HOIMA. On February 20, 1984, bursts of gunshots and grenade blasts tore the silence of Masindi town as the Yoweri Museveni-led bush war fighters overran the artillery base.
This was decisive as the rebels captured hundreds of rifles and bullets plus other medium range artillery pieces.
The daybreak attack under commander Salim Saleh, his deputies Pecos Kutesa, and Peter Kerim, among others, sparked off mayhem as the townspeople and students fled.
The barracks was only a kilometre off Kabalega Senior Secondary School.
Some students were forced to relocate to Sir Tito Winyi S.S. and others to as far away as Dr Obote College, Boroboro, in Lira.
Again, only months later, the rebels attacked nearby Hoima town on June 4, 1984.
These twin attacks targeted guns, bullets, medicines, clothes, food, and footwear.
The clashes, coming barely a month after the death of flamboyant UNLA chief of staff, Brig David Oyite Ojok, shook Bunyoro and sent fearful signals that the rebels meant business.
Mr Museveni, who was part of the armed forces that had ejected Idi Amin from power on April 11, 1979, launched his own bush war on February 6, 1981.
His handful of National Resistance Army (NRA) men attacked Kabamba military barracks, staged ambushes in Kawanda and grabbed rifles, mortars and high-grade machine guns.
The new war thus shot down the euphoria of liberation and dreams of a return to peaceful civilian rule after Amin. Mr Museveni claimed his actions were forced by the rigged December 10, 1980 elections.
In the polls, Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) had won 75 parliamentary seats, Democratic Party (DP) 50, and Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (PM) only 1, with Mayanja Nkangi’s Conservative Party (CP) winning none.
Soon attacks by Museveni’s NRA forces on government institutions and installations increased in Luweero Triangle, which included Bunyoro.
In Hoima town, the garrison under UNLA commander Capt Ssekide at Rest House, opposite the Nursing School on Kampala Road, was overrun on June 4, 1984.
The NRA rebels also broke into the medical stores at Hoima Hospital and grabbed drugs.
The rebels stormed both Bata shop and Uganda Commercial Bank, now Stanbic, which stood next to Total filling station on Hoima main street.
It was said the rebels timed the dispatch of salaries of civil servants in Hoima. Bata was ransacked to get footwear for the ragtag and largely barefoot fighters.
The rebels also seized several government vehicles, including a Bedford truck for the Western region’s Geological Department, where my late uncle Kosia Mpaabaisi, used to work.
On the day, the townsfolk claimed that the rebel commander rode a sport bike to pay a courtesy call to the District Commissioner at Kijungu, and even signed the visitor’s’ book.
The commander later addressed a flash mob at boma Grounds, and even scrambled a confidence-building football match before hastily beating retreat to Ngoma, now a municipality in Nakaseke District.
Soon, some of the rebels who had been covertly embedded among the wananchi, removed their veil. They included students, teachers, traders, and even a common kadongokamu artiste, who often drifted from one place to another, strumming his guitar to entertain bystanders in the town.
In turn, the UNLA troops tightened their ‘anti-bandits’ operations’ in Bunyoro.
The government security services swung into action, beefed up surveillance and rounded up suspected NRA rebel collaborators. The district security officer, who commanded the swoop operation, Maj John Omeja, was nicknamed Kabrana or the falcon.
He was closely overseen by his regional National Security Agency (Nasa) spy boss, a one Twinamatsiko.
The UNLA troops also mounted roadblocks at Kinuubi, another at the UNLA headquarters at Rest House, and more at Katasiha Fort and at the Katasiha-Bugambe Tea Estate junction.
The army even ordered civilians to set up and man roadblocks in their vicinity.
These were makeshift barricades with log barriers rolled across the middle of road, reinforced with long sticks and people manning them on both sides.
The villagers took turns to man the roadblocks round the clock, ostensibly to catch the rebels.
But these proved largely hopeless because the civilians lacked basic military and intelligence training, and were equipped with only rudimentary sticks and spears.
Even worse, the villagers manning the roadblocks focused on only pedestrians as cars drove past without any check. This forced the district security officer, Maj John Omeja, and his regional boss Tom Lubaaya, to issue tougher measures.
“Stop all vehicles, including mine, and check them thoroughly. Museveni might pass in a vehicle like mine!” Maj Omeja warned.
But the Major soon forgot his own orders as he roared at breakneck speed in his Land-Rover 110, hooting and with dazzling headlights.
The guards waved him down as his car screeched to a halt and he fuming, cursing and with a pistol at the ready. The guards scampered for safety as residents at the nearby market shops cheered.
But the lessons were not lost on the vigilantes manning the roadblocks.
They knew that with security officers like Maj Omeja, fighting the rebels was a lost cause.
Two years after the attacks on Hoima, Museveni’s army stormed Kampala and seized power on January 26, 1986, ushering in what they termed a fundamental change.