NRA Policies Drove The Destruction Of The People And Land Of Northern Uganda – Part 2

Gen. David Tinyefuza (R), Gen Yuweri Museveni (L)

Gen. David Tinyefuza (R), Gen Yuweri Museveni (L)

Last week we looked how the policy of hatred towards the northerners, which was at the epicentre of NRA operations, fueled the discrimination, marginalisation and destruction of the northerners, particularly the Acholi people; in public and private domain and were the basis upon which the war in northern Uganda was prosecuted.  The Acholi people witnessed the total distraction of their social, cultural and economic support systems fundamental to their survival which will continue to haunt them for generations to come.  Acholi Times now brings you the second and final part of the Amnesty Report on Uganda which depicts what was happening on the ground and was released in December 1991 titled, “Uganda: Human rights violations by the National Resistance Army.”

Torture and Ill-treatment of Prisoners in Military Custody

There have been persistent reports of the torture and ill-treatment of prisoners held by the NRA. The 18 northern leaders who appeared in court on 7 May 1991 were bruised and dishevelled after being beaten by soldiers before being flown to Kampala. The arm of one prisoner, Zachary Olum, was broken. One of the accused, Irene Apiu Julu, was reported to have had complications with a pregnancy as a result of physical ill-treatment. The case shocked the court-room and wider Ugandan society – largely because the ill-treatment was so blatant and involved senior politicians and community leaders. In this instance good medical treatment was made available to the 18 when they subsequently arrived at Luzira Upper Prison and the authorities announced that the incident would be investigated by the office of the Inspector General of Government (IGG), Uganda’s human rights ombudsman.

Amnesty International welcomed this announcement and urged the government to take steps to ensure that the IGG’s investigating team should produce a prompt report, that the report should be made public, and that it should include recommendations on measures to be taken to ensure that soldiers and law enforcement officials act in accordance with international standards governing the performance of their duties. In a meeting with Amnesty International representatives in August 1991, the Inspector General of Government, Augustine Ruzindana, said he expected the investigation into the allegations of torture to be completed by early September 1991. He indicated that the conclusions would be made public, but that the report produced by the investigating team would not be made public on the grounds that it could prejudice judicial proceedings. By October 1991, almost half a year after the incidents concerned, no conclusions had been announced.

There have been many other reports of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners in NRA custody in the north, as well as in barracks in the Kampala area. In late March 1991 people found without proper papers, NRA deserters and those suspected of being rebels, who were imprisoned in a compound belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture in Gulu, were reportedly made to run a gauntlet of soldiers who clubbed them with rifle butts. There have been reports of rape from both Gulu and Kitgum Districts. For example, women are reported to have been raped by soldiers while detained for “screening” at Bwobo in Alero Sub-County of Gulu District in early April 1991. Throughout the year there have been allegations of homosexual rape by NRA soldiers. Although these allegations have yet to be proved, that they are widely believed reflects the widespread fear and suspicion of NRA activities in the north.

A particularly serious set of human rights violations are reported by a several sources to have taken place between 16 and 18 April 1991 in Paicho Sub-County in Gulu District. On these dates people from villages around Bucoro were brought to a temporary NRA camp at Bucoro primary school for “screening”. NRA soldiers rounding people up are alleged to have done so in a violent manner, beating some of those held. There were several reports of rape, torture and extrajudicial execution. The elderly Juliana Ayako, her daughter Margaret Abwoyo and Erumalina Amono are all reported to have been raped by soldiers on 17 April in Agung village. Alfonse Lacere Majereof Labongoguru village was executed extrajudicially by firing squad – without any form of trial – after a military uniform was found in his house. At Bucoro school soldiers are alleged to have dug a pit some two metres deep which was overlaid by soil-covered logs. Prisoners were put in the pit and a fire lit on top of the logs. Smoke from the fire is reported to have contributed to the suffocation and death of Rodento Okema from Onyama, Opwonya p’Opigefrom Labongoguru, Ojabo from Obyela and Ogok p’Larii from Olano. Another man placed in the pit, Justin Okumu, is reported to have escaped from the torture by claiming that there was a gun hidden at his father’s house in Onyama. He was taken to the house, but a search failed to locate any weapon. He and his father, who was called Raymondo Okwera, are alleged to have then been beaten to death.

