The battle successes registered by UPDF against al-Shabaab militants in Somalia is at a higher cost than officials previously disclosed, Daily Monitor has learnt.
The hardships, according to multiple interviews with frontline soldiers in Lower Shebelle region, about 120km South of the capital, Mogadishu, range from delayed or delivery of rotten food stuff, lack of necessities such as toilet paper and soap.
One soldier, who preferred anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter, says they venture into hostile terrains to collect firewood for preparing meals.
Death for every living being is a given, but not in the eyes of combatant charged with fighting the al-Shabaab in the Lower Shabelle.
Here, death is always a minute away because one fights without clearly understanding the enemy, he says.
“There is nothing as dangerous as fighting the enemy you do not know,” he adds.
Livingstone Odongo (not real name) stands on a cliff in one of the Amisom forward operating bases, overlooking strategic locations of the enemy.
He thinks deeply about home (Uganda) and tears roll down his cheeks. For a trained soldier at a battle front, this is weird.
“Tosha!” a commanding voice blows his mind back to normal senses. He wipes his face and lifts his sub machine gun, walks a few steps further and disembarks.
Darkness is already falling and Odongo’s day on duty ends. He walks back to his shelter, a makeshift of military camp tents.
Dinner is served but Odongo remains in his camp, locked in fresh memories of war and the unknown life of his family back home.
He was paid three months ago and his salary was trimmed without explanation.
Tales of anguish
Odongo says he has been here for the last six months and cannot wait to go back home in October.
The 36-year-old has been at war before but not in Somalia. His traumatising reflections are caused by the
April twin attacks on Amisom forces in Buulo Mareer and Golwen in the Lower Shabelle.
The attacks in which scores died, also claimed his brother’s life and injured a number of his friends. He wipes his face once again and walks out.
On opening the door, a rat jumps and runs under the bed as if to signal that someone has been watching and listening in to the conversation.
The room falls silent and after about 10 minutes, he returns with a friend, Jimmy.
“Here, this is my brother,” Odongo says as he lays a couple of photos on the bed.
“That is my brother. He was killed in Buulo Mareer. Jimmy saw him perish, but there was little to do, he died,” Odongo says.
Jimmy is of medium height with a dark skin. The narration that follows is how soldiers are fed on one meal a day with little or no supplies for the most part of the month.
Besides the delay, the soldiers receive their monthly allowances quarterly, implying that they cannot even buy some basics.
“We are supposed to be paid at least $828 (about Shs3m) but we receive $628 (about Shs2.3m). You cannot tell where the rest goes and why it is deducted,” Jimmy narrates.
He picks a piece of paper and hands it to this reporter.
“Here are our problems, no one should know we are here and I have got to leave immediately,” Jimmy says as he leaves the room.
On the paper, the writings in blue ink, summarise the daily life of a Ugandan soldier, battling the al-Shabaab enemy.
This is the daily life of a UPDF fighter at the battle front against the militants.
Somalia is one the few African countries with a deep-rooted culture. There is only one tribe, Somali, with five clans; the Darood, Dir, Hawiye and Isaaq, Rahanweyn.
It is this clan system that has made the general administration of Somalia complex. The same has trickled down to the war that has lasted decades.
“This is not CAR (Central African Republic), it is not Congo or Sudan where we knew the people we were pursuing, the al-Shabaab are the ordinary people and the ordinary people are al-Shabaab, but you cannot attack anyone unless you are sure,” Odongo says.
What hurts him is not that he knows the enemy or not, but the risk of life in a foreign land with little to take home. “I have a family to feed, my children have to study; they should not be soldiers like me, they should not die in exploitation,” Odongo says.
Maj Caesar Olweny, the spokesperson for Sector One (UPDF), however, says the complaints about salary are strange. “The salary is paid on a monthly basis in Uganda and we have not had cases here where our soldiers are complaining that they have not been paid back home,” he says.
“We do not earn salary here, we are given allowances,” he adds.
Whereas Maj Olweny did not delve into the details, Brig Richard Karemire, the UPDF spokesperson, explains why the $200 (about Sh740,000) is deducted.
According to Brig Karemire, each fighter is paid $100 (about Shs370,000) cash to support them at the battle fronts while another is taken by the government to cater for post-deployment costs.
Brig Karemire, however, dismisses the allegations regarding limited food rations.
“It is not true because the United Nations Support Office in Somalia provides adequate food,” Brig Karemire says.
“There is no military place with enough food as Somalia,” he adds.
Brig Karemire, however, says there are occasional delays in delivering supplies due to the transport problem.
The contingent commander for Ugandan troops, Brig Paul L’Okech, says despite a few challenges, Ugandans have done a great job.
“We thank Ugandans for giving us their children to deploy in Somalia, it is a noble cause and many Somalis appreciate what we have done for them because there is nothing else you can give to a brother more than blood,” Brig L’Okech says.
He says the transportation problem was caused by the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) planted by the enemy and often disrupt supply distribution convoys.
However, there is anticipation that this is being solved by the construction of a runway for air deliveries at least in Baraawe, about 208km South of Mogadishu.