From atop any of the rolling hills that give Butolongo sub-county its undulating beauty, an enchanting serenity seems to spread out as far as the eye can see.
But that`s only the view from the top. Walk down to the plains and valleys of this green expanse in Mubende district, and the story changes. Shadowed by the hills and forests are horrific tales of intensifying battles for land which cost men their livelihood and women their dignity.
In Ngabano village, Sam Ssenkinga has spent the last two months nursing life-threatening injuries from a vicious attack by neighbours and friends who he says attempted to end his life because of 13 acres of land. Ssenkinga limps to our meeting point in wooden crutches with his left leg, which he keeps off the ground, in a heavy black cast that cost him Shs 250,000 from Mulago hospital.
I am in this situation because I refused to sell my land, the father of 12 and husband to two wives starts.
Describing that situation causes Ssenkinga to break down in tears at least four times. He displays a double cut to the head whose scar now forms an `X`, a cut to his left palm and the heavily-casted leg whose bone was broken and almost ripped into two by the machete (panga) that caused the damage.
Ssenkinga says his woes started when Formasa Tree Planting company, a Chinese-owned company, came to the area to grow pine trees. In a bid to secure more land, the company has been trying to buy off many of the tenants and landowners in the three villages of Kyedikyo, Nakasozi and Kicucula.
According to Ssenkinga, when Formasa officials approached him sometime last year, he told them that he valued his land at Shs100 million.
I told them to give me Shs 100 million in exchange for the land because I had already done a lot on it; there were seven acres of coffee, four and a half acres of eucalyptus trees, and my banana plantation. When they said they couldn`t buy it for that amount, I refused to sell, he narrated.
Because of his stand, Ssenkinga says, he received some veiled threats from workers at the farm, but he ignored them - until March 17, 2016, when they escalated to violence.
On that day, Ssenkinga was heading to the trading centre when three friends who used to drink alcohol from his place approached him. Because he knew them, Ssenkinga stopped to hear from them, despite knowing that they are labourers at the company that wanted his land.
When I saw they wanted to attack me, I threw down my motorcycle and ran away. They chased me until they caught up with me and then started cutting me up, he recalled.
Ssenkinga`s attackers left him for dead. He was only rescued by passers-by who heard his cries for help. They called his relatives and friends. One of those friends, 40-year-old John Ssemike, describes what he found at the scene as horrific.
I was called that Sam had been chopped up and was dying. When I reached Sam, I found that he was in a bad state. His leg was in two pieces, he says.
The officer-in-charge of criminal investigations at Muduku police station, where Ssenkinga reported the case, Benson Ampaire, said they registered an attempted murder case given the gravity of the injuries. Ampaire adds that their investigations found the cause of the incident was not a land dispute but a love wrangle over a woman.
They [Ssenkinga and family] wanted to associate this case with land, but it was a fight which started from a bar over a woman. It was revenge, he said.
Abel Turwaneho, a manager at Formasa, also told The Observer in an interview that Ssenkinga`s injuries were because they fought in a bar.
However, Ampaire says they have not arrested anyone because Ssenkinga and his family are not cooperating. They are not revealing the names of the attackers.
If Sam comes and says so and so attacked me, we are very much willing to arrest him, Ampaire says.
SALE UNDER DURESS
In hospital, Ssenkinga was visited by two managers of Formasa, Abel Turwaneho and a lady only identified by locals as Anna. Turwaneho offered Ssenkinga Shs 200,000 while Anna offered Ssenkinga Shs 500,000 for treatment.
A few days later, according to Ssenkinga, the Formasa managers were back with a proposal. They wanted to purchase his land so that he could use the money for medication.
While I was in hospital, people from the company came and said: `We are going to value your land and tell you how much we will pay you.` Then they came and gave me Shs 16 million. I had no choice. I accepted the money, he says, wiping away tears.
To this day, however, Ssenkinga believes he got a raw deal under duress. You can`t value all my land and what I had planted there and give me that kind of money and yet I had also built my houses on that land, he argues.
Ssenkinga`s father, Francis Sseninde, is equally unhappy with the deal and circumstances under which it was negotiated. He tells The Observer, That company really squeezed us. When buying our land, it gives us very little money. However, Turwaneho described the statements made by Ssenkinga and his father as lies.
The problem of those people is that they are lying, he said by telephone. For us, we are compensating, we are not grabbing. We have the pictures, we have the agreements.
Turwaneho said his company had fully compensated Ssenkinga not just for the land but also for the injuries he sustained in the incident involving their workers.
We have already compensated him with Shs 21 million. The Shs 21 million also included damages for his injuries, he said.
But Ssenkinga says the attack has left his family in dire straits, given that he can no longer fend for them and has to prioritise the money given to him for treatment.
I used to earn between Shs 500,000 and Shs 1 million [per month] from my land and I would be able to take care of my family. But now this has left us helpless, he said, wiping away more tears.
Cases of Mubende residents coming under threat are numerous. One lady, who declined to be named, says she was repeatedly raped by employees of Formasa as they sought to drive her away from her family land.
In one case, which reached the office of the deputy resident district commissioner (DRDC) Evelyn Kizza Tinkamalirwe Jimmy Ssegujja complained that Formasa was grabbing his land. On May 5, 2015, Tinkamalirwe wrote to the manager of Formasa, Stephen Tumwine, in a bid to resolve the dispute.
The abovementioned (Ssegujja) has petitioned this office that you are grabbing his kibanja which he has already been allocated by the District Land Board, she wrote. You are, therefore, requested to halt developing the disputed part until relevant authorities intervene and settle the dispute.
When contacted at her office in Mubende, Tinkamalirwe told The Observer that she had intervened in the matter because land matters are a security concern. She says she sought to mediate between the two parties.
According to Tinkamalirwe, it was not the first case she has had to resolve where Formasa was accused by locals of using violent means to get the upper hand in a land dispute.
The name of that company also surfaced in Nakasozi. They called me at night that the workers of Formasa were uprooting their gardens, slashing their cassava and I also called police. When they went there, they arrested those people, she said.
I called Stephen [Tumwine]and told him, `if you bought their land and they are not aware that you bought their land, because they are complaining, don`t go back there`.
Tinkamalirwe says when she met Formasa manager Tumwine, his response was that it was not the company`s policy to harass landowners. He said their workers could have taken matters into their own hands and those found to have done so would be disciplined by the company.