While delivering his speech at the celebrations of the 28th anniversary of the National Resistance Movement in power in Mayuge District last Sunday, President Museveni promised to punish, if they were still alive, elements of his army who participated in killings in northern Uganda. Sunday Monitor’s Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogibrings you excerpts of the The Beasts at Burcoro, a report on the killings in Nwoya District by the NRA.
At the celebration of the 28th anniversary of the National Resistance Movement in power in Mayuge District last Sunday, President Museveni spoke about the armed wing of his Movement in a candid manner that had never before been heard.
The President, while emphasising the importance of a disciplined army, said there are incidents to be “ashamed of” in the way the National Resistance Army (NRA), which is now Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF), fought rebels in northern Uganda.
“Apart from the Mukura railway wagon incident and the Burcoro pit incident, which were reported, there were other incidents that are coming to light now,”’ Mr Museveni said. “I do not know why the people did not report those incidents.”
The unreported incidents, according to Mr Museveni, happened “at Kanyum where wananchi were killed by elements of our army for no reason at all after the army had been attacked by the rebels; there were incidents of looting property including cattle; and other incidents of indiscipline reported in Nwoya.”
Mr Museveni vowed: “I am going to follow up all these incidents, unearth the culprits if they are still alive so as to hold them accountable and compensate the victims or their descendants.”
Whereas the President named the Burcoro incident as one of the documented ones, however, not many people seem to know the exact extent of what happened there.
A report produced last year by the non-governmental organisation, Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP), titled The Beasts at Burcoro, offers piