- In Part 4 of our Kagera War series, we bring you the account of 69-year-old Colonel Steven Isaac Mtemihonda, a retired Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) officer, who not only commanded the 14th Battalion of 203 Brigade during the 1978/79 Liberation War, but also helped train Uganda’s new national army, UNLA, after the fall of dictator Idi Amin. He was later hired as a military expert by the NRM government charged with training the then NRA and later, the UPDF. The Citizen reporter based in Kampala, Henry Lubega, caught up with him at the TPDF’s Msasani Beach Club in Dar es Salaam.
When the war began in 1978, I was in Arusha serving as a major and deputy battalion commander as I prepared for the annual brigade military activities.
We had just started the exercise when news of the invasion of Kagera came.
Before I went to the frontline, I was promoted to a Lieutenant Colonel because I was a battalion commander.
In our system, a battalion is commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel.
Since my unit was already assembled, orders came from the defence headquarters in Dar es Salaam for my unit to move to Kagera.
When the battalion went to Kagera, my brigade commander thought there would be need for more troops.
I was sent to Tanga to form and train a new battalion. This was the same battalion with which I joined the war in 1979.
In Tanga, I formed 21st Battalion which joined 205 Brigade commanded by Brig Ramadhani Haji, who was replaced by Brig Herman Lupogo who was replaced by Brig Muhidin Kimario during the three weeks battle for Sembabule.
My battalion joined the war when the Tanzanian troops had already entered Uganda.
That was between Kyotera and Kalisizo - just before entering Masaka.
Our first battle was in Kalisizo when Amin’s jet fighters attacked us. We were not part of the force group that captured Masaka.
However, when Masaka fell, my battalion was deployed to cut off the Masaka-Mbarara road at Mbirizi to block any reinforcement from Mbarara.
Masaka fell on February 28, 1979, a day before Mbarara fell to 206 Brigade commanded by Brig Silas Mayunga in company of Yoweri Museveni’s FRONASA group.
There was belief that Ugandan troops dislodged from Simba regiment in Mbarara would be retreating towards Masaka. We had to block them off at Mbirizi. At Mbirizi, we were also on the lookout for an advance from Sembabule where the Suicide Regiment, which had been dislodged from Masaka had run to and was awaiting reinforcements from Kabamba and Masindi barracks.
We anticipated the Uganda army to come through Matete and join Mbirizi before proceeding to Masaka.
We were also to block that advance.
When the march to Mpigi started on March 8, 1979, the original plan was for my 205 Brigade to attack Kampala through Mityana.
Now with a threat from Mubende, we were directed to go and meet this advance.
However, we found out that the Suicide Regiment which had been dislodged from Masaka and had moved to a place called Villa Maria, planning to go to Mityana. But the regiment commander - then Maj (now Brigadier) Bernard Rwehururu - decided otherwise and headed to Mubende through Sembabule.
At Sembabule, they realised there was a Tanzanian brigade pursuing them and decided to put up a fight.
This was the longest battle in the entire war lasting three weeks. We captured Sembabule on April 5, 1979.
From Sembabule, Amin’s Suicide Regiment moved northwards towards Kabamba, Mubende, Hoima, Masindi to Gulu until it entered Congo.
We followed them all the way and captured Kabamba Military Training School without firing a bullet.
We found the place deserted and I suspect when the fleeing Suicide Regiment soldiers reached there, they simply told their colleagues to follow suit.
From Kabamba we went to Hoima where we were joined by another force called Task Force, which came from Mbarara through Kasese, Bundibugyo, Fort Portal and Kyenjojo.
At Hoima, the 205 Brigade was merged with the 206 Brigade commanded by Brig Makunda and Brigade Minziro under Brig Kitete.
The two brigades marched to Masindi on our way to northern Uganda, while Brigade 206 went to West Nile through Butiaba up to Para and crossed to Pakwach.
The two brigades 205 and Minziro proceeded to Masindi with Brigade 205 being the front brigade.
Before entering Masindi, we expected a fight from the Tiger Regiment in Masindi Town but it was a walkover.
My battalion also captured Masindi Town without a fight.
However, on the way to Masindi from Hoima there is a prison farm, where we fell to an ambush from the Uganda army and lost three of our soldiers.
One was shot while carrying out reconnaissance for a roadblock spot and two others were killed by poisoned bow arrows shot from abandoned houses. When we captured Masindi, there was no looting.
The only place we captured and there was looting was Hoima, and it was not done by the locals. We were told that the Amin soldiers who were fleeing looted the banks.
After Masindi, we went on to Karuma Bridge where we separated from.
My 205 Brigade went northwards towards Kamdini, while Minziro went towards Pakwach and linked up with Brigade 206 to continue to West Nile.
As we marched to Karuma at Kiryandongo the locals told us the Ugandan troops were laying an ambush, we attacked them, killed some and captured some guns.
At Karuma Falls Ugandan troops had crossed the bridge and took positions on the raised ground waiting for our advance.
One battalion with two tanks was assigned to capture and secure the bridge for the rest of the brigade to cross safely.
One of its tanks was hit in the driver’s periscope and he could not see where he was going.
The second tank managed to cross but when it reached the other side, a Ugandan soldier on a raised ground fired a type of grenade called Inega which is used to hit a tank from close range.
The crew managed to escape but the tank was completely burnt. More tanks came and we dislodged the Ugandan troops from the higher ground.
When we crossed we counted more than eight dead bodies. Karuma Bridge fell on May 14, 1979.
While entering Gulu, we expected some resistance but we were told Amin’s soldiers went straight to Gulu Hospital and picked their injured ones before telling the residents that the Tanzanians were coming.
They fled towards the Sudan border. My brigade continued through Kamdini, Minakulu, Bobi, Gulu up to Atiak.
When we reached Gulu the different battalions of the 205 Brigade were split and my battalion remained in Gulu Town. One went to Ajdumani and another to Nimule via Bibia.
The reception we got in Acholiland was the best ever since we entered Uganda.
Before entering Gulu most of the houses we found had been burnt, people were coming from the bush to receive us while literally naked.
Soldiers were taking off their jackets and giving them to the people coming from the bush to welcome them.
Most of them were women. We were not used to that kind of situation, seeing women stark naked.
During the convergence of the Task Force and other brigades in Hoima all brigade commanders were called to Kampala for debriefing since Kampala had fallen earlier on.
When my brigade commander was in Kampala, he got information that the commander of Masindi Artillery Regiment, Lt Col Abdul Kisule, had surrendered in Kampala.
Since the responsibility to capture Masindi was given to my battalion, the brigade commander thought Kisule be my guide to capture Masindi.
We were of the same size, I gave him a pair of uniform, a pistol and a Uzi gun.
He moved with me in my Land Rover all the way to Gulu when it fell on May 17, just three days after Bobi.