The writer Thomas Mann in his novel, The Magic Mountain, captures well feelings I get every time I hear news of the loss of the early resistance fighters. He asks, “is not the pastness of the past the more profound, the more legendary, the more immediately it befalls the present?”
Driving fast at 8 am early last week for a meeting in the west, we slowed down at the metallic barriers placed by security at the Katonga Bridge. Suddenly, memories of my conversations over the last 26 years with Pecos Kutesa, came gushing to my mind. I glanced left at the memorial stone he had recently erected to begin works on the army museum and wanted to halt my driver for all of us to stand outside the car and take a salute to my friend and my brother and one of the finest fighters of his generation. I felt lonely in this act though, which is a sign that the passage of time and generational changes that aren’t accompanied by regular teaching of what unites us, often can dim the power of a great example. It felt like a hopeless act doing this alone given I looked around and only peasants going about their business with their little houses across the hills draped in the beautiful morning sun rays, seemed unconcerned. I wanted to scream to all and say, ‘do you know today is a very sad day; the defender of Katonga is gone?’.
Katonga meant a lot to Pecos. All the major offensives he was involved in during the five-year bush war – the Kalongero bridge (1982), the second attempted attack on Kabamba (May 1983), the battle for Masindi (February 1984), the battle for Kakiri (April 1981) – it was the cutting off of Katonga swamp from the central and the western parts of Uganda and holding it firmly from September to December 1985, denying the UNLA forces any access to resupply Masaka barracks which was already under siege by the NRA, that defined both Pecos the strategic warrior and a military tactician he was for his generation. Katonga success would become the staging ground for the battle of Kampala on January 17, 1986, which led to the takeover a week later. Katonga would also be Pecos’ last major military project as he prepared the site for the first army Museum for Uganda, in December 2020.
Towards the end of 1978, as a nine-year-old boy, I met Pecos for the first time. Brisk at everything he did, lanky and light-skinned with a big Afro in line with the times, he would tuck a novel by James Hadley Chase under his armpit, run after a cow, and grab it by the leg, tie it and milk it forcefully. He would then immediately step aside and read the book he had been carrying so concentratedly as if he had a special mental motor synchronizing the two activities. And then he quickly would try rubbing his hands in smoldering embers of fire picking hot ash to show you he was a fine ‘Karate man’. As a young boy, I had never seen this kind of fast-paced, quick-talking, voracious reader, humorous man and I was so taken in his vortex of energy, drive, and passion. Pecos had come to spend his senior six vacation with us. His father, Paulo Rwitarutyo, a blind man by sight yet deeply intuitive man with a wide mental vision, grew coffee to pay school fees for his children in a community that only prized cows. My father, Tomosi Rwabwogo, and he were contemporaries and friends. Tomosi too did cultivate both faith and crops in a similar community for his generation. They lived together as young men in the early days of the Christian Revival Movement in the Kabula area and while they shared neither clan nor family origins, they called each other “Aboluganda Mu Yesu” (brothers in Christ) given their early conversion to Christianity.
Many of us in those days were taught that clans, tribes, colour, and even mainstream religions meant nothing as long as you believed Jesus Christ and practiced His teaching. With hindsight, I see that this made a big contribution to the ending of clan and tribal rivalries that impeded broader community engagement and unity.
I would later see Pecos again in 1987, this time a colonel in the NRA and 4th Division Commander and me looking for a vacancy in high school after my poor performance at senior four. When I came to his house in Bugolobi, early one morning seeking help, he sent me a message through his Aide de Camp (ADC), “I do not know where people find school vacancies and who places them there. I am an army officer. All I know is that your grades and your effort, should place you somewhere. Go back,” the message went. This was typical Pecos as I grew to know him better. It was one’s striving, brilliance, or the lack of it that set him in his place in life and not favours from relatives and friends, according to Pecos. It is hard to say this to many young people these days in our highly ‘politicized environment’ and you still remain friends. In 1994, I was a fresh reporter in the Uganda Constituent Assembly (CA) after my graduation in January of that year, and I met Pecos again, this time, he had removed his army uniform and ran in Kabula representing this constituency in the assembly. He was principled, straight-talking, and extremely accommodating of other people’s views in the assembly that pitted ‘bush men’ as the NRA were called then, against former UPC government politicians, the ‘federoists’/monarchists and some other career politicians. He would soon return to school and graduate, just like some of his colleagues who elected that their academic and school life wouldn’t be ended by simply having joined the bush war when they were still young. It was a good example of a fighter now writing the rules for the future of the ideals he had fought for.