In a meeting with Amnesty International representatives in August, Mrs Betty Bigombe said that she had visited Bucoro after the reports of a “torture pit” became known to her and that there was no evidence that such incidents had ever taken place. However, an on-the-spot visit by a government minister under military escort, while demonstrating official concern, does not constitute an independent and thorough inquiry into the allegations. Amnesty International has been informed that the soldiers left Bucoro on 18 April 1991 and destroyed the “torture pit” before they left, leaving the bodies of the four men inside. Villagers are reported to have removed the bodies for burial, but on 20 April 1991 and two subsequent occasions soldiers are reported to have returned to Bucoro demanding information on who had removed the bodies.

Although the war in the north provides the context for these reports of gross human rights violations, allegations of torture and ill-treatment by NRA soldiers are not confined to the northern operational areas. In late June 1991, 10 men from Bunabulayi village in Bukiende Sub-County in eastern Uganda were reportedly given 30 strokes of a cane daily over a two week period while detained at Rubongi military barracks in Tororo after they were wrongly arrested and accused of attacking an army patrol. When they were released into the custody of the police at Mbale their buttocks were covered with deep wounds. They had not received any medical attention while they were in military custody and the wounds were badly infected. In August 1991 it was reported that the NRA had accepted liability in an out-of-court settlement and had agreed to pay compensation, but it is not known if any payment has yet been paid for these unlawful beatings. Corporal punishment remains a legal punishment that can be handed down by both Magistrate’s Courts and the High Court.

There have also been persistent reports of torture at military barracks and other places where prisoners are held by soldiers in Kampala. Amnesty International has received reports in recent years alleging torture of prisoners held in Makindye and Lubiri barracks and Basima House, the headquarters of the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Prisoners have been tortured while under interrogation about political and criminal offences; in all cases victims were held incommunicado outside any legal framework, with no safeguard whatsoever to protect their right not to be tortured. For example, Haji Abdu Mbogo, a suspect in a case of armed robbery, is reported to have been subjected to a method of torture known as “balance” in Lubiri barracks in June 1990. This entails tying the victim’s hands and feet together and then suspending the victim from the wall or from iron bars in a window while he or she is beaten. On 22 September 1990 a civilian, Mande Ntananga, was severely tortured in Lubiri barracks after being arrested by NRA soldiers. He is reported to have been arrested after an argument with some other civilians who then persuaded NRA soldiers to take him into detention. Medical examinations are reported to have revealed injuries consistent with having been beaten and subjected to electric shocks, treatment which led to brain damage. The case received extensive publicity in the Ugandan press and was the subject of investigations by the office of the Inspector General of Government. Some soldiers were arrested, but it is not known if any further action has been taken by the military authorities to bring them to justice. Again compensation was agreed in an out-of-court settlement, but it is not known if any payment has actually been made. Another prisoner held in Lubiri barracks, called Mbabazi, reportedly died in Mulago Hospital on 1 November 1990 as a result of injuries inflicted when he was beaten by soldiers.

Reports of Extrajudicial Executions

NRA soldiers have also executed prisoners extrajudicially – without any form of trial – as well as killing unarmed civilians in other circumstances which meant the killings were a gross abuse of human rights. In December 1990 Amnesty International published details of reports of extrajudicial executions in Gulu, Soroti, Kumi and Tororo Districts during 1990.(4) In 1991 there have been reports of further extrajudicial executions in Gulu and Kitgum Districts. Once again the government and the NRA High Command have not acted to prevent extrajudicial executions.

On 16 March 1991 at least five civilians were reported to have been shot dead by troops in Atiak in Gulu District as they tried to leave a rally called by the Political Commissar of the local NRA unit. These appeared to be unnecessary and unlawful killings. Shortly afterwards it was reported that three soldiers had been arrested in connection with the shootings, but since then there has been no report of any of them being brought to justice. Reported killings around Bucoro in Gulu District in April 1991 – and the government response to the allegations – have been described above.

