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Paying The Ultimate Price For Being Acholi : The Beasts at Burcoro – Part 1

Throughout the long and complex history of the brutal war in northern Uganda, a great number of actors have been involved in committing grave crimes and abuses against civilians. The LRA has traditionally been considered responsible for all the killings and abuses carried out in the region. However, as the situation in the north stabilized following the Juba Peace Accords in 2008, allegations of abuse, torture and extrajudicial killing of civilians directed towards the Ugandan army (NRA/UPDF) have become more prevalent as communities start speaking out about their experiences. 

Between the 14th and the 18th of April 1991, Burcoro was the scene of a brutal operation carried out by the 22nd Battalion of the National Resistance Army (NRA) in which several hundred people were detained at Burcoro Primary School. They were released only after being interrogated, tortured, and sexually abused throughout the four days of the operation.  Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) in Gulu has released a report which gives a detailed account of the events that took place on those fateful days in April 1991, based on individual interviews and focus group discussions with victims and survivors. It also explores the enduring challenges they face, including not knowing the whereabouts of relatives that were taken by the soldiers and chronic health issues arising from their ill treatment. Acholi Times brings you the highlights of the report which brings to light the plight of men and women who were abducted, widowed or raped as part of the NRA operation, in Bucoro. 

With the National Resistance Movement’s rise to power in 1986, northern Uganda became the epicentre of brutal military campaigns against the remnants of the defeated soldiers of the Okello Generals. 

Civilians were presumed to be supporting the rebels and suffered as a result. These government operations marked the beginning of the intensification of the conflict and a state of war that would endure for the next two decades. The population in this region soon became trapped in the middle of a conflict that is now infamous for its levels of violence. 

In addition to the numerous challenges posed by the presence of several rebel groups in the area, early in 1988 the community of Burcoro, like many others in different districts of northern Uganda, started to suffer from cattle rustling attacks by Karamojong warriors, aided by the army.  These attacks proved particularly damaging as the “Karamojong” not only raided livestock, but also took belongings, burnt houses, and killed people in the process. 

The first major military operation against the LRA was undertaken in early 1991. Under the command of then-Minister of State for Defense, Major General David Tinyefunza, what later became known as ‘Operation North’ involved closing off the whole northern region of Uganda to aggressively hunt down alleged rebel supporters and cut off support to the LRA. Civilians were gathered and screened in villages across the region, from Ajulu (near Patiko and Lukome) to Acholi Bur in Pader to Alero, Pabo, Amuru, Purongo and Namukora in Kitgum. Operation North was characterized by a broader militarization of the conflict and the overwhelming use of heavy-handed tactics against civilians, including arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and abductions. 

The operation in Burcoro in April of 1991 was among the first to take place. It was conducted by the NRA’s 22nd Battalion under the command of Major Reuben Ikondere in accordance with the aims of Operation North. 

Burcoro became one of a long list of communities all over northern Uganda that would face the atrocious consequences of the scorched-earth policies instituted by the GoU in its fight against the LRA. Civilians in different parts of the country developed pseudonyms for the armed groups as a result of their gruesome acts. In Burcoro, the soldiers of the 22nd Battalion would come to be known as the ‘Gung’ (‘bend for me’) battalion in reference to their acts of male rape. 

The 22nd Battalion Arrives in Burcoro

After years of dealing with the periodic rebel presence, as well as cattle raids by the Karamojong, most communities in the area had gotten used to living with the constant presence of armed groups and threat of violence. Most people decided to remain in their villages despite the periodic deterioration of security in the north and by mid-April 1991, they were busying themselves with the planting of crops that naturally comes with the start of the rainy season.

The presence of government soldiers was first noted by members of communities a few kilometres from Burcoro on Sunday, April 14, 1991. Some of the people that first came across the soldiers characterized their brief interactions as friendly and nonthreatening. One man noted that “some of the soldiers started moving among the homesteads and even bought some alcohol and cassava from within the community.” 

Another respondent explained, “During the time of the operation I was sick and I was staying at home with my grandmother. On that day, I saw the soldiers pass by and they even bought a cock from us.” 

