It is 39 years since Maj Gen David Oyite Ojok, the chief of staff of the Uganda National Liberation Army-UNLA was killed in a helicopter crash in Nakitoma sub-county in present-day Nakasongola district.
Ojok’s helicopter burst into flames near Kasozi ka Mirembe literally translated; hill of peace on December 2, 1983, shortly after takeoff. He was killed alongside nine other military officers while on a mission to destroy National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels (now NRM officers).
At the time of the crash, Nakitoma sub county was part of the famous Luweero Triangle, the epicentre of the brutal five-year war that brought President Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. As the most influential soldier in UNLA, Ojok felt duty-bound to destroy not only the rebel forces, but also its leader, Museveni.
On the fateful day, Ojok and his party aboard two helicopters lifted off from Kasozi. While the first helicopter took off successfully and landed safely in Kampala, the second one, an Augusta Bell Griffin, in which Ojok and nine others were travelling burst into flames shortly after takeoff and crashed, killing all on board.
Several theories have been raised as to the cause of the crash, from mechanical failure to sabotage, to a struggle on board among others. A day after the crash, The New York Times quoted the spokesperson of the NRA rebels, saying they had shot down the helicopter as it flew over the areas controlled by the rebel army.
It is reported that Ojok had gone with a chemist to decontaminate water sources in the area that had been poisoned by NRA and causing death of many government soldiers.
In his book “Trapped In His own Prison of Nile Mansions for Five Years”, Rutarindwa Mwene Barizeni used his insider knowledge of what was happening at Nile Mansions, now Serena hotel where was working as a barman to write about the incident.
He writes that on the morning of December 2, 1983, the two helicopters landed at the hotel to take on a mission they had been on for over a week.
“I knew some of the soldiers who boarded the helicopter with Major General Oyite Ojok that day. They were Major Engineer Abili and a Tanzanian private named Friday, among others. Friday, together with another Major Kagata Namiti, were the closest assistants to Ojok since his return from exile,” he says.
In the late evening hours at around 9 pm, says Rutarindwa, a soldier attached to operations room 211 “walked from the stairs towards my bar. I could tell from his movements that he was seriously in need of a drink but he seemed to have no money on him.”
He quotes the soldier saying “It’s a bad day today, my friend. Very soon you will hear more but there is no hope at all. It is quite bad but what can one do?’’ The author says he called a friend, also an employee of the hotel to find out and it was confirmed that there had been a crash and that the “chief” was no more.
URN recently revisited the scene of the helicopter crash that ended the life of one of the most celebrated military officers in Uganda’s history. The area has turned into a farm owned by Jackson Mugisha. Our reporter found cattle grazing a few meters from the exact spot of the crash that is adjacent to Kasozi ka Mirembe, which is remembered for harbouring NRA rebels.
Located over 10 kilometres off Kampala-Gulu highway, the spot is barely recognizable as the site of a helicopter crash, which ended the life of one of the most celebrated military officers in Uganda. Nothing can be traced on the ground as residents say they helped themselves to the parts of the wreckage.
A few meters from the scene, our reporter saw a rotor blade of the helicopter. Another part, believed to be a tail boom lies in the compound of David Bamunoba, a local chief who stopped scrap dealers from taking it and kept it for remembrance. It is painted in the colours of the Uganda flag. Bamunoba was around 14 years of age and a student at Nakasongola secondary school on the day of the crash.
He narrates that around 8 pm on the fateful day; they saw huge flames that lasted for close to three hours but they couldn’t go near because of restrictions to civilians. Bamunoba says that NRA fighters later told them through their informers that Oyite Ojok had died and the flames were from the helicopter explosion. He says the death was confirmed on radio the following day.
Bamunoba explains that they wanted government to construct either a hospital or road at the crash site and name it after Oyite Ojok for historical purposes but this was reportedly rejected by President Yoweri Museveni on grounds that it might attract retaliation from his tribesmen.
Beatrice Nakyeyune was 16 at the time. She recalls that before the helicopter crash, Kasozi village was deserted by all civilians after government forces threatened to kill them on allegations of harbouring rebels. Nakyeyune says the news of the death of Ojok was a sigh of relief to residents because they had received reports that he had launched an operation to kill civilians in the village for siding with NRA rebels.
George William Sekito, recalls that a helicopter gunship was seen hovering over Kasozi village and nearby areas, which sent both the rebels and civilians into panic that it would fire at them. Sekito says the news that the helicopter had crashed in the evening shocked all of them.
He, however, says there were celebrations that the war was coming to an end since the chief of staff had died. Muhamadi Sentalo from Kasozi village said the area has changed since the end of the war. He said several people who witnessed the event are dying and little effort is being made to record their accounts for future generations to learn what transpired at the village.