NEW SERIES: MY PRISON LIFE
 
 
February 1, 2007
Kasirye Gwanga is taken prisoner to Tanzania

BRIG. SAMWIRI WASSWA KASIRYE GWANGA joined the Uganda Army of Idi Amin in 1972. Like all defeated Amin soldiers, the Tanzania Peoples Defence Forces (TPDF) who helped in ousting Amin took him Prisoner of War in 1979 after he surrendered. He was to spend the next three years in Tanzanian and Ugandan detention centres.
On January 14, Gwanga narrated his story to SSEMUJJU IBRAHIM NGANDA and EDRIS KIGGUNDU at his Makindye residence:

After the fall of Amin in April 1979, the new government placed radio adverts. Tokweka omusajja wa Amin (do not shield any Amin soldier). This advert was frightening.

Lt. Kakooza, who had studied in Greece and was conversant with the Geneva Convention, told us that if you surrender, they leave you [alone].

But when he surrendered, we saw him being undressed and I realised that we were in trouble, but all the same we decided to surrender.

They asked us a few questions and took us to Radio Uganda. When the Maliyamungus were fleeing, they had abandoned their uniforms in the Nile Mansions. So they got the uniforms and forced us to wear them. They would mock us; Jambo Sir and you had to respond because even if you did not, they would still beat you.

There was one doctor who was crying heavily, I told him that even if you cry, they will torture you. They transferred us to a building near Arya Primary School in Kololo.

Then journalists came and started asking us questions. I realised that our survival would need divine intervention. We were very hungry because we had not eaten food for two days. On the third day, at 7.30p.m., they brought us rice. It had a good aroma and we were salivating.

But they had put sand in it. So we just licked it and swallowed. We had no choice. I took long to eat rice again.
To Tanzania.

They drove us in a bus, saying they were taking us to Kibuye. Some people outside were saying, “Bring them out and we lynch them.”

We were driven to Kabojja Primary School. Here, they brought the Libyan prisoners. There was this young Libyan who had a big wound on the leg; he must have been around 19 years.
One of the men came and stepped in the wound. They took all our belongings. I had Puma shoes which were very good. At this point there were about eight buses.

They drove us across Kagera [river] and I realised they were not going to kill us. There were some stupid officers [among us] who were saying that they are taking us for further training. I told them that “after beating you up; you think they can train you!”

To me it was fun because I was a soldier but most of them were in the Air Force and not prepared for what happened.

When we reached Ramilumba, we met other prisoners. We were hungry. When they brought food, it was poorly prepared posho with mukene. The toilets were constructed in such a way that about three people could be defecating while looking at each other. We spent there four days and they started recording us.

Those who had been in the Air Force, infantry and artillery were separated. They put us in buses. [Some] people claimed that Kenneth Kaunda [of Zambia] is the one who bought the chains and handcuffs which they used to tie us. We were blindfolded and put into the bus whose windows had been smeared with petrol and sand. One group went to Dodoma and for us we went to Tanga. We travelled for six days. At this point we had removed the blindfolds.

During the journey, we suffered from stomach upsets and pleaded with the soldiers to allow us go outside and relieve ourselves. They refused. So we decided to defecate in the bus. It became too much for them and they stopped at Geita where there was a stream and they dipped us in. We were not human beings. We reached Tanga when our feet were swollen. We could not stand.

They finally took us to a prison called Maweno. It was new and I think it had been constructed in preparation for us. We were ordered to remove our clothes and I saw people with yirizi (pieces of cloth tied around the hand and other body parts for mystical protection-talisman).

I asked them of what use these clothes were since they could not save them from going to prison. We were divided into groups of 52 and sent to different wards.

Inside Tz jail
It was my first time to go to prison. When I went to sleep, there was a lot of lice on the beddings. I got up screaming and I realised that everyone was shouting. There was so much lice. They used to give us posho and beans but not breakfast.

