July 11 bomb attacks ; a new era of terror in Uganda

It was supposed to be a perfect night, at least that’s what I called it for that moment. Spain winning in the extra time with enough Spanish people to bring down the place in celebration. The venue was Soweto, South Africa where I was watching the World Cup final with friends from the Man Up campaign.

It was a cold but exciting night in Soweto but back home people were being blown to pieces by terror bombs. I learnt of the news yesterday morning shortly before I headed off to the airport.

A friend was first to alert me and I thought it must be some bad joke and how I wish it was. I went beyond the headline to sort of confirm the news by searching for names of people and familiar places that the bombs ripped apart that Sunday night.

There I saw Kyadondo Rugby club. It began sinking in that this was reality. Before I headed off to South Africa, I had spent several hours with friends at that bar and a good friend worked there. It’s a place that I have been visiting since 2002. My eyes moved up and the down the computer wondering whether my friends had survived and if they did what about my friends’ friends and families that I usually find there. I couldn’t do much for my phone had long died out so I prayed and hoped.

I imagined the horrifying scene during the attacks and shortly after at Uganda’s national referral hospital Mulago. I had been talking about Mulago with a friend from Spain who had visited Uganda in May. I had told him about one of the days that I went up to the labour ward, about the women that i saw on the floor unattended to, their screams that makes a young woman want to think twice about this journey, the shortage of doctors and medicines a story way too familiar. When I read the news of the blasts, I wondered what was going on in the emergency room at Mulago which itself is in dire need emergency care.

I arrived in Kampala 20 hours after the horrific attacks, I drove past the place, there were guards and nothing seemed to say much. Switching on my phone I was anxious and the first message was from a close friend telling me of a family member who perished at Kyadondo. I got messages about friends of friends that passed away that night and about a journalist who died yesterday and I am still getting them messages.

Today I woke up thinking of the newspapers headlines, the ones I didn’t want to see but wouldn’t avoid for their pictures portray the dead unsparingly. The first newspaper stand I see a lists of the dead and I could only go half way.

I strolled down by one of the sites of the attacks and it was quiet with cars of victims still parked. The sight of Kampala’s famous Marabou storks in large numbers pecking human flesh on the ground was heart wrenching.

Al Shabaab has already claimed responsibility to their first attack outside Somalia and they issued more threats to Bujumbura where the rest of the Africa Union Peacekeeping force is from.

Kampala, once of the safest cities on the continent in just one night was turned into a Bagdad of sorts where now people talk of avoiding any public places sticking to a schedule of home- work-home. Many are talking of avoiding churches.

Many innocent Ugandans have lost their lives, families and dreams and we won’t feel safe for a long long time. The bomb death toll is now about 74. Many Ugandans continue to be in fear with small things that we once overlooked being magnified in the terror lense. A misplaced flask calls for a terror squad, a bullet mistakenly burnt in garbage and the explosion in Kisenyi sends people ducking and a man today had thrown a phone in a trash can and he was arrested. A phone having been found in one of the bags which had a bomb that failed to detonate. I do hope through all this Ugandans do not turn to mistreatment of the Somali community in Uganda for they were the first victims of such murderous groups that forced them out of their country. We don’t want to see the Islamaphobia kind of wave that engulfed USA after 911.

Ugandans are generally welcoming of foreigners and I hope this wont rob us of that gift.

But do Ugandans even understand why we were targeted?

Uganda has been on high terror alert since we took the troops to Somalia under AMISOM in 2007. It’s only Uganda and Burundi in Mogadishu guarding a few places under the control of the Transitional Federal Government that is neither transiting nor federal. The Somali Islamist groups have gained force since last year’s withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and the AU forces have increasingly found themselves under attack with one blast last September right in the AU compound in Mogadishu that killed many including a deputy force Commander for Burundi.

Uganda has so far lost over 25 soldiers. For most of the last three years, these deaths have always seemed far away and reflected upon in Ugandan. After all it was a war situation and such stuff happens. We as the media have covered send offs of several contingents into Somalia but we never seen stories from families of those soldiers who died and few questions have remained unasked. But this terror right in our backyard brings us to question what on earth are we doing in Somalia and when will it be the right time for Uganda to pull out of Somalia?

President Museveni who visited the bombed sites said

“we will not run away.” That innocent people watching the World Cup should not be targeted. If they want to fight they should go find soldiers.”

Of course everybody knows that, what Ugandans want is certainly not justice for such mass killings by a suicide bomber make that almost out of reach. What Ugandans want is to be safe and stop our country from being a terrorist playground? And can we stay in Somalia at the same time keep us safe?

I agree with the President that Uganda will not run away. When you have a country that has limited safety systems and porous borders you cannot run away from a group which not only acts in clandestine ways but also has little to lose and everything to destroy. Terror has swept through some of the world’s most sophisticated safety systems. In a country where there’s not even national IDs and a passport is a luxury, in Uganda, even if we all got recruited into our infamous anti-terror squad it would take us loads of time and money to substantially reduce chances of another July 11 occurrence.

Few Ugandans know about Al Shabaab and many heard of it for the first time yesterday. To many in the military, withdrawing troops after such attacks may look defeatist but what if it is the way to save us from more bombs? Uganda had little if anything to do with the chaos that Somalia has been plunged into for the last two decades why should we pay for failed UN and American interventions?

At first we were the peacekeepers but what do we call ourselves today when we protect a government that is governing not even a district in a whole country?

I asked Captain Chris Magezi, the Ugandan contingent spokesperson based in Mogadishu and he said:

The blasts in kampala targeting innocent revellers were very unfortunate, acts of cowardly and barbaric extremist forces. But bad as the situation is, we must face this monster head on: we cannot afford to turn our backs in flight because this would mean victory for these evil. Their latest heinous act in kampala justifies why the mission in Somalia (AMISOM) should be strengthened further, perhaps even with greater agency. Otherwise there is no guarantee that those who do not contribute troops for Somalia will be immune to future terrorist attacks.”

But for now Kampala is taking the heat and those whos stayed away from Somalia aren’t and I couldn’t ask any further for this was an email exchange.

In the past the president has said we are in Somalia to fight for the freedom of our African brothers and also in a way for our own but we have not quite thought about one question what if that brother doesn’t want you fighting for him? Do you lose everything you’ve got or even yourself to bring him back to order? For now we are mourning for those youthful lives shattered, brought to a stop in the nastiest way possible and for those with injured relatives we worry about recovery but what we ultimately know is that Uganda has been made far less safe.

This government is credited for stopping the 70s and 80s kind of terrorism that Ugandans experienced. My father lived through the years of Idi Amin in the city. For many in the south, the last 20 years have been peaceful but is this government capable of saving us from 21st century terror that doesn’t need to find you in your home? The terrorism that doesn’t choose who’s for the government and who’s against it. The terrorism that is more complex than Idi Amin.

The president must now begin to weigh in the option of our troop exit and the sooner it happens the safer we shall all feel. For God and my country.