In September 2017 when we needed a free-spirited army historian and fighter to speak to 600 young people at Covenant Nations Church (CNC), It was Pecos we invited and he didn’t disappoint for I knew he would not attend to that which he didn’t have interest in. His message on self-reliance, hard work, country, and transformation, left a lasting impact on the youth. In 2015 when I ran in the Movement for what turned out to be an issue with some elders in the organization, he called me to say, “stay focused on what matters, stay principled, and don’t let yourself go down negative”. I last walked with Pecos for 76 kilometers in the Galamba – Birembo trek in January 2020. I remember various stops several times with him on the trek to wait on him, give him water and chat deeply about the places we were walking through and their meaning along with the battles that took place there. At a place called Kagogo, before we rounded off the dusty road inside the Bukomero area to begin the climb of Kateera hills, he was so tired he unbuttoned his uniform and sat on a piece of rock and he spoke to me about what war means to a generation. “Nobody should ever want to go through what we went through. You have better battles using your brains now than guns,” he said. In more than 30 meetings, so many conversations on phone, I can distill three lessons Pecos leaves for the young generation:
First, more than simply being a ferocious and fearless fighter, he was one of the greatest military strategists of our time. So many times, he demonstrated to me the power of strategy and vision in executing any project of significant importance in life. He regularly used the example of a well-planned infantryman with a simple rifle sneaking behind the lines of a heavily defended artillery position and disabling them even when the latter have heavier weapons to deal with an enemy at long range. He spoke to me about the effective use of camouflage and blending in one’s environment and making these tactics a force multiplier for the weaker but smart protagonist. He would say, “when we came to Busega as a force advancing on Kampala on January 24, we were surprised to find that UNLA had simply placed its heavy weaponry at Busega roundabout yet the river Lubigi and the swamp on the western side, which was the real deal if they needed to stop us from attacking Lubiri, Makindye and later take Kampala, remained undefended and unutilized. They would have held us down there but they didn’t understand the value of using their environment”.
I often liken Pecos to one of the greatest European military strategists, Napoleon Bonaparte. At 24, during the battle of Toulon in Southern France, September 1793, Napoleon and the young French Republic faced a combined onslaught of the British and Spanish navy. Napoleon, passed over by his commanders most of the time, read the contours of the port well and identified a little ignored knoll overlooking the port, and stationed his artillery pieces. Within a few days, the British and Spanish forces vacated the port without a shot fired knowing doing so would endanger their re-supply routes now in full firing range by Napoleon Bonaparte’s men. Pecos took these Napoleon-type of lessons into life beyond fighting. The moral of the Lubigi story, for example, was to him that one does not need big resources, smart and highly educated people, or all the time in the world to deal with a situation. One needs to think through and execute within the circumstances life throws and the odds are that one will make it.
Secondly, Pecos’ life was an expression of a generation that faced war and needed post-traumatic disorder support and counseling but got nothing given the inadequacy of the institutions in our country. We missed something in these young men then and we must not repeat the mistake as a country. With a cigarette between his fingers, operating a computer and reading a book and talking to me in a stern manner - all at the same time, Pecos would tell me how he saw the late Mondo Tumuheirwe (died in the bush) and Frank Guma (died in the mid-1990s) evacuate a wriggling headless body of a slain colleague who he (Pecos) knew about very well and he continued fighting as if all was normal. He would remember the decapitated body and get shivers and a cold chill many hours after the battle. Pecos would get the same kind of chill out of excitement that the prize city they had been fighting to capture for five years – Kampala- was now in sight. He then reported to his leader (Yoweri Museveni) that he (Pecos) felt he was getting tuberculosis, to which his commander told him to rest but Pecos would have none of it and instead kept leading the charge! If you remember that these were all young people in their early twenties, facing very difficult decisions of life and death, mentally retaining scenes of death and destruction visited on friend and foe, it is not surprising that many took to heavy drinking, smoking, and womanizing to numb the pain and trauma of war. In a country of 42 million people with less than 50 psychiatrists and half of these in one hospital at Butabika, you understand that this generation were true heroes who overcame so much with so little and built a country and an army.
The Bible says better are the endings of a good man than simply their beginnings. Pecos and his generation testify to this. Now, with population increase and the nature of war rapidly changing, we need to think through how to deal with post-traumatic disorder syndromes. This will help soldiers live longer productive lives.
Thirdly, Pecos stood at an intersection of transformation and continuity - aiming higher but keeping the right traditions. In the last seven years of his life, he sought to rewrite the rules on coffee growing, the way he had handled military doctrine. He wanted coffee as a transformative tool to raise the incomes of his community yet he kept the values that he found with his parents. He once told me that the “kipindio kya Utamaduni where we learned how society evolves and the role of the army and woke up early in the bush war, was not new to me like it probably was to some of my colleagues. I had seen my parents wake up at 3 am and gather their neighbors for sessions on singing and preaching the word of God before daybreak and it stayed with me. I carried these same values to the army”, he said. Even more importantly for me, his own life and marriage over the years with Dora and the example they provide to young people that under the pressure of changed circumstances, a couple can hold together and even exchange vital parts of their bodies for both to stay alive, leaves an indelible mark. Their generous spirit as a couple, their service to the army and country, and their devotion to doing what is right is such a great lesson to many. My prayer is that Pecos is carried in our collective memory as a selfless patriot; a brisk man who lived very light and had a transcendent spirit, holding a low opinion of material wealth and placing a high premium on humanity and service. He had a very beautiful mind that was profoundly open to working with and for anyone for the good of his country. Often, he compared to me his actions at the battlefield with a man in love, and in a Freudian sense, he wanted to bring out the subconscious feelings of human beings to the fore to get people to see the world in its true colors.
He poignantly leaves each one of us with the question: what will you treasure in your country above self? I will miss him deeply.
The writer is a farmer & entrepreneur