One day, I said to myself, I know something about the Geneva Convention which states that prisoners have rights. I woke up and started banging the door; my fellow prisoners asked me what was wrong. I told them leave me [alone]. I was being abused from all sides. The officers came running and I told them I wanted to see the Officer in Charge (OC). I went to his office; he knew a bit of Luganda because he had studied in Seeta Nazigo (Mukono).

I told him that when you brought us here as Prisoners of War, we were captured from Uganda, not Tanzania. I told him that since we arrived there, we had been treated badly, the food was poor, we could not smoke, so I had come to explain my dismay.

He had lit a cigarette so he gave me a bit. He even gave me a new packet and some coffee. Because I went back to the ward smoking, everyone wanted a taste of my cigarette. They started calling me. There was Vincent Byarugaba [of UABF] and someone called, Zinkubire, Muruli [Muhammed]. I would smoke and relax. After seven days, a truck with boxes came. They gave cigarettes to each prisoner.

We used to stay only in underwear. Those who had old and torn underwear were teased. For me I had a swimming costume.
The boxes contained super match packets and a radio which I was in charge of because I wanted to know what was happening [back] home.

In the morning, I would brief prisoners on the happenings in Uganda. I remember the song Sina makosa (Iam not guilty) was released around the same time. They started giving us bread. Cigarettes were distributed to everybody, including non smokers. We could exchange bread for cigarettes.

The deal was that each toast of bread was worth four cigarettes. Byarugaba started conducting exercises for prisoners and one morning the OC found us. Byarugaba was known to the Tanzanians. He ordered that each of us be given a loaf of bread. After four months, some Bazungu came, recorded our names and gave us numbers. Even today, if you went to Red Cross, you will find my number 17341 UA Staff Sergeant Kasirye.

They told us to write to our relatives and my late sister Nakato was the first to receive my letter. All my relatives, including my parents, thought I had died. They promised to bring us board games. They brought Ludo, chess and Karata (playing cards).

I am very good at chess even up to now. Since then, our prison lives improved. There was one particular person who was extremely worried. Whenever I would tell him that things were bad back at home, he would recoil and I would eat his bread. Later, I used this as a trick to eat his bread. So, if I felt I wanted more bread, I would go to him and ask him, “Do you know what is happening at home?

It is very bad.” He would say, “Are you sure?” I would tell him that many people are dying. After this, he would lose appetite and retreat to the corner. So I would take his bread. I would do it three days a week. One day, Dr. Bogere, who has since died, asked me, “Why do you eat the man’s bread?” I told him “that is how I survive.”

I also used to tell stories to fellow inmates for a price of cigarettes. In June 1980, I went outside the prison for the first time. They took me to a dentist in Tanga town. People looked at me because I had been chained.

Leaving Tz jail
One day, a prison official we used to call Chima Chima came and told us we were about to be taken back to Uganda. We jubilated. They put us in buses and drove us up to Dar-es-Saalam. They drove us to a prison called Mukuongwa. It had beds with mattresses but there were no blankets.

So I decided to cut the mattress cover so that I could fix myself inside the mattress at night. All other prisoners followed suit. The prison officials came and found all of us had slipped into the mattresses. We were happy. The next day they put us in cars and drove us to the prison college. They prepared for us good food; chicken, eggs, meat. We ate the food not knowing we were going to get stomach upsets. Later on, an official came and told us that they had released us and we were going back to Uganda. They expected us to be reformed citizens.

Some people were skeptical. They drove us for about 30 miles from Dar-es-Salaam to the train station and put us on a train which had boxes of biscuits and many other things. People spoilt themselves with eats. But we travelled for long because Tanzania is a vast country. When we reached Dodoma, we found some of our colleagues who joined us.

We proceeded to Mwanza where we found Red Cross people who were cross-checking our names. They put us on a ship, but I was still skeptical whether they had [indeed] released us. We proceeded to Bukoba where we found our colleagues from the Air Force. These people had been mudslinging us, saying we were the ones who killed people. So when they came onto the ship, we started quarrelling. Soldiers are like children.

