Uganda: Remembering Rakai School Fire Victims, Families Demand Justice

11 November 2019

Monday November 11, 2019, marked one year since ten students were killed in a dormitory fire at St. Bernard's -Manya SS in Kifamba Sub-county in Rakai district.

Unknown arsonists sneaked into the school last year and locked up the senior three dormitory to ensure that none of the 60 occupants left and torched it. At least ten students were killed.

They included Charles Ssuuna (16), Sam Nsubuga (15), Timothy Bukenya (16), Geoffrey Lutaaya (21), Remegious Tamale (16), Anthony Ssekitende (15), Hudson Byamukama (22), Emmanuel Kasozi (15), Sharif Dodiye (15) and Maurice Basiita (15).

Their bodies were charred beyond recognition. It only took DNA tests to identify the deceased before handing their remains to their respective families. Thirty seven other students were severely wounded while few others escaped with minor injuries.

Student's property worth millions of shillings was lost in the fire. The deceased's families are still grieving and struggling to cope with the recurring painful memories. They demand justice through a speedy trial of the suspects.

Caroline Nabasaji, a resident of Kalisizo Town Council in Kyotera district, says her son Charles Ssuuna, would have been among thousands that sat their Uganda Certificate Exams this year to pursue his dream of becoming an engineer. Nabasaji, says the delayed trial of the suspects has denied them justice.

Around this time their children would have been sitting for the exams and they are still wondering why justice hasn't been served. They are still mourning, especially when they see other students completing their UCE exams.

Nabasaji appeals to government and court to use the first anniversary to expedite the trial of the suspects for justice to prevail.

"We met the First Lady Janet Museveni when our children were burnt to death and she promised that the court process would be expedited and we would get to find out the truth, but is now a year and nothing has been done yet. We ask government to help us find justice," Nabasaji says.

Another parent, Betty Namuwonge of Katwe north in Kalisizo town council declined to speak on the matter, saying nothing would return her son, Anthony Ssekitende to life. Goodman Manigaruhanga, the elder brother to the late Maurice Basiita, says the family chose to ignore the matter because the more it comes up the more it torments them.

Betty Nakatte, whose two sons, Julius Kanwagi and Derrick Muyombya escaped with severe burns, says they still get intense nightmares. Nakatte says the suspect's trial has delayed and urges government to intervene.

"We are always told the suspects were arrested, but we do not see anything being done to them," she says.

Nakatte says she took her sons back to the ill-fated school after the new headmaster; Geoffrey Alingasha put in place a strict security mechanism.

The school's management has since deployed more security personnel to watch over the school in addition to procuring surveillance cameras. The burnt dormitory was refurbished in February and is now home to more than 80 students.

It was inaugurated by former Masaka Diocesan Bishop, John Baptist Kaggwa who cleansed it with holy water and prayer. The dormitory has two sections, each with two doors, one for regular entrance and exit and another for an emergency. The burglar proofing was removed from all the dormitories.

The suspects

On May 31, 2019, four key suspects, all students were committed to the high court. They are Alex Taremwa 18, Junior Mugarura 18, Dickson Kisuule 18 and Edison Niyo 21.

They first appeared before the Masaka Grade One Magistrate's Court on November 27, 2018. Other subsequent sessions were December 13, 2018, January 10, 2019, February 15, 2019, March 22, 2019, April 26, 2019 and May 30, 2019 all presided over by Christopher Adyeri.

Michael Tayebwa, a security guard and Corporal Steven Nzeyimana, a police officer, were charged separately with negligence of duty and were tried in the magistrates' court. Relatives of the four suspects say they were longing for committal to pave way for their trial.

Josephine Ingabire, the sister to Edison Niyo, says the trial will determine the fate of the suspects other than keeping them behind bars without being heard in court.

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