By John Semakula
At 77 years, Kajabago-ka-Rusoke narrates the suffering he went through at the hands of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) soldiers at Nile Mansions as if the incident happened yesterday.
Nile Mansions stood where Serena Hotel stands today and hundreds of people suspected to be National Resistance Army (NRA) fi ghters were taken there and most were tortured to death. The Nile Mansions Hotel became infamous from Idi Amin’s regime as an interrogation and torture chamber.
It was also used by Obote II soldiers. Throughout the conversation, Kajabago keeps pausing and repeating himself: “I am lucky to be alive.”
But it is over three decades since Kajabago experienced the dark days of the regimes of the early post-independent Uganda. He had just walked out of his office at Nyanza Textile Industry (NYTIL) in Jinja going for lunch when he was ambushed.
On February 20, 1981, a speeding car pulled up in front of Kajabago and within seconds, a soldier with a pistol jumped out and forced him into the car.
Kajabago (right) and his captor’s next stop was at Jinja Central Police Station.
The incident happened less than a month after President Yoweri Museveni and his group of 26 fighters had launched a guerrilla war against Obote’s regime.
Months before the incident, Kajabago had been seen with Museveni, Kahinda Otafiire, Eria Kategaya and Amanya Mushega opening the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) branch in Jinja.
Kajabago was then 44-years-old and very vocal.
Due to his vocal personality, Kajabago, a Mutoro, had been elected secretary UPM in Jinja District dominated by Basoga.
At NYTIL, Kajabago was a receiving officer, a job that put him in charge of receiving raw materials and other items. “I was accounting for over sh1m on a daily basis,” he says.
Shortly after Kajabago was arrested, he identified his tormentor as Lt. Tom Oyo. While pointing a pistol at him, Oyo told Kajabago that the Nyankole were nothing and would not succeed in toppling Obote.
When Oyo mentioned Nyankole in reference to the lean men from western Uganda who had waged a war against Obote, Kajabago knew he was dead.
“I realised that Oyo and Obote had no ideology because they were fighting Museveni and his supporters as Nyankole and not as bad Ugandans.”
From Central Police Station at Jinja, Kajabago was transferred by Oyo to the Nile Mansions in Kampala. Not so many people who were taken to Nile Mansions survived. From Jinja, Oyo kept insulting and intimidating Kajabago.
But cornered, Kajabago kept silent. The insults intensified at Namanve in Mukono district, a deadly spot then where opponents of Obote were bludgeoned and slaughtered before their bodies were left to rot. At Namanve, they encountered three bodies of government soldiers.
“I later learnt that they had been killed by the ragtag rebels of the late Andrew Kayira,” Kajabago says. Oyo then got out of the car to see the bodies.
“When he returned, he was visibly angry. He pulled out his pistol and pushed it into my mouth. I knew I was gone. He repeated his earlier statement castigating the Banyankole but without pulling the trigger.
He lowered the gun and the car sped off again towards Kampala. I was terrified,” Kajabago says. On arrival at the Nile Mansions, Kajabago was handed over to a Police officer at the reception.
“Oyo ordered the officer not to kill me because they still needed to get information out of me,” he says.
Close call to death
Oyo then left but before he could reach the gate, a group of Langi and Acholi soldiers pounced on Kajabago and kicked him left, right and centre.
Kajabago says he identifi ed the tribes of the soldiers because he had studied with many of the boys from northern Uganda at Nyakasura School. “I think they beat me to avenge the death of their three colleagues in Namanve,” he narrates.
On that same evening, a soldier carrying an AK47 rifle hit Kajabago with a gun and dislocated his jaw. “I could neither talk nor eat for several weeks after the incident,” he says.
Kajabago confesses that he is neither a Christian nor a Muslim but God must have been on his side that day. For the next three months Kajabago spent at Nile Mansions, he was never treated for the injuries. His ribs had been dislocated during the kicking, but he was only advised by a friendly Police officer from western Uganda to sleep on the floor for them to heal.
Inside the prison, the conditions were terrible because inmates picked lice from each other, had hollow eyes and were as thin as pens. Seeing light in the cell only happened when someone was being collected for early morning canes.
With time, Kajabago’s ribs healed and the pain stopped, but his bones especially around the neck have never gone back to their normal position. The three months Kajabago was at the Nile Mansions, he was breathing in death.
The six men he met in the tiny room which became his home for three months were rotting away.
“Pus was oozing from the wounds they sustained from the daily beatings. Unfortunately, we were not talking to each other. Each one of us treated the other as a government spy so you could only hear the jeering in the room,” Kajabago explains.
When Kajabago’s wife and relatives learnt that he had been arrested and detained at the Nile Mansions, they started visiting him. They bribed their way to see him.
Kajabago, on the other hand used the money he was getting from his wife to bribe the officers who would excuse him from the beatings. He would buy them kasese, a local brew.
“But before taking it, they would ask me to first taste because they feared being poisoned,” he says.
Release from detention
After spending three months in detention at the Nile Mansions, a Police Offi cer identified as Opio from the CID department picked Kajabago from the cell and took him to the Central Police Station.
He later freed him and advised him to run away from Kampala. Kajabago says: “He told me that if my former boss at NYTIL found out that I had been released, he would make sure that I was re-arrested. It was at that point that I realised he had been behind my arrest.”
Kajabago heeded the officer’s advice and fled Kampala to Nyabushozi in Kiruhura district. “I did not want to go back to my father’s home in Tooro because they would easily trace me,” he says.
From 1980 to 1984, Kajabago took refuge in Nyabushozi but when he heard that his father, Samson Rusoke the former prime minister of Toro Kingdom was on his death bed, Kajabago went back to Toro to bury him.
Joining the army
In 1985, Kajabago was recruited by the current Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Kahinda Otafiire. He joined the NRM guerrilla war. When NRA took over power, Kajabago became a lecturer.
In the first post independent government, Kajabago was a UPC supporter and the party’s secretary in Tooro region but when he returned from a political science course in the former Soviet Union, he abandoned politics.
Kajabago says he feared for his life because the leaders of UPC then had lost direction. He returned from the Soviet Union in 1967 but remained quiet and politically inactive until 1981.
“I saw Museveni and his group as a new breed of leaders for the country.” Kajabago says President Museveni was pro-people especially since he had just come from Tanzania where he had interacted with former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere.
“Today, I am still with the same group because they are not killers,” Kajabago says. However, Kajabago adds that under a pro-people government, Ugandans should not be made to pay for water and rent for land since they are free gifts of nature.
He also supports public enterprises at the expense of private enterprises which encourage corruption.
Katonga bridge, the jewel of the liberation