Others, however, had a negative experience with the soldiers which proved to be a sombre warning of what was to come. As one woman in Obyella village, neighbouring Burcoro, remembered: 

We first noticed the presence of the soldiers on the evening of the day before the operation. When I came back from the garden with my husband I noticed that food had been spilled, granaries had been opened and someone had defecated inside the pot. I was shocked. The children told us that some soldiers had come and done this. I asked myself what kind of soldiers are these that would do such a thing... We didn’t think that they would be back again so we slept that night in the house. 

It is widely believed that the soldiers had started their march from the village of Lukome, some kilometres away from Burcoro, and that they quickly spread out into smaller units as they made their way to Burcoro. Most people did not know what to make of the soldiers’ presence at this time and preferred to exercise caution and remain in their homes for the night. Few could have anticipated the events that would unfold the next day. 

April 15, 1991: The Operation Begins

Just before dawn on the morning of Monday, April 15, 1991, several people were awakened by loud knocks at their door. It was the soldiers of the 22nd Battalion ordering them to come out. 

As recalled by one woman: We weren’t even fully awake when the soldiers were already outside our house. They knocked on my door. My husband’s other wife and I both came out. My daughter was there as well. The soldiers told my daughter to give them the money that my husband got from selling charcoal. My daughter said that she didn’t know where her father’s money was. One of the soldiers slapped her and she fell down. Then another soldier picked up an axed and tried to hit her with it, but she managed to move in time and ran away to another home. 

Other civilians were already in their gardens going about their day’s work when they were confronted by the soldiers. Fear and apprehension quickly came over most of them. Since the rebels would sometimes disguise themselves as government soldiers and both forces travelled on foot, many respondents explained that it was only after seeing the soldiers’ actions that one was able to properly identify who they were dealing with: 

I was planting groundnuts with two of my girls in the family garden when at about 10:00am I saw soldiers advancing towards us. During that time it was hard to differentiate between the LRA and the Government soldiers, so as soon as I saw the soldiers I became very fearful and murmured to my children to stop farming and to remain firm and wait for them to approach. 

By now civilians were being rounded up by small mobile units that had extended to villages up to seven kilometers away from Burcoro. A man recalled running to the bush when he saw them, “but the soldiers ran after me and when they caught me they started beating me. They said that I was running like a rebel, so they beat me seriously.”

A woman also remembered being ordered “to gather in one straight-line. Once this was done, some soldiers got to the front of the line while others stayed at the back and we were marched to Burcoro. Just like that we remained with no option but to follow their commands.” 

An unusual incident took place in nearby Olano village which conveys how difficult it was even for NRA soldiers to identify the different warring parties at that time. As people were being led to the primary school by several soldiers, they came across a group of men they mistook for rebels, but were actually members of a local self defense militia also known as the Home Guard.  An exchange of gunfire ensued and the situation became chaotic. A man who was among the people detained by the soldiers described what happened: 

When we got to the main road we came across the militia who were on their way to Gulu town from Paicho to receive food. They had their barracks in Paicho, but were required to restock their food from Gulu, and they were expected to carry their food all the way from Gulu to Paicho since the army never used vehicles due to fear of being ambushed by the rebels. So when the NRA soldiers saw the militias they mistook them for rebels and attacked them. A fight ensued and the captured civilians scattered in all directions… The soldiers then became very aggressive and asked to know why we had lied to them when we told them that there were no rebels in the area… They laid me down and got three soldiers to give me

25 five strokes with a cane while they demanded to know why I had lied to them. 

During this exchange a 15-year-old boy called Peter Ongaba was shot in the head by a stray bullet and died immediately from his injury. The gunfire alerted several villagers in the area: While we were digging in the garden we heard gunshots coming from the direction of Arut, Kitgum road, Paicho and almost everywhere. I told the people who were in my garden that we should hide, but one of my wives was not in support of this idea. She said that if we decided to hide then our home would be destroyed when the rebels came. I listened to her and stayed put… Just as I was putting down my hoe I saw four soldiers approach my compound. 

