From canopy to open savannah; an incursion into Akagera National Park

In this serialised article, Capt (rtd) Logan Ndahiro, who took part in the 1990-94 liberation struggle, gives an account of some of the fiercest battles that marked the war. In the previous piece, the author recounted in detail the harsh life in the bamboo thicket of the Volcanoes’ National Park.
RPF combatants in the bamboo forest in northern Rwanda during the liberation struggle. (Courtesy photo)
RPF combatants in the bamboo forest in northern Rwanda during the liberation struggle. (Courtesy photo)

In this serialised article, Capt (rtd) Logan Ndahiro, who took part in the 1990-94 liberation struggle, gives an account of some of the fiercest battles that marked the war. In the previous piece, the author recounted in detail the harsh life in the bamboo thicket of the Volcanoes’ National Park.

In this part, he delves into the change in strategy by the rebel force, to relocate to the much open Akagera National Park in the Eastern Province.

Towards the end of April 1991, the government forces mounted sustained pressure on RPA forces in the mountains with an intention of encircling and eventually flushing us out. The enemy even penetrated the bamboo and attacked us at Sabyinyo but was easily repulsed by Delta Mobile Force.

The Chairman of the High Command (President Paul Kagame), sensing the enemy’s intention, had in early April 1991 commissioned a reconnaissance team made up of RPA intelligence personnel to go and assess the position and strength of enemy forces in the Umutara sector and the Akagera National Park, a prerequisite before committing his forces to any assignment.

It should be remembered that when the RPA – Inkotanyi launched its struggle in October 1990, we suffered a lot of losses including loss of RPA top commanders and combatants during the early encounters with the enemy in Umutara sector due to operational mistakes.

When Paul Kagame arrived at the frontline, he immediately re-organised the forces and initiated a gorilla-type of warfare. To be able to do this, he had to move the young army to the Volcano Mountains for re-organisation.

The concept to send a mobile force into Akagera again was, this time well planned in order to minimise losses.

The plan was to select a force that was highly mobile, well equipped, combat hardened and tactical that would strike the enemy in lightening attacks with minimal losses.

It was at this time the enemy forces were trying to encircle us that he got the intelligence report from the team earlier sent to Umutara sector. While analysing the report at his Gahinga Headquarters, he authorised simultaneous attacks on Muremure, Cyanika and Nyamucucu, now Burera district to divert the enemy’s attention.

These attacks served to contain and occupy him (enemy) to allow our forces to easily descend from the mountains. The Chairman concurrently ordered two mobile forces to be detached from the volcano force which stealthily moved back to Umutara battle sector. We assembled at Nyamiyonga (Matimba Sector, Nyagatare district).

Chairing the meeting of the High Command, the Chairman outlined the assignment to commanders in clear terms, reminding them of the past mistakes of unnecessary losses to combatants in Umutara Sector and emphasised that he would not tolerate any such tactical errors this time. Before moving to our objective, for the first time in our struggle, we were supplied with tinned beef and beans and plastic jerrycans for drinking water.

One-liter plastic jerrycans; - named Utunyenzi, Akanyenzi (one)

Two liter plastic jerrycans; - named Udukotanyi, Agakotanyi (one)
 
All combatants, rank and file, were very excited by this change of diet. We had been all along fed on boiled corn and beans (imvugure) but none of these tinned. This boosted our morale as we felt that we were now treated like other contemporary world armies.
 
Before we set off to our objective, we were, as usual, briefed by the chairman on our assignment. The two mobile forces’ Commanding Officers, after ensuring the food supply to the forces, re-organised them in readiness to move towards our objective.

We set off from Nyamiyonga, now Matimba sector, in the evening to take advantage of darkness, moving south eastwards through Gasinga, we crossed the Kayonza – Kagitumba road between Ntoma and Nyarupfubire in an extended formation to disguise our movement.

At dawn, we were deep into the park.

As we moved, Mike Mobile Force in the lead, we passed through and between enemy defences. Deep into the park, the first obstacle we encountered at dawn was of a buffalo charging out of its hideout and tossing up one of our soldiers who was carrying an 82 mm recoilless gun.
 
We could have shot the buffalo, but under such circumstances of being clandestine we couldn’t. We picked up both our soldier and gun unharmed and continued. 
 
During the night journey, we had strayed off course and came close to Gabiro barracks and this caused some panic and our presence known. We settled into a thick forest on a raised hill for the day to avoid being detected by the enemy.
 
Soldiers to man Observation Posts (OPs) were dispatched. Since, the enemy had known about our incursion but could not exactly locate our position, he kept shelling guessingly off target on opposite hills until dark.

As night fell, on 20th May1991, the enemy had come close to where we were hiding and besieged us. He had completely surrounded us and had mobilised Gabiro barracks for a dawn attack.
 
Before we moved, we called back our OPs, but our Bravo OP was donning a charged Zaire military uniform and was mistakenly shot at by one of our combatants in the neck but not fatally.
 
The sound of the bullet alerted the ambushing enemy, but before they could think of what to do, we were breaking through their make shift tents and they started blowing off their candles as we matched passed.

What was supposed to be an ambush turned out to be like an ‘inspection’ by RPA forces to the enemy in their tents. It was the first time I saw an ambush in tents.

None of them could even shoot. They were so overwhelmed by our numbers and probably thought, an engagement would be disastrous on their side.

We kept moving towards south-east and continued our way but then he (enemy) came following us. By dawn, we had reached River Karangazi, which was full to its banks. The crossing was hazardous, the water current very strong and this took us from 2 to 6 am.

The enemy, sensing our movement direction had waylaid us across the river. We had, before crossing the river, laid an ambush on a dust road along the river. Shortly after crossing the river, an enemy bus full of enemy forces fell into it and was completely destroyed.

No sooner had we tried to settle in a forest for cover than the enemy attacked us from our rear. The battle lasted for about four hours and when the guns fell silent, we had killed many enemy forces.

The overall operations commander of the two mobile forces briefed and organised the force in the evening and we started moving at night. We gathered so many guns from the dead enemy and other military hardware that some of our soldiers including myself carried two guns each. 

The next day at dawn, we laid an ambush before settling into a forest for cover but the enemy was again on us and we engaged him in a battle. Our ambush on Rwanyakizinga road hit a lorry full of the enemy’s food supply and two other escorting buses.

We fought a short pitched battle and repulsed his attack. The enemy’s use of roads made him more vulnerable to our ambushes.

After repulsing him on the ground, he resorted to heavy shelling using Katyshas, 120mm mortars which could not easily afford the target as we were moving in a scattered formation in wilderness.

As the evening fell, the shelling stopped; two mobile forces got reorganised and we started a trek back to Nyamiyonga from where we had set off. 

As we withdrew full of morale and determination, the going was easy as the enemy had had a thorough beating. Back to Nyamiyonga, we engaged the enemy in his defences along the border and fought three battles in Agakindo, Bubare and Rugarama now Rwempasha sector, Nyagatare district.

As we fought these battles in Akagera National Park, causing panic to the enemy on the eastern front, he (enemy) started pulling his forces from the Ruhengeri sector to Umutara easing our troops movement from the mountains in readiness for the forth-coming assignment.

It was after the above successful battles that in May 1991 the chairman of the High Command bestowed on us the first ever RPA ranks. 
I was given a JOII rank (gorilla ranks equivalent to Lieutenant) Needless to say how this boosted our already raising morale.

But as I said, the chairman of the High Command was already thinking ahead of yet another important assignment. He had correctly gauged the strength and stamina of his forces and knew by now we could meet any enemy resistance of whatever magnitude.