Not even the lapse of time has erased the harrowing memories. Six years ago, on July 11, 2010, Uganda collided with its most catastrophic terrorist attacks.
More than 70 people; soccer fans and patrons, perished in explosions at Kyadondo Rugby Club on Jinja Road and Ethiopian Village Restaurant in Kabalagala, both Kampala outskirts.
The attackers had struck at the heart of the country, the capital, on a crowd-pulling big game day: the finals of the 2010 World Cup soccer game in South Africa between Spain and the Netherlands.
This calamity diminished, both in scale and impact, the country’s previous unpleasant dates with urban terrorism where suspected Allied Democrat Forces rebels detonated explosives in city bars.
The Kyadondo and Kabalagala blasts shredded and scattered plastic chairs and left in its ruinous paths bloodied bodies of the dead and injured, with many yanked to the ground or hunkered on chairs. Survivors, with hair and designer clothes caked in either blood or dust, fled the scene in horror, unsure they were alive. Many abandoned their vehicles and instead trudged home.
Their silhouettes, which stretched menacingly on the ground under Jinja Road and Lugogo Bypass street lights, threatened them as if the assailants they were fleeing from were on a borderless prowl.
In a special series this newspaper published a year after the attacks, survivors, some immobilised by spinal damages, streamed the agony of being marooned at home and turning from bread winners to dependents at adult age.
Self-pity continues to overwhelm and torture them, without the reprieve of dependable palliative care or professional counselling.
The attacks plunged Uganda into panic: security was tightened at hotels, malls and other public places such as offices. Besides the ruined lives and material losses, the attackers imposed a difficult-to-estrange mass psychological fear and emotional trauma. Loneliness guaranteed safety while numbers portended risk.
An outgoing people became too afraid to socialise, profiling based on physical features gained currency and a man who showed up for prayers at Rubaga Cathedral in Kampala while spotting a stretching goatee sparked security alert and panic among worshippers.
From the country’s east to west, north to south, families had buried their own killed in the 2010 attacks. The pain was uniform, the trepidation universal and foreign countries rushed out alerts to citizens against travelling to Uganda, the Pearl of Africa.
Tourism suffered, forex earning dwindled and widespread citizen anger nudged the government to prevent a repeat, which it has so far done with success.
A massive security swoop followed the attacks. Twenty of the suspects were arraigned in court and indicted for “intentionally and unlawfully delivering and discharging an explosion into Kyadondo Rugby Club and Ethiopian Village Restaurant with intent to cause death and serious bodily injury or extensive destruction likely to or actually result into major economic loss”.
Their motive, the prosecution averred, was to influence the government of Uganda or to intimidate the public or a section of the public and for political, religious, social or economic aim without due regard to safety of others or property.
A trial that has taken six years, with 82 witnesses testifying and costing Shs300m,began in earnest.
Just like the attack that resulted in the proceedings, the trial had shock moments. A prosecution witness, detective ASP Charles Aluma showed up in court with two unclaimed heads of the suspected suicide bombers which he wrapped in a plastic bag. Court declined to receive the frozen heads publically, fearing it would alarm and traumatise those present. The exhibits were returned to the city mortuary.
Detective Aluma told court that the 75 bodies that he received at Mulago city mortuary were all claimed and taken by close relatives for burial, except the two heads.
“We allowed the relatives of the dead to take the bodies upon proper identification plus leaving behind their contacts and also telling us where exactly they were going to bury the bodies,” the detective told court of the regular procedure when a death attracts criminal investigation.
He added: “We are still stuck with two human heads up to-date. Actually, I have carried them along to court to exhibit them as evidence.”
Nakawa court officials cringed, others in the court hall held their breath. The proceedings had been a long, winding and torturous walk through a past better forgotten.
A scene of crime officer brought the scale of mass destruction at the bombing sites alive in her compelling narrative to court. Prossy Namukasa was the top detective at Kabalagala Police Station, about a kilometre from the Ethiopian Village Restaurant where the first bomb went off at about 11pm on July 11, 2010. As a first responder, her recollections frightened years later as they did on the dark night of the attack.
“When I reached the scene of crime, I saw some victims being rushed out and I also saw many dead bodies lying at the scene. I counted the bodies and they were 15,” she testified.
According to the officer, one of the victims did not have a torso. The head was ripped and blown outside the restaurant’s perimeter wall fence and the legs scattered.