Another respondent in Obyella also recalls being surprised when she saw the soldiers chase some people nearby and then approach her home: 

They accused me of hiding rebels in the house and started beating and stepping on me… They beat me until I defecated on myself. My four-year-old son then started crying and one of the soldiers kicked him in the stomach. He fell down and started urinating on himself… Before long my husband came. His name was Albertino Kinyera, but he was commonly known as Lucoc. They accused him of being a rebel and beat him repeatedly until they broke one of his hands. They then forced us to follow them and we were taken to Burcoro Primary School. 

The arrests seem to have occurred all through the morning with more and more people questioned and detained in villages all around. Very soon hundreds of people were making their way at gun point to the primary school in Burcoro. Hardly anybody knew what to do but comply with the soldiers’ commands and hope for the best. 

Interrogation and Torture at Burcoro Primary School

It was not long before the rounded up civilians and their captors started arriving at Burcoro Primary School. The detainees first realized the scale of the operation when they recognized people from the surrounding villages among those gathered. 

People continued to be brought by the soldiers throughout the morning and as soon as they arrived they were forced to sit under the hot sun. Young children began to cry due to the intense heat and lack of water; the adults remained quiet for the most part due to fear and apprehension. As part of the operation, any movement of civilians on the road to Gulu town or further on to Awach was prohibited, and anybody who came across the soldiers of the 22nd Battalion was detained. No one was spared; every man, woman, and child was a suspect to be taken to Burcoro Primary School. 

Once most of the people had been gathered in the school, the soldiers addressed them: “The soldiers began to ask us whether we knew why they had brought us here. Everyone remained quiet…They went on to say that the reason they were here was in order to show us where the rebels were.”

According to another person present, “Once in the school the soldiers began to ask us whether we knew what had happened in the Luwero Triangle. We said that we didn’t. They then said that they would do to us what the rebels had done in Luwero.” 

A woman interviewed described what happened next:

The soldiers then ordered all of us to lie on the ground facing down. I tried to lift my head a bit to see where my two teenage girls were, but I received a hard kick on my ribs by one of the soldiers. Still I managed to grab the hand of one of my daughters and pulled her closer to me.  As I struggled to pull her, another soldier yanked one of my thighs and pierced it with a bayonet sending a very sharp pain through my spine as he asked why I was taking away the young girl.  Amidst the blood which was now oozing out of my thigh I replied that she was my daughter and that I was only telling her to put her head down. 

Some time during the early afternoon hours, the soldiers began a screening exercise in order to discover supposed rebel collaborators among the detainees. The soldiers ordered any women at least five months pregnant, as well as elderly people and school-going children to get up. They were told to return to their homesteads and to bring food the next day for their family members who would remain in the school. 

The remaining community members were then told, “If you know that the rebels have ever cooked in your compound, or abducted you for even a mere reason like showing them the way, get up and come this way.”

It was of little importance whether you had been abducted for a long or short period recently or years ago; the soldiers wanted every person who had had the slightest contact with the rebels to come forward. 

Many hesitated not knowing whether to stand up or not. By that point the Cilil and LRA had been present in the area for years and many of the men had previously been abducted for brief amounts of time.  Most of these men felt that they might be called out and identified by other community members if they did not come forward and believed that it was better to volunteer their names willingly. As described by one of these men: 

The soldiers cautioned us that should somebody wait until he was named by another person then that would amount to an automatic death sentence. The people became very fearful. I was abducted by the rebels and I spent three weeks in captivity before returning home. So, when I saw the people who knew me get up, I got afraid and voluntarily stood up as well. Some people whom we knew had been abducted for a longer time were brave and never got up. 

Others were much more suspicious of the soldiers’ intentions and preferred to exercise caution:

Most people went, but I managed to save the life of one of my uncles who had previously been abducted by the rebels. His father was persuading him to get up, but I told him to wait a moment, to not get up because the motives were still unclear. He sat back in the crowd and never got up. 