We reached Jinja only to be greeted by machine gun-wielding soldiers. I said, “You see, I told you they will not release us.” They put us on a train to Mbale but those who knew Jinja well escaped.

Dumped in Mbale
We reached Mbale in the morning and they put us in a prison. Here, some people started receiving visitors. But for me I spent over two weeks without anybody coming to see me because no one knew I was there.

The most important thing in prison is food from outside. Some people were my friends before we went into prison but when they realised that I was not getting visitors and food, they started avoiding me. But there was a friend who they never chased. So whenever they would give him bananas, he would bring me some. But I told him that if they found out they were going to expel him.

It is in prison that people learn to pray. I had my book of Yuda Tadeo (St. Jude) which I would read, especially when I was losing hope. One day, they read out my name and they told me I had visitors. That is when my life improved.

Then I started thinking about escaping. We planned well until one doctor gave us in, so they foiled our attempt. I was the leader of the group.

The next day, early in the morning, they took all of us out of the prison to another hall which looked abandoned. It did not have proper locks. We found there some Somalis and a brigadier called Sabuune. We immediately chased away the Somalis from the corners because in prison the corner is the most comfortable place.

When I lay down, I saw smoke; then I asked where it was coming from. I immediately got a cup, got hot water and made coffee. So I realised that this was even better than the previous ward. We were eating well. I started even doing exercises. When they saw that I had built a muscular body, they became suspicious. They thought I wanted to escape. So one morning they surprised us.

They handcuffed us and put us on a Tata lorry. We were headed to another prison.

At Kirinya prison
We thought we were going to be taken to Luzira where were we were told other Amin soldiers were. But we were diverted to Kirinya which had two sections. The remand section on the upper side and the section near the water. They separated us into two groups. Five people went to the upper section and five to the lower. When we reached, there was a lot of shouting, only to realise that it was about food.

They had been allowed to prepare food for themselves. Food [was scarce] after the war and [so] there was none for detainees. So it was decided that the prisoners should be given raw food and stoves. The Itesot had sacks of meat. For us we were put in cells, not the general ward. We sent for things from home and used to eat even better than those outside the prison.

This was August 1980, towards the December general elections. There were prison officials who supported DP and [those who supported] UPC. They used to engage in arguments. One time I told them, “You people without guns, who are you going to defeat?” They told me, “For you… you will die in prison.”

Even on the day of voting, they left when they had locked us in our prisons. They came back in the evening shouting DP, DP. For us we were quiet. The next day all of them were quiet. At that time we heard statements on radio telling people not to talk about the elections and those doing so [were] threatened with prison.

We started teasing prison officials who were DP; shouting “DP egumiire…” They resorted to punishing us by reducing our food rations. We started to plot how to escape from prison. We got hand saws which were smuggled in through our food. They were three. We started cutting the metallic bars, gradually. It was a tedious job. We cut for one and a half months.

We would cut until a point when the bar is about to break and we stop. We knew that at the time of escape we would just push aside the weakened metal bars. But there was a woman within the prison.

I don’t know whether she just dreamt but on the day we were supposed to escape, she came and took some of us away from the cells. I was one of those who were put in another section. I knew that this chance had gone. The others who had stayed feared that we would report them but I assured them we would not.

In the morning, we had a soldier shouting “Hawo wote kwishakwenda” (all of them are gone); then we knew that the mission had succeeded. [However], they were 13 but only 3 managed to escape. The rest were shot because they did not know how to swim. Their bodies were displayed before us to warn us against escaping. Then they removed all facilitation. I remember tying my money in a polythene bag and putting it into a small jerrycan of water. They wanted to take this jerrycan but a man called Kidde, a captain, said I should keep it.

So I remained with my money but life was hard. They used to lock us inside and could not allow us to go outside. They would pass food through the iron bars.

Strange disease
We were attacked by a strange disease. People got diarrhea and some started dying. You would hear at night, “Mtu kwisha kufa hapa” (some one has died here).

