Over a year after Kasese district was plunged into a conflict which claimed hundreds of lives, the widows and orphans left behind are struggling to make ends meet.
The military raid on Rwenzururu king, Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere’s palace on November 26-27, 2016 robbed many families of their breadwinners. JEROME KULE BITSWANDE reports on how fresh conflict can break out.
About 150 people, including children died while another 193 people; 23 of them women, are in Kirinya prison battling a plethora of charges including treason, murder and terrorism, arising from the same conflict.
Memories of last November’s deadly fighting between Rwenzururu loyalists and security forces remain fresh in the mind of Yudesi Soba. Soba was married to Nelson Soba, who died on that dark day when all hell broke loose inside the Rwenzururu king’s Buhikira palace.
The grief increases each day that passes as she shoulders the heavy weight of taking care of their seven children, one of whom, Provia Mbambu, is just a year old. Mbambu was barely a month old when her father died.
“Mbambu is unfortunate, she didn’t and will not have the opportunity to talk to her loving father,” Yudesi said. “As for this one,” she points to her four-year-old daughter, “she’s still innocent, she keeps probing me why her dad is taking long to come from town.”
However, her bigger worry is how to bring up all the children with a decent life and an education.
“My husband always encouraged his children to study; he brought them things whenever he came from town and told them they would always have enough of those perks if they studied.”
Soba had enrolled his children at the decent Model-Care primary school about three kilometres away from their home. Each of the children used to receive at least Shs 2,000 for transport and some lunch money from their dad.
Now that he is gone, this responsibility shifted to the 33-year-old peasant widow. She says the load is too heavy for her. Nelson Soba was a tailor and photographer. He worked in the palace as a tailor, sewing garments for kingdom officials. The future looked bright.
For the one year he worked in the palace, he earned enough to put a down payment on a piece of land on which the family now stays. Out of Shs 5 million, he paid Shs 1.7 million.
“Despite the huge balance, my husband would have paid it, he had his own gadgets: camera and sewing machine…,” his wife says wistfully.
The camera and the sewing machine were never seen after the military and police attacks on the king’s palace. With an outstanding Shs 3.3 million debt hanging over her head, Yudesi’s life was a nightmare until her husband’s family came to her rescue.
The family mobilised Shs 2 million. Now she must struggle to pay the balance, Shs 1.3 million. The children have been shifted from the serious Model-Care nursery and primary school to Kaghando primary school, a modest Universal Primary Education school.
For the last three years, Kaghando has only managed to get one first grade in PLE. About 50 per cent of the remaining candidates were total failures who couldn’t join secondary school.
At around 1pm when this writer arrived at the Soba home in Mulinda II village, Bwesumbu parish of Bwesumbu sub-county, the eldest son, Elvin Kiiza, a 14-year-old primary six pupil, had not gone to school.
Kiiza told The Observer that he skipped school to pick coffee beans for sale to get money for uniform and books. But the mother explained that Kiiza, weighed down by family challenges, seems to have lost interest in education.
Kiiza wants to be a fashion designer in future, an inspiration from his father who used to design clothes for his children, the villagers, and kingdom officials. However, a lack of guidance, poor schooling and poverty could shatter his dreams.
A similar tale is told by Cornelius Byalemene, the head of the Basolene family in Kyahundu village in Maliba sub-county. Byalemene’s family lost two people in the conflict, leaving behind three children. Byalemene now takes care of them. He, however, says that he may not afford to offer them a decent life.
The story is the same in many other families whose breadwinners perished. According to statistics available at Bwesumbu sub-county headquarters, there are 38 widows and 285 orphans.
Bwesumbu LC-III chairperson, Samson Bagenda, says the deaths and arrests have bred a huge number of vulnerable people. He fears that the death and detention of breadwinners are likely to usher in new challenges.
“When you have a huge number of widows and many others whose husbands are under detention, if they are not empowered to protect themselves, even the HIV prevalence rate increases,” he said.