Eventually 35 men either volunteered or were selected from the group. Unbeknownst to them, the soldiers of the 22nd Battalion considered them the principal rebel collaborators. Tension filled the air and people remained quiet in anticipation of what was to come. The 35 men were separated from the rest of the people and ordered to sit together as a group. The Intelligence Officer, whose name was Arach Ogwete, then began their interrogation: 

He began to ask us whether we knew the reason why they had brought us to the primary school. Everyone remained quiet… He went on and said that the reason we were here was so that we could show them where the rebels were. The people could not say anything. We feared them. 

Soon after this, all the other men were separated from the women and ordered to lie down on their stomachs in several rows. Once the rows were properly formed the soldiers started to cane the men repeatedly as they walked on their backs. One of these men recalled his experience: 

They started asking us where our rebel sons were. They then accused us of having recruited all of our sons into the rebel ranks, so we were told to lie down; then the beating started. They began giving us 5 strokes with the cane, then 10, then 20…. They would give you some time to rest and then later on they would come back again. 

There was not much the others could do but watch their husbands, fathers and relatives being beaten in front of their eyes.  As the sun went down on that first day of the operation, the people were ordered to gather together as the soldiers used burnt oil to demarcate the area where the civilians would remain. 

According to one of the respondents, “They marked the ground and no one was expected to go beyond.

We were so squeezed that some people sat on the laps of their friends. There was no room for stretching your legs. If any part of your body got out of that demarcated space, they would beat you back.” Many had to sleep placing their back against one another because the reduced space made it impossible to lie down. 

The women had been separated from the men earlier during the day and just before the sun set they were forced to gather around two bonfires. It would not be long before they would be selected by the soldiers, taken to their tents and raped. One group of women was set aside for the higher ranking soldiers and forced into a classroom where they would be kept until the end of the operation. One woman recalled her experience, “We were just left at the mercy of the soldiers; we had no say over our bodies. The soldiers set up small tents within the school and it was in these tents and classrooms that the women were gang raped.”

This would go on throughout the night and into the morning hours of the next day. It was horrendously clear for the rest of the people what was taking place. Community members recounted memories of sleepless nights because the women would scream all through the night as they were being raped one after the other. 

Into the Pit

The first people to be detained were those whose homes were close to Burcoro Primary School. They were quickly interrogated and then a group of five men was singled out. As recalled by one of those men: 

I think they selected us because we looked healthy and strong. They separated us from the crowd, took us to the school, and once there they ordered us to take our shirts off. We were given hoes and the Intelligence Officer then began to demarcate the ground. He said that the task he was going to give us was very tough and that we would be constantly stung by bees and wasps in the process… Little did we know that those bees and wasps were actually the soldiers that soon began to hit us with their canes as we dug. 

While some of the men were forced to dig, others sang funeral songs. When the pit had reached about one meter in depth they were ordered to stop and to begin gathering logs and grass to cover it. This was done under constant beating with sticks and canes, and threats of worse punishments if they did not comply quickly with the soldiers’ commands. The construction of the pit lasted until the early hours of the afternoon. One man described the finished product, “[It] was covered with big logs of wood, and then mud was spread on top to help seal the space left between the logs. And finally dry grass was used to cover the top of the pit. A small hole was left for the entrance.” 

It was not long after the pit was finally covered and sealed that the 35 men who were previously selected as rebel collaborators were forced inside. One by one they entered through the small opening at one of the corners. 

Very soon after the men were forced inside they became tense as they realized what awaited them.

They were so squeezed together that they could barely move; they sat with their knees folded while their heads pushed against the roof of the pit. The air was hot and humid, making it increasingly hard to breathe. As time passed the heat inside the pit rose considerably and the walls and roof became so humid that moisture began to gather and drip down on the men who struggled to take off layers of clothes.

The possibility of being buried alive was not far from their minds. They were largely disconnected from whatever was taking place outside. Only sounds that entered through the small opening could serve as an indicator, but even those had to compete with all the noise inside the pit. The men spent an agonizing night in the pit before they saw daylight again.

 

The full report can be accessed at: www.justiceandreconciliation.com

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