Detective Namukasa peered at the ceiling of the court hall, held her palms tightly and bit her lower lips. Her voice momentarily degenerated croaky as an emotional whirlwind enveloped her.
When she composed herself, the officer said she picked up the two heads tendered in the court when they were fresh, bloodied. The room fell in ominous silence.
“Some bodies had one arm, others had one limb, and there was a lot of flesh scattered around,” she recounted.
When President Museveni visited the scene of crime the next day, the officer’s brief was to gather every piece of flesh scattered at the scene.
“I was able to [fill] a big polythene bag [with] human flesh,” she said, “I transported it to the city mortuary.”
It was a dreadful pile. Wailing relatives thronged morgues at Mulago, Nsambya hospitals and International Hospital Kampala where the dead and dying were taken.
A night meant to thrill instead delivered dread, confusion and death. The tragedy had spread and encased the country, with sorrow stringing across homesteads.
The attacks, prosecution alleges, had been planned and explosives assembled in the city suburb of Namasuba.
Two of the suspects; Edris Nsubuga and Muhamood Mugisha voluntarily pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 25 and 5 years prison terms, respectively.
They also became state witnesses. Mr Nsubuga, incarcerated at Kigo prison, confessed that he offered a lift to one of the suicide bombers from Namasuba, off Entebbe Road, to Kyadondo Rugby Club. And he said he ignited one of the explosives.
On the other hand, Mr Mugisha in his testimony told court presided over by Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo that he was recruited and trained by the Somalia-based al-Shabaab alongside the other suspects whose case went into full trial.
The training, he said, was to produce attackers who would avenge the Uganda military’s offensive against the insurgents in Somalia.
In a message after the bombing, a spokesman for the militants claimed responsibility and said they wanted Ugandan troops out of Somalia.
Instead of capitulating, Uganda’s military alongside those from other African countries intensified the offensive against the al-Shabaab, pushing them into inconsequential hinterlands.
The UPDF deployed in Mogadishu in March 2007, becoming the first foreign army to do so under the African Union Peacekeeping Mission to Somalia (Amisom) primarily funded by the European Union with logistical as well as intelligence support from the United States. Amisom flushed the al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu.
That battlefront cooperation showed after the Kampala bombings in the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) not only seconding officers to support the Kampala bombing inquiries, but dispatching some to testify in court as prosecution witness.
Security at court, which was heightened to unusual levels during hearing of this case, was further tightened when FBI agents testified.
A police officer, who was a first responder at Kyadondo Rugby Club, said he stopped eating meat because he still feels traumatised by the memories of two people he was rescuing dying in his arms and the sight of shredded human flesh that fateful night. “In the process of ferrying the injured to the waiting ambulance, two of the injured died in my arms. It was a terrible experience for me,” a sobbing ASP Bernard Tagoya told court.
He has now been posted to the north eastern Kotido District, far removed by 480 kilometres from the scene of the attacks, but not its outsized trauma.
ASP Tagoya said those who died in his arms included a woman, likely in her twenties, who wore white sneakers and a white T-shirt and had a bouquet. The other, he recalls, was a man donning a blue jeans trouser and a sleeveless shirt.
“I didn’t sustain any physical injury, but I have since been traumatised. I avoid social hang outs and crowded places,” he told court, adding: “I don’t eat meat and when I reach a taxi park, I start running fearing calamity. I keep praying to God that I don’t experience such a similar scenario again in my life.”
Uganda deployed in Somalia almost a decade ago, according to government, to stem proliferation of small arms and light weapons flowing from the Horn of Africa country as well as to anchor the spirit of Pan-Africanism by being a brother’s keeper and protector.
The backlash was unanticipated, unequalled. By striking in Kampala, like the al-Shabaab repeatedly does in the neighbouring Kenya, the militants aimed to project their strength and show Uganda was more vulnerable when entangled in the unending Somalia fights.
Ugandan authorities reached out to regional neighbours Kenya and Tanzania, and almost two dozen suspects were netted after the 2010 bombings.
Sixty people had died at Kyadondo Rugby Club and another 15 at the Ethiopian Village Restaurant. Uganda was grieving.
During the hearing of the case, prosecution said Somali national Morsa exploded a suicide vest at Kyadondo while Edris Nsubuga detonated an explosive at the same venue.
A one Kaka was responsible for the explosion at the Ethiopian Village Restaurant, according to investigators.