About 12 people used to die every night. People outside did not know what was happening. Only a few of my close relatives knew. The prison had flush toilets but water would disappear and they would get very full. Some of the water containing faeces started flowing to where we used to sleep. We would trap it with a blanket but before it goes down, someone would want to use the toilet and the situation would get worse. When one got a visitor, you would climb on top of the toilet bowl to be able to see him through the small window. Many people died, and that is why I am a very bitter person.

You know, it was a double storeyed prison. They even reached an extent of cutting the net so that bodies from up would be dropped directly into a truck. We never knew where they were taken for burial.

To tell you how bad the situation was, we reached the extent of saying that the one who sees a dead body first, should be the one to straighten it up and cover it in a blanket.
I would look at someone and tell that he was left with about two weeks to live.

I would sleep but keep an eye on that person. Eventually, when you died, I would take your blanket and straighten you. There was a friend of mine called Kasumba; he fell ill and I realised he had a few weeks to die. For me I had tablets, brought to me by my sister. They were black and red in colour. One night, Kasumba came and told me; give me at least three tablets. By this time he had heavy diarrhea. I told him that even if I give you these tablets, you will die.

I promised to take care of his child. I educated him and he is now a lawyer in town. The Red Cross visited and they were shocked. This disease would make people’s faces turn black. In fact, only the eyes and lips would be visible. I had a friend, Njuki, who had managed to find his way out of prison. So one time he called me by phone.

You know to speak on phone; you had to give prison warders a piece of soap which Red Cross used to supply us. He told me he had been released but they were asking for Shs 500,000 for my release. He told me he wanted to flee to the United States and I gave him a go ahead.

Gaining freedom
One day, a prison official called Kitto came and told us they were planning to free us. We were happy and therefore had to be ready. But we waited and waited without any sign. It got to midnight, 2a.m., then 5a.m., and we lost hope.

In July 1981, a man named Maj. Tom Oyo and someone called Byabazaire came and told us they were going to release some of us, after carrying out a background check.

Those who had committed crimes and former employees of State Research had no chance of being released. You should never do bad things to people.

When Oyo came, I was in a window looking outside. He said “Wewe mzee.” All my friends started beckoning me to leave him [alone]. I told them that for me I am inside; he is outside and is asking me about the guns. I told him, “Do you see any 120 (type of gun) here?”

I was very disgusted. He told me “Uta kufa ndani (You will die inside there)”, and I told him “you are joking. If you want, take me to Pece playground; if someone comes and accuses me of committing a crime, kill me from there.”

I was confident because I had not committed any crime. I prayed to God. They had taken our names for vetting and the next day they were coming to release some of us. My heart skipped a beat. You would imagine how you would stay in prison when all your friends were gone.

I had a friend called Buwembo; he now lives in Luwero. I used to sleep next to him. One night I asked God to show me a sign that I would be released. I slept and dreamt that I was walking with my girlfriend, climbing the hill at Namirembe, going to church. She was at a distance. So while we were approaching the church, they played the song signaling it was time to give offertory. She turned to me and told me hurry up and donate something.

If you know Namirembe, there is a place where bishops stand as they administer oaths to newly weds; a bishop called Festo Lutaaya put his hands on me. He was holding a walking stick and wearing red robes. He asked me Samwiri, “Why are you late?” I woke up and tapped Buwembo. I told him “they will release me.”

He told me to leave him to sleep. When they came the next day, you know I had a rosary, which I forgot in the cell. We sat outside in a line. I picked stones and arranged them in form of a rosary. I started praying. They would call out names in alphabetical order. There was someone called Kasawuni, so after they read his name, they jumped mine and I said, now I am going to remain in prison… but after a few seconds, I heard my name, “Staff Sergeant Kasirye…”

I got up, knelt in a corner and recited a prayer. That day we did not go back inside the cell; we slept outside. There was a man called Okiror; he is now an LC official in Teso. He wanted to commit suicide in a toilet because his name had not been read. They rescued him. But you could not convince anyone. The next day they took us outside the gate and we saw the outside, we saw the river. It had been a long time since we entered the prison in July 1980. It was now October 1981.