In early April 1991 NRA troops based at Atanga sub-county headquarters in Kitgum District are alleged to have extrajudicially executed at least 35 civilians at Komyoke village. People were reportedly rounded up from the small villages of Ajuko, Komyoke, Lagoti, Lapyem, Lamel and Okinga and assembled at the house of one Omona, apparently to be “screened”. It is reported that some of the men were tied kandooya-style,(5) a practice that was officially outlawed in the NRA in 1987. Late in the afternoon, after several hours during which those detained are said to have been beaten and abused, the villagers were ordered to disperse. As they moved away troops opened fire. People who returned the next morning discovered 35 bodies, including those of Santo Alero, the Chairman of the Resistance Committee One (RC I), his son Ochieng, Orach p’Oyuru and Modesto Agaba, all from Lamel; and Aperi p’Ongaba, Okot p’Atuu and Celestino p’Obur, from Komyoke.

On 23 May 1991 soldiers of the 106 Battalion of the NRA reportedly extrajudicially executed Moses Otii in Kitgum town. Moses Otii, who was a teenage schoolboy, is reported to have been picked up late at night after curfew by an NRA patrol when he left his father’s house with his brother to go to an outside toilet. The soldiers began to beat the two boys who apparently panicked and ran towards a nearby NRA roadblock seeking protection. They were caught before they got there, and Moses Otii was forced to the ground and shot three times. His brother was taken to the NRA barracks where he convinced the senior officer on duty that he was not a rebel. This officer is reported to have confirmed that Moses Otii had been shot, to have indicated that the culprit would be arrested and to have reported the incident to the District Administrator. A soldier was reportedly arrested but appears to have been set free two weeks later. Since then there has apparently been no further action either to investigate the incident or to bring those responsible to justice.

International standards, notably Resolution 1989/65 of the United Nations Economic and Social Council adopting Principles on the effective prevention and investigation of extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions (ECOSOC Principles), which were endorsed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 15 December 1989, stress the importance of prompt and impartial investigations into reported extrajudicial executions as safeguards to prevent further extrajudicial executions from taking place. Such investigations should lead to the prompt production of reports making recommendations on measures to prevent extrajudicial executions.

Amnesty International expressed concern in its December 1990 report that Ugandan Government announcements of investigations into alleged extrajudicial executions over the previous two years had not been followed by the publication of any reports on their activities and findings. The organization drew particular attention to a Commission of Inquiry into allegations of the extrajudicial execution of civilians in Gulu District in late 1988 set up under the office of the Minister of State for the North and East.

Despite indications by government officials in mid-1989 and early 1990 that a report would be produced before long, the commission’s work appears to have been in abeyance until August 1991 when the commission was re-established with the involvement of three officials from the office of the Inspector General of Government. It has apparently been given the task of investigating allegations of human rights violations by NRA soldiers and other state agents in the north of Uganda between 30 November 1988 and 30 April 1990.

While welcoming the renewed work of this commission, Amnesty International is concerned that for investigations and inquiries to be most effective, and to be seen as an expression of government commitment to preventing future human rights abuses, it is essential that they should be carried out promptly after an incident is alleged to have taken place. If this is not the case, logistical problems in locating witnesses or alleged offenders could become a barrier to effective investigation. The organization is therefore urging the government to initiate prompt and independent investigations into all incidents as they are reported, starting with the incidents which are alleged to have occurred most recently in 1991.

Amnesty International also notes that in the past the authorities have announced investigations into a number of serious incidents reported in other parts of Uganda, notably the killing of 69 prisoners at Okungulo railway station in Kumi District in July 1989, incidents in Pallisa District in April and May 1990 in which 12 civilians are reported to have died, and various incidents in Soroti District in 1990, including the burning to death of 16 people in Bugondo Sub-County on 10 August and the extrajudicial execution of 20 people near Soroti town on 6 September 1990.

These investigations are not known to have been concluded or to have resulted in any reports being made public and, despite reports of arrests in some cases, no NRA soldiers alleged to have been responsible for these incidents are known to have been brought to justice. Because no public reports have emerged, it is impossible to assess the nature and scope of the investigations – or even, in some cases, whether they ever took place. It seems that when they did occur they were internal investigations by the NRA’s Military Intelligence service, rather than an independent and impartial body. Investigations by the military of itself, especially in the absence of public reports, the continuing occurrence of extrajudicial executions and the failure to bring those responsible to justice do not provide reassurance that incidents are being taken seriously and are not simply being covered up. Confidential investigations which do not produce reports and which fail to make their conclusions or working methods public evidently do not meet the international requirement for effective investigation laid down in the United Nation’s ECOSOC Principles.

