Uganda: How UPDF Continues To Stand Out as a Beacon of Hope, Peace and Stability In South Sudan

How UPDF helped SPLA avert a potential genocide

Ugandans MI24, similar to MI24 used to drop cluster bombs on rebel held teritories on Bor -Juba road(Photo: File)

Ugandans MI24, similar to MI24 used to drop cluster bombs on rebel held teritories on Bor -Juba road(Photo: File)

 Nov 13, 2014(New Vision-Uganda) — On that fateful day, elements within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) attempted to challenge the government in Juba by staging a coup. Since then, scenes of debilitating vulnerability, violence and lawlessness have become quite familiar in some parts of the country.

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The government of South Sudan was in a free fall. Juba city was deserted and businesses closed. The future looked bleak.
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As foreign missions and nongovernment agencies contemplated closing business, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) packed their bags, much to the skepticism of spectators and to the chagrin of saboteurs.
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Grace Akot, a Ugandan businesswoman working in Konyo Konyo market who talked to the Defence Press Unit said: “There was relief when news broke to those of us who were under siege that the UPDF was moving in. Most of us had surrendered to fate.”
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Ugandan military strategists will agree that this was an appropriate response, given the impact the conflict would have had on security, the humanitarian situation and the thriving regional trade. South Sudan is Uganda’s largest export market and the volume of trade before the war stood at $290m.
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Army chief Katumba Wamala leads UPDF officers in Bor early this year
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The advance to Bor
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Although the commander-in-chief had ordered thorough rehearsals for the troops, time did not allow that to happen.
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I was privileged to be part of the UPDF mission in the South Sudan crisis from the onset. Lance Corporal Robert Amia recalls the pressure that came with news of advancing rebels.
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“We were in Nisitu for barely five days. The rebel forces had advanced south from Bor, the capital of Jonglei State. Panic and uncertainty was rife in Juba. We had to move.”
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On January 11, just before dawn, UPDF started the advance to Bor, 203km north of Juba. The advance was full of life and courage. However, the going would get tougher. The road got worse, reducing mobility. This exposed us to ambushes.
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The troops had to move heavy military stores, heavy guns on wheels, all in a long convoy on a dreadful road. The ultimate objective was to capture Bor town, the scene of the massacre of over 2,000 civilians. The advance took seven days, from January 11 to January 18.
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On the way to Bor, we came across bodies of civilians and soldiers by the roadside. We also encountered individual soldiers and small units of SPLA on the retreat.
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As the forces snaked their way through villages, small towns and detaches of SPLA units, they were received with a mixture of amazement and sympathy. Sympathy because civilians and SPLA alike thought Ugandan soldiers were headed to their graves.
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Rebels had taken Bor and thousands of SPLA soldiers had fled. The last SPLA defence was approximately 80km north of Juba, at a place called Agut’Makur under the command of Lt. Gen. D Malual Ayom Madol.
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The SPLA commander briefed the UPDF Joint Task Force Commander, Brig. Kayanja Muhanga and his team under a big tree.
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Madol revealed that the enemy frontline was barely 2km ahead and said it was considered a no-go area.
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As though to assert himself, Madol emphasized: “I am the commander on ground here and a native of this land; nobody can claim to comprehend the dynamics and the state of affairs ahead of here more than I do”.
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The bravado aside, Madol was nervous and still in a state of shock after the battles he had lost all the way from Bor. But the UPDF commander responded calmly, saying: “Look here general, in our doctrine, we take the bull by the horns”.
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He emphasized that the UPDF takes the fight to the enemy, rather than wait for the enemy in their courtyard. The roles for both SPLA and UPDF were clearly spelt out.
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UPDF would lead the way, while SPLA would provide rear security and use the natives to provide information about the enemy. Some sections of SPLA also acted as a screen force.
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A convoy of UPDF heavy stores and logistic trucks en route to Bor
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Ambush goes wrong
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The rebel forces had been joined by the White Army and boasted of big numbers in the battle. This did not worry the UPDF though. Applying his vast experience from Somalia, Kayanja insisted that the operation be hinged on reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition.
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On January 13, heavy stores and non-essential supplies continued the move on wheels as troops and combat support elements advanced along. Soldiers broke into battle formations whenever they approached choke points and obstacles.
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Barely 10km on the move, forward elements intercepted and rounded up a group of six armed civilians who, on interrogation, claimed they were SPLA informants fleeing from the advancing rebels.
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They revealed that the rebels knew about the UPDF presence and had mobilised in large numbers waiting in ambush at a place called Palek, less than an hour’s walk ahead of the UPDF. The informants were freed after being cleared by the SPLA. Their weapons were confiscated.