That such massively deleterious strikes were coordinated and executed undetected baffled and rattled the country, boxing those assigned to keep it safe in a corner of bother. Cracks in Uganda’s intelligence, made worse by inter-security agency rivalry, became manifest.
Their towering job was cut out: never let such attack happen again. No attack of the same scale has happened and many planned ones have been thwarted, according to police that has issued myriad imminent terrorist threats over the last six years.
In spite of an initial scramble to catch the perpetrators of the July 2010 bombings, the most credible lead came from an unusual source: a bar attendant.
Made vigilant by the previous night’s tragedy, an attendant at a bar in Makindye, the city division where one of the explosions had ripped, alerted security upon seeing an abandoned, suspicious bag the next morning.
Counter-terrorism police rushed to the scene with bomb detectors and sniffer dogs.
Upon examination, the bomb squad determined that another suicide vest had been planted there the previous night, but had failed to go off.
Communication data retrieved from the phone used to remotely detonate it, according to detectives, offered an avalanche of information that enabled them to piece together the evidence, movement of the suspects and accomplices.
The search was narrowed, targeted, resulting in a total of 20 alleged masterminds picked from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.
They were indicted and tried for “murder, terrorism, being accessory to terrorism, aiding and abetting terrorism to attempted murder”. However, in the initial stages of this case, the prosecution exonerated some of the suspects for lack of incriminating evidence and court subsequently discharged them.
Al-Amin Kimathi, a Kenyan human rights activist, Kayigwa Walusimbi, Khalif Muhamed and Muhammed Abdow are among those freed.
Setbacks in the case
On March 30, last year, the case got a huge setback when the lead prosecutor, Ms Joan Kagezi, was gunned in Kiwatule, a Kampala suburb, by unknown assailants who had trailed her on a boda boda.
The Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, blamed her demise on terrorists but is yet to provide evidence a year later to back up his assertions.
Following Ms Kagezi’s shooting, the trial stalled for more than two months, resuming only in June 2015.
Mr Mike Chibita, the Director of Public Prosecutions, in an unprecedented show of solidarity, personally led and introduced his substitute prosecutors, among them, Ms Susan Okalany (now a High Court judge), Senior Principal Attorneys Lino Anguzu, who was a co-prosecutor to the late Kagezi; Ms Rachael Bikhole, Mr John Bosco Asiimwe, and Principal State Attorney Thomas Jatiko.
The prosecution has had other encumbrances. Mid-way through the proceedings, the suspects through their defence lawyers: Caleb Alaka, John Francis Onyango, Julius Galisonga, Younous Kasirivu, Annet Badda, and Evans Ochieng petitioned the Constitutional Court challenging their extradition to Uganda from their respective countries without a court order, an omission they said was unconstitutional.
The suspects also claimed ill-treatment by intelligence officers from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the US and UK.
The constitutional petition stalled the trial for close to two years. The petition was eventually dismissed.
When the trial resumed, some of the suspects made U-turn and disowned the confessions made shortly after their arrest on grounds that security operatives extracted the statements through torture.
The suspects submitted to court that they were held at safe houses in Kololo, a Kampala suburb, where they were handcuffed and legs chained for days, heads hooded, threatened at gun point or told they would be hanged, and forced to eat pork yet they are Muslims.
Some of the torture tactics, the suspects alleged, included their tongues being pierced, their testicles being squeezed and pubic hair forcibly plucked off.
The suspects had proved their case in a mini court session called a trial-within-a trial, and court agreed not to rely on the impugned confession statements.
After years of legal gymnastics, suspension of proceedings and resumptions, and a re-scheduled ruling, the country and the world will this week know if the suspects that have spent 72 months on remand are guilty or not.
These are Omar Awadh Omar, Muhammed Hamid Suleiman, Hussein Hassan Agad aka Hussein Agade, Idris Magondu aka Christopher Magondu, Yahya Suleiman Mbuthia, Habib Suleiman Njoroge, Suleiman Hajjir Nyamandondo, Mohamed Ali Mohamed, Isa Ahmed Luyima, Hassan Haruna Luyima, Batematyo Abubakari, Muzafar Luyima and Dr Ismail Kalule.
Already in a non-binding opinion, two court assessors — Ms Juliet Kasendwa and Mr Robert Lubega Sebunya — in their lay man’s opinion concluded that prosecution proved its case and advised court to convict the suspects.
Ms Kasendwa slightly differed from her colleague and asked court not to convict Mr Yahya Suleiman Mbuthia, citing lack of evidence.
Source: The Monitor