The story of Maj (Rtd) Dorah Kutesa, the NRA combatant turned Diplomat is riveting. She joined NRA Clandestine work aged 19, in 1981, organised safe passage of NRA fighters from all over Uganda to the bush; she then entered the jungles of Luwero after her cover was blown and two of her brothers killed by NASA agents. She fought the NRA war to the end and then married a General. She wound up as Uganda’s envoys to Germany.The story of this brave fighter turned Diplomat is captivating. Dennis Katungi interviewed the seasoned diplomat and below is an extract.
Tell us who you are.
I am a Foreign Service Officer, having joined the Diplomatic Service in 1995. I am the daughter of Eriya George and Muriel Nunguri. I attended several primary schools in Kazo district because my father was a Sub-County Chief, and we were always on the move. I later joined Bweranyangi Girls but had to leave after two years due to a health issue. I then joined Kololo SS in Kampala where I was a day scholar.
How did you get involved with NRA rebels?
Being a day scholar, this is the point where I started clandestine Resistance work. I was staying with my cousin, a senior civil servant who had a home in Mbuya. I had already been involved in the politics of UPM in my home village Kanoni, Kazo District. The challenge was that the politics of the day were tribal, religious or both. My home area was predominantly Catholic and so it was a Democratic Party (DP) stronghold. But most of us young people supported UPM and Yoweri Museveni. This is where I got politically awakened.
Tell us a bit more on what triggered a young school girl to become an NRA rebel.
I did not intentionally set out to join the bush war. It was dictated by the circumstances. My family and close relations were not privy to the plans of the National Resistance Army (NRA) going to the bush, but MOST had been supporters of UPM and its leader Yoweri Museveni. While we heard his threats during campaigns – saying that he would go to the bush if elections were rigged, some of us were too young to analyse these issues. Together with other youth in the area we would try talking to the older people especially about voting UPM, but would get the same response “Tinkubasa kuriga omudini yangye.” meaning, “I cannot forsake my religion.” The voters were either UPC or DP and that’s how they predominantly voted in the elections of 1980. I recall one time during campaigns when the UPM Chairman addressed a rally in Kanoni. With other young people especially the family of Mzee Matama, Beingana and his siblings we had organized ourselves into a choir and we sang UPM songs at the rally. Museveni was impressed with our performance and shook our hands. We bragged about that for quite some time.
When did you join the struggle & what were the circumstances?
During the 1979 Liberation War to oust Idi Amin, the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) massively recruited girls and boys as they entered Uganda from Tanzania. Three of the people who were thus recruited played a critical role in my involvement in the future NRA struggle. My relative Hannington Mugabi, another friend Annet Busingye, and my late husband Lt Gen. Pecos Kutesa. Through Annet I met Pecos, and Pecos reconnected me with my childhood friend Hannington Mugabi (who later died in the bush). This team introduced me to the struggle. There were other boys who also ended up in the bush. Some were already soldiers in UNLA. The likes of Late Col. Lumumba, Brig. Geoffrey Taban, Late Bejamin Muhanguzi (Dampa) and others. I associated with this group.
Did this group openly talk about preparing for war?
On the night of February 4, 1981 the late Hannington Mugabi took us out - Norah Kakamba, Geoffrey Katumbuza and I. He was bidding us farewell because d-day for attacking Kabamba was two days later, on the 6th February. He did not mention this to us, but he acted like he was on a Mission. It was Geoffrey Katumbuza who blurted out that their team were about to embark on a perilous mission. Mugabi rebuked him for revealing a classified plot in the making. That attack 2 days after our evening out would signify the official start of the 1981 – 1986 bush war. Given my association and circumstances, there was no way I would steer clear of the struggle. Then, on the night of February 5, 1981, the team preparing for Kabamba attack sent people to Bugolobi Barracks to pick up some more recruits as well as guns. This was in my neighbourhood where we lived then. A few Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) soldiers were suspicious of the pick-up truck that had come for the task and fired at it. An exchange of fire ensued between UNLA soldiers and the rebel group preparing to storm Kabamba. It was on this night that John Kamurari Rubahimbya was shot and killed by the UNLA. This incident triggered many UNLA soldiers from Western Uganda to quit UNLA and join NRA. They were clearly in danger if they stayed. My role as a clandestine operator, helping these soldiers join the bush started then.
Were these soldiers planning to go to the bush all in Kampala?