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At 1:00pm, troops formed battle formations with all the combat support elements in flanks. Forces advanced towards and inside the forest where the ambush was reported to have been staged. At about 2:40pm, the screen force in armoured vehicles and the forward units came under fire.
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Soldiers dashed for cover as the attack intensified at the forward units and eastern flank. Stretching over 4km long, the ambush had been sited adjacent to the River Nile.
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The enemy pounded relentlessly, using all tribes of weaponry. The rebels thought they would overwhelm and drive the UPDF into the Nile. It did not happen. The UPDF struck back with a devastating counter offensive.
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The fighting concentrated at the front and right flanks. Another attack ensued from the rear, but found the units there on guard. The rebels lost miserably. Their commander, a brigadier, and dozens of other fighters were put out of action.
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Their intention at the rear was to attack and destroy the essential logistical support on wheels, such as the armoury, water tankers, food and fuel. But the plan was nipped in the bud.
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The rebels must have misjudged UPDF’s capability. The battle raged for four hours. The ambush was repulsed and lots of weapons were seized.
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SPLA commander Madol
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Further advance
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After the fight, troops moved out quickly and established an active defence ahead of the forest, in a deserted village located on open terrain with a fresh-water borehole. Here, troops embarked on personal administration, treatment and evacuation of the injured, including fallen comrades. The night seemed long.
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On January 14, we moved to Gemeiza, 6km from Palek and joined a unit of SPLA we had left in the rear. Gemeiza is a busy town adjacent to River Nile. Hitherto a strategic rebel stronghold along our axis of advance, the town is infested with mosquitoes.
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Many soldiers failed to bathe or even eat as swarms of mosquitoes attacked, biting any bare part of the body.
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Some of the displaced people who had sought refuge in the numerous islands on River Nile jumped out of their covers and waved at us excitedly. In the successive days, we moved through several other small towns and villages.
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The terrain was vast and open with sandy and light shrubs, bearing a few rocky protrusions. Visibility was excellent at a long distance such that any suspicious activities could easily be detected.
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No more threat or contact was encountered along these places, except the frequent sight of decomposing bodies of civilians and soldiers lying in the compounds of deserted homesteads and by the roadsides.
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On January 17, we reached Pariak, 26km from Bor. This was our base in anticipation of an onslaught from the rebels’ supposed stronghold in Total, a key town leading to Bor. But this did not happen. Routine aerial surveillance reported a calm situation in the largely open terrain.
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There was clearly no sign of any suspicious activities ahead of us and this boosted the troop morale. However, instances of suspicious movements, activities or legitimate targets were dealt with by air interdiction, which threw the rebels in disarray.
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The capture of Bor
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On January 18, we left Pariak with the hope of establishing a base at Total, 12km from Bor. We expected resistance ahead.
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However, the rebels could not withstand our interdiction capability, forcing them to flee Bor and other nearby towns. They headed north and east towards the Ethiopian and Sudanese borders.
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At Total, troops seized an assortment of light and heavy weapons, including ammunition and an armed anti-aircraft Igler missile. From Total, troops moved through Malek and Melwalchot and advanced towards Bor, with the infantry fighting vehicles and tanks often providing force protection along the way.
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At around 2:00pm, the forward elements of our units reported having reached the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Bor and the airfield.
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UN soldiers watched over their fences and were astonished at the sight of such a huge force advancing. The bulk of troops, equipment and the convoy steadily moved on and took defensive positions at the airfield and on the outskirt of Bor.
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Unable to hide their excitement, UN officials opened their gates and began coming towards us. They gazed at the flags patched on the arms of our uniforms, took pictures and nodded in approval. The UNMISS in Bor was the first to welcome the UPDF. They had been barricaded inside the compound as atrocities were being committed in the town.
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ALUTA CONTINUA
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Bor was a ghost town. It was a scene of destruction, pillage and decomposing bodies at the airfield, in the hospital, on the roads and the outskirts of the town. Stray dogs and flocks of birds feasted on corpses.
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As order was restored, the dead were collected and buried by the local authorities in mass graves in the outskirts of the town.
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The graves will be developed into a memorial site. Following the intervention and presence of the UPDF in Bor, people gradually began returning.
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Today, Bor is a peaceful town under the protection of the UPDF. Uganda’s army averted a potential genocide in South Sudan. The opening of the Juba-Nimule road has enabled the resumption of humanitarian operations by aid agencies and government.
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Juba airport is under the protection of Uganda’s soldiers. UPDF continues to stand out as a beacon of hope, peace and stability in the region and on the African continent.

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