and Kyabakuza it was only a matter of time before the barracks capitulated — so they thought. Initially, the garrison was under the command of Maj. John Tebandeke, who was killed by NRA in the initial assault.
His second in command, Capt. Ojara Olanya, another UNLA officer who later joined the NRA and rose to the rank of colonel, took over throughout the siege. To stop UNLA reinforcements from Kampala, there was a need to ‘cut’ off the main Masaka road.
River Katonga was the best position/location for this objective.
Young but able command
The NRA commanders had an average age of 24 years. However, most of them had been fighting for at least four to five years, hence had the experience.
Gen. Salim Saleh was the overall commander.
His battalion commanders who included now Maj. Gen. Pecos Kuteesa and late Fred Mugisha (1st Battalion) Brig. Stephen Kashaka and Col. Ahmed Kashillingi (5th Battalion) realised that if the vanguard of the UNLA units were to be destroyed, it had to be done only at the Katonga bridge.
This is why instead of fighting to go over the bridge, they dug defensive positions on the southern approaches from Masaka, but with open killing fields over the approaches from Kampala. “We dug in at Katonga in order to destroy the UNLA from there, far away from Kampala,” Museveni said.
Museveni reiterated that Katonga Bridge was important in more than one way. The NRA deployed the cream of the mobile forces at the bridge. Among these were the 1st Battalion commanded by now Maj. Gen. Pecos Kuteesa, deputised by late Fred Mugisha, the 5th Battalion under Brig. Stephen Kashaka and Col. Ahmed Kashillingi.
These units had taken part in most of the decisive battles in Luwero – for example, the attack on Masindi and Kabamba III, in addition to the Birembo and Kembogo battles.
The NRA used heavy machine guns such as 12.5mms, RPGs and 14.5mm placed on the other bank from Masaka, while the military junta units deployed similar weapons, in addition to 23mm, 37mm, 105mm guns, 120mm mortars, 122mm Stalin organs.
They also had old Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) that they used to try and break across the bridge. In one of the battles, however, one of them was destroyed by the NRA. Later, the UNLA also deployed a helicopter to among other things try to drop supplies to besieged troops in Masaka, but also to drop bombs and try to break the NRA hold around Katonga.
The bombs fell way off into the papyrus while the supplies on Masaka fell in NRA hands. On their part, the UNLA mainly had the 12th Battalion as the lead unit at Katonga, supported by hundreds of Karimojong warriors.
Most of them never left the battle field because of their ‘kifuba wazi’ (open chested) fighting style. In his accounts about the battles of Katonga, Kuteesa says the UNLA tried tens of times to break through the NRA defences, but failed.
“It is difficult to know how many soldiers died at Katonga. But they are in their tens,” says Kuteesa.
According to Kuteesa, the soldiers inside Masaka barracks had no food, medicine, clean water etc. Some accounts even pointed at soldiers feeding on the dead! On December 10th, 1985, Masaka barracks finally surrendered to the NRA.
The NRA captured many weapons, but also personnel like Ojara who joined the NRA ranks and later proved himself on the battlefield.
With the surrender of Masaka and Mbarara days later, the NRA started planning the battle for Kampala.