The government’s failure to carry out prompt and independent investigations of killings in which the NRA is implicated, particularly incidents in the course of counter-insurgency operations, stands in marked contrast to the speed with which inquiries have been set up in other circumstances. A Commission of Inquiry was set up into the circumstances surrounding the abduction by insurgents on 9 July 1991 of 43 schoolgirls from the Sacred Heart School near Gulu. The Commission was hearing evidence in Gulu by 15 August 1991. In December 1990 a judicial Commission of Inquiry was set up promptly after two students were shot dead by police at Makerere University. This inconsistency certainly raises questions about the government’s commitment to dealing with the problem of human rights violations committed by the NRA.

There is one recent example from eastern Uganda of an alleged extrajudicial execution by NRA soldiers where the authorities moved promptly to try those suspected of being responsible. Bernard Wanzala, a Resistance Committee official from Buwalasi Sub-County in Mbale District was allegedly tortured to death by soldiers on 30 July 1991, the day after the government-owned New Vision newspaper published a story in which he had accused soldiers in the area of ill-treating people. His comments to the press came after a prolonged period in which the local authorities failed to respond to complaints by Resistance Committee officials about continuing human rights violations by soldiers. The case received publicity in the Ugandan press, and two officers and a sergeant were subsequently arrested and tried by the General Court Martial in late August and early September 1991. While the authorities moved promptly once Bernard Wanzala was killed, their failure to act over preceding months was almost certainly interpreted by the soldiers involved as a sign that they could act with impunity.

Killings, Abductions and other Abuses Committed by Insurgent Groups in Northern Uganda

The human rights violations committed by Uganda’s army in northern Uganda in recent years have been paralleled by a series of atrocities against villagers committed by rebels. Although the NRA evidently sees the local population in much of northern Uganda as a hostile recruiting ground for rebels, many villagers have agreed to take part in vigilante groups or other activities organized by the NRA or the government and have been perceived as “enemies” by the insurgents, who have also carried out apparently gratuitous attacks on civilians. The civilian population as a whole, and villagers in areas where rebels are active in particular, have been the victims of both sides, effectively caught in the cross-fire.

Rebels have executed prisoners and deliberately killed civilians who they perceive as collaborating with the authorities. They have inflicted terrible mutilations, such as cutting off prisoners’ hands, noses or ears. They have abducted numerous people, particularly travellers caught in isolated vehicles and school girls. In many cases women abducted have been raped.

The reports of abuses by insurgent groups received by Amnesty International in 1991 mainly concern Acholi-inhabited areas in Gulu and Kitgum Districts. However, in the past the Uganda People’s Army (UPA), an insurgent group active in northeastern Uganda since 1987, has also been responsible for the killing and mutilation of civilians and other abuses. Members of Resistance Committees have been at particular risk. For example, in late February 1990 Mzee James Otiono, RC II Vice-Chairman of Tank Parish in Kumi town was abducted from a taxi on the road to Kumi and shot dead by UPA rebels.

In late March 1990, UPA insurgents captured and then killed John Simon Otim, RC I Chairman of Kutekei village in Pallisa District. On 22 July 1990, UPA members hacked to death Adoa, a medical assistant at Serere Health Centre in Soroti, at his home. On 20 October 1990, William Apungia, RC V Vice-Chairman of Kumi District was abducted from a vehicle and then killed by UPA rebels near Ngora in Kumi District. A school girl who was in the same vehicle was reported to have been released by rebels after being held for a short period during which she was tortured.

During 1991, as in previous years, insurgents in the north belonging to the United Democratic Christian Army (UDCA), a group previously known as the Holy Spirit Movement whose most prominent leader is Joseph Kony, have been responsible for the killing, rape, abduction and mutilation of civilians. Attacks on civilians in Kitgum and Gulu appear to have intensified since April 1991 when the government formed young and middle-aged men into informal vigilante groups, popularly known as “Arrow Groups”, to work with the NRA. The rebel response has been to consider those suspected of being members of “Arrow Groups” as targets to be attacked or killed.

Evidently, many civilians are coerced into joining an “Arrow Group” because they fear that failure to do so would be construed as by the authorities as indicating sympathy for the rebels.