They took us by foot to the remand section were we found Luwuliza Kirunda. He started mocking us, saying “we have set you free, if you want you can join your friends in the bush but we shall fight you from there.”

As he completed his statement, our eyes met. I looked at him and he blinked. We were given Shs 100 each. Each person had to be driven to the district headquarters. I was to be driven to Mubende. The Prisons had Toyota pick-ups trucks. When we reached Namawojjolo, we ate a lot of meat. When we reached Kampala, we badly wanted to go to the toilet.

They took us to the toilets. When we reached Mityana, they stopped at the Posta [Post Office]. I told someone to inform my relatives that I had been released but they were taking me to Mubende. When we reached Kiganda, there was a roadblock mounted by Obote’s soldiers. They told them these were former Amin soldiers. They told us to march and I said, “If you want you can kill me, for me I have been freed.” By then I was 29 years old.

We reached Mubende in the evening and were taken to the Police station. Everyone was curious to see Amin’s soldiers who had been released. The OC told us that we were going to sleep in the cell since there was no other place they could accommodate us in. I told him I could not sleep in the cell.

The next day they took us to the District Commissioner (DC) who gave us another Shs 100. So I told the prison people that for me I come from Mityana even though I was brought to Mubende. The road was very bad. You could take five hours to move between Mityana and Mubende. When my relatives heard that I was coming, they put someone on the road. It was a girl we had grown up with. But I was not driven close to home.

was dropped off at some distance, so when I came, I even passed by the girl. She could not recognise me. My father was in the compound spreading coffee beans to dry. He was happy to see me. He threw a party for me but while eating, four UNLA soldiers carrying guns came to our place. I had never seen soldiers walking outside the barracks with guns.

We knew what they wanted - food - so we gave them a lot, and even sodas and beers. They left, but I feared for my safety. I told my father that if these people got to know that there was a former Amin soldier here, they would come for me and no one would help me in the village. So I decided to go to Kampala. I had a brother who used to stay in Wandegeya, although he was based in Nakasongola. I did not want to stay with him.

There was a man called Dan Kasule, a family friend who said “let Wasswa come and stay with me in Lungujja.” But his kids did not like me. Most of our things had been looted, so I only had a jean, shirt and shoes given to me by Red Cross. Kasule gave me some money to go and buy second hand clothes in Fanya. I bought jeans. I sat down and said, “What am I going to do next?”

There was no job I could do. All I knew was the army. But I was good at farming. When we were young, there was a group of young farmers who taught us how to dig. Someone else who helped me a lot was Kasedde Mukasa (brother-in-law).

There was magendo. He used to import Pirelli truck Tyres from Italy. So one day I went to his office with the mother of Irene. I had Shs 20 in the morning and I used some for a taxi. When we reached the old taxi park, I gave the change to some beggars. She was annoyed and said how could I give out money when I was not even sure of the next meal?

I told her that God said “When you give Shs10, it will be multiplied by the same number.” We reached Kasedde’s office. There were so many people waiting for him. He called me in and told me that he had a deal he wanted me to execute. He wanted me to sell about 100 tyres for 1,200 each. He told me I could sell them for a higher price and take the difference. He told me not to tell anyone. But as I was walking along Bombo Road, I bumped into a Somali, Hussein who used to have a Hotel in Moyo were we used to eat.

I told him that there were some tyres I was selling. He took me to his friends in Kisenyi who were very eager to buy the tyres. They asked me the price of each tyre and I told them Shs 1,400. I had added Shs 200. So they gave me the money but I told them I was not the right person to receive it. I took them to Kasedde who gave me my difference of Shs 28,000.

This was a lot of money. I bought a paper bag, then I went to Diamond Trust and bought a novel before going home. I bought eggs, sausages. While at home, my sister returned. She saw the novel I had bought and asked me where I had got the money. I told her to check under the bed where she saw the bag with money. “Wasswa, did you steal the money?” she asked. I told her everything, then she said, “let’s kneel down and pray.”

semugs@ugandaobserver.com
ekiggundu@ugandaobserver.com