Not at all. The UNLA administration had dispersed most former FRONASA fighters who had been absorbed into UNLA to the remotest areas of the country in different army units so that there would be no likelihood of them acting together. That’s how Gen Salim Saleh, Joram Mugume and others happen to have been posted to Moroto. It was a deliberate dispersal policy.
How did you help these soldiers escape to the bush?I turned our residence in Mbuya into a hide and dispatch unit for NRA. At this point it was known as Popular Resistance Army (PRA). Together with my in-law, Norah Kakamba we provided a hide out and then coordinated with the NRA scouts to infiltrate the boys into the bush. Most soldiers in UNLA’s D-coy of the 15th Battalion under the command of Lt. Col. Bazillio Okello were relayed - by us to the bush. They would come at night with their weapons and military fatigues and knock at my window. I would open for them quietly then conceal them and their cargo in my room until moments when either Benjamin Muhanguzi (Dampa) or retired Gen Matayo Kyaligonza would come to pick them up to take them to the bush.
So, your household were rebel corraborators?
Interestingly, that my cousin, John Kakamba was not privy to our plans. Only his wife Norah knew what was going on. He rumbled us when he turned up unexpected one afternoon and found four soldiers preparing to leave with Gen Kyaligonza. He was shocked seeing the guns and military hardware coming out of his house. This group included the late Cols Lumumba, Muhangi, Brig. Taban and Capt. Mugizi.
Did you confine your recruitment to Kampala?
No. I went to every house or area where I knew there were soldiers who wanted to go to the bush. I went as far as Moroto and recruited Gen. Mugume and secured Gen. Saleh’s release from Moroto Prison with the help of Gen. Katumba Wamala who was an officer in UNLA.
What was the most hair raising experience in your work?
The death of Sam Magara, the first NRA Army Commander. One of the houses used for our clandestine work was that of the late Norman Kayonga in Nakulabye. Another one was that of Ambassador Katenta Apuli in the same neighbourhood. Sam Magara spent a night at Katenta’s house but was killed by UNLA the following day. Some of the combatants who came with him spent the night with us at Kayonga’s house. At this point I was ready to finally go to the bush because we had been rumbled. Somehow, information about Magara’s presence in Kampala had leaked and one of the people arrested had led security forces to where he was. He was shot and killed. They quickly invaded our compound where we had about 15 people ready to go to the bush. We all scampered for the only safe exit via the kitchen and hid in a banana plantation. At this time they were firing at us. Norman Kayonga got hit but kept running. I could see blood on his hands. We were all dispersed.
What bush experience is the most memorable to you?
The journey to Nairobi with the then Chairman of the High Command (CHC) as we called him, President Museveni now. It was on the 12th of March 1985 when we left the bush for Nairobi. I was 6 months pregnant. We began our journey around 8pm. It was a long route with more hills to climb than descend. We were literally running. I could not keep up. I got very weary - my legs felt jelly unable to support me anymore and I collapsed in the middle of the footpath. The moon was bright in the sky. My group including Yoweri Museveni stood there in disbelief, staring at a heap of me on the ground. CHC tried humour and said that “Dorah and Pecos Kutesa should be castrated. His bodyguard the late Akanga Byaruhanga giggled in amusement. He gave some orders and moved on with the group, leaving me behind with Serwanga. After eating some sugarcane and resting, I regained energy to walk on and we caught up with the group in Namugongo where we had a hide-out at a supporter’s home.
Tell us about your role as Kampala fell to NRA
As Kampala fell to the NRA, I had re entered Uganda via Kigali, and I was at the High Command under Late Akanga Byaruhanga. I was a Personal Assistant to CHC. I provided Secretarial support and run office errands for CHC. I secured his documents, managed money and kept records.
How did you transition from Combatant to Diplomat?
There was a need to establish a Protocol Department at State House in 1986. Coordinating with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we started this unit and it was a tremendous success. Eventually when I retired from the Army at the rank of Major I was deployed to Foreign Service where I still work. I have worked in various embassies of Uganda abroad, from Washington D.C. New Delhi, Paris and Berlin. I also served at Headquarters in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Head of Political Division. It’s been a great rewarding experience but my story needs a book. You can’t exhaust it here.
Dennis Katungi, Head of Communications & Media Relations interviewed Major (Rtd) Dorah Kutesa, currently working at Uganda’s Embassy in Berlin, Germany.