On 20 May 1991 UDCA rebels are alleged to have herded 20 people into a hut in the village of Angole-Awere in Kitgum District and the set it alight. Fourteen people are reported to have died as a result, among them William Odonga, Harold Obonyo, and Martin Olobo. Six girls were also killed, including Harold Obonyo’s daughter Akwero. Six people survived the attack with serious injuries. During May 1991 more than 20 other Angole-Awere villagers are also reported to have been killed by rebels in separate attacks. On 4 July 1991 rebels are reported to have murdered 43 civilians at Pacilo north of Gulu.

UDCA insurgents have also abducted civilians. Abducted women have often been raped and those trying to escape have sometimes been executed. On 9 July 1991 rebels belonging to the UDCA abducted 43 schoolgirls from the Sacred Heart School in Gulu. One of them, Jane Okula, is reported to have been killed in front of the other girls after she was caught trying to escape. By the start of September 1991 all but three of the girls had been freed by the NRA or had managed to escape. Most had been raped and some were reported to have become pregnant as a result.

Earlier in the year, on 16 February, seven employees of the Ministry of Health in Gulu, including Joyce Otto, Julius Otto, and Mrs Apire, were abducted after their landrover was attacked by rebels in Lamogi Sub-County, west of Gulu town. Four managed to escape a few days later but the whereabouts of the others remains unknown to Amnesty International. On 9 March 1991 35 school students were reported to have been abducted from Abim secondary school in Kotido District by rebels from Kitgum.

In other incidents civilians have been deliberately mutilated by rebels. For example, on 24 June 1991 at Cet-Kana, north of Gulu town, four young men were killed and four others had their right hands cut off. Joseph Kinyera, John Okullu, Peter Onono and Cones Onekalit were captured by UDCA rebels while they were eating after working together on the farm of Joseph Kinyera’s mother. They were taken to a nearby house were their right hands were severed with a panga.

On 2 July UDCA rebels are alleged to have caught and mutilated eight women at Loka-Abolo in Gulu District. Joyce Alanyo and Jennifer Aol had their ears cut off. The rebels cut of the noses, ears and upper lips of Concy Laker, Florence Adoc, Concy Lawil, Christine Aciro and Jennifer Akwero. On 3 July seven civilians, three of whom died, are reported to have been mutilated by UDCA rebels at Achet, east of Gulu town. In August four elderly women from Awere in Kitgum District had their ears and lips cut off.

Major human rights violations have occurred in Uganda since 1986 and have continued to be frequent in 1991. They have been particularly acute in areas where the NRA is fighting armed insurgents – and in 1991 there have been especially serious problems in the north – but are not restricted to those areas. When the current government took over in January 1986 it inherited a legacy of gross human rights violations from previous governments. There was an immediate improvement in the human rights situation in many parts of the country. Six years further on it seems that the authorities have grown to tolerate a persistent and serious level of human rights violations by the NRA. The continuing abuse of the rule of law suggests that the government no longer regards strengthening respect for human rights as a priority.

The government is failing to take decisive steps to prevent NRA human rights violations. The repeated failure to take prompt action to investigate reports of NRA human rights violations effectively means that despite a public commitment to respecting human rights, the authorities in fact condone human rights violations.

The government has followed a policy of incorporating soldiers from varied backgrounds into the NRA, including members of former government armies, combatants who belonged to insurgent groups other than the NRA which fought against President Milton Obote’s government in the first half of the 1980s, and even rebels who have fought against the current government. In some cases it appears that such people have had little option but to join the NRA – there are reports of individuals for whom the alternative was imprisonment.

It is widely acknowledged that this process has changed the character of the NRA from being a tightly-organized, disciplined guerrilla force to a large standing army of variable quality and experience. This change is frequently cited by Ugandan Government officials as a reason for the continuing occurrence of human rights violations. However, blaming inadequately trained soldiers from former armies is no excuse – particularly as soldiers and intelligence officials who have been with the NRA since before it took power in 1986 have themselves been implicated in the violation of human rights.

Furthermore, it has been government policy to entrust the NRA with a major law-enforcement role throughout the country, at the expense of the ordinary police or others. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that all NRA soldiers are disciplined, properly accountable and are well-trained in human rights issues. The continuing violation of human rights by soldiers suggests that there are significant weaknesses in operational procedures within the NRA and that the army does not regard itself as accountable to civil society. 


Extract from: Amnesty International, 1991 – Uganda: Human rights violations by the National Resistance Army