Bagenda revealed that his administration and a few civil society organisations have been engaging widows and women whose husbands are in prison on how to manage their families.
“Many of our people in these families are traumatised; you find a family which lost about four people, what happens to them? How do the orphans grow up?” he wonders.
Bagenda says in many of his conversations with these people, he reads neglect and a lot of anger. He reveals that people’s relationship with the security forces is frosty. Locals do not trust the police or the military.
This, he believes, is a challenge, which arose after some individuals exploited the tensions to settle personal scores.
“One Matayo Bighanzire was killed by the military on suspicion of being a ‘Kilhumira Muthima’, a youth group loyal to Rwenzururu King Charles Wesley Mumbere, after security agents got wrong intelligence,” he remarked.
Security claims Kilhumira Muthima was responsible for attacks on military installations in the Rwenzori sub-region. These attacks prompted the army, commanded by then Brigadier Peter Elwelu (later promoted to major general), to surround the palace on November 26 and order Mumbere to surrender them.
When the king declined, the palace was attacked and burnt. Mumbere and some of his officials were arrested along with 193 of his supporters.
The local politician says whereas some civil society organisations have offered support in form of scholastic materials to orphans, it is not regular and enough.
“I think Kasese district and the Rwenzori region in general needs some sort of affirmative action to build the lives of these victims…,” Bagenda said.
What Kasese and neighbouring Bundibugyo need are model schools to encourage children to study. Jimmy Baluku Odyek, a civil society activist and policy analyst at Rwenzori Consortium for Civic Competence (RWECO), believes affirmative action should not depend on the goodwill of leaders but, rather, a deliberate government policy to facilitate peace and development processes.
Odyek urges government to develop a policy on conflict prevention and post-conflict management.
“Government seems to rely on the formal justice systems a lot. Here, several people have been arrested and are being arraigned in court, but that will not solve the problem we have in the Rwenzori,” he asserts.
David Ngendo Tshimba, a son of the soil and a PhD student of political history at Makerere Institute of Social Research, said the Rwenzori question is a political matter with criminal manifestations. He argues that treating it as purely a criminal issue would be missing the point.
Tshimba cited the 1921 incident involving Tibamwenda, Kapolyo and Nyamutswa, the first Bakonzo leaders to rise against the Tooro kingdom establishment.
“They were arrested, summarily tried, convicted and executed,” he said.
But the problem did not die with them. Forty years later in 1962, another group of Bakonzo-Bamba leaders rebelled against Tooro. They were led by Yeremiya Kawamara, Petero Mupalya and Mumbere’s father, Isaya Mukirania.
They walked out of Tooro parliament where they were representatives and ran to the mountains to wage war against Tooro kingdom, giving birth to the current Rwenzururu kingdom.
Kasese and Bundibugyo have been locked in conflicts since pre-colonial Uganda, including one with Bunyoro kingdom in the 1870s. Recent conflicts can be traced from 1912 when Tibamwenda, Nyamutswa and Kapolyo stood against Tooro kingdom and the British.
After they were executed, they were buried in one grave near present-day Kagando hospital in Kisinga sub-county in 1921. The execution sparked off a lot of anger which found expression in the Rwenzururu insurrection between 1962 and 1982; rebellions of the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda [NALU] and the Allied Democratic Forces [ADF] between 1996 and 2002.
Odyek says the recurring conflicts in the area speak to a lack of policy to manage conflicts. He warns that the huge number of orphans left behind presents a security threat.
“It is not by coincidence that most people who are said to have been involved in last year’s and other recent conflicts have a background of either their parents or grandparents being veterans of some of the different wars that have ensued in Rwenzori,” he states.
The civil society activist argues that if government does not give orphans and vulnerable children an education to ensure a decent life in future, the Rwenzori sub-region might experience another cycle of violence in the next two decades.
However, Prime Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda has said government will not waver in its efforts to deliver equitable development for all the regions in Uganda including the conflict-stricken areas like Kasese and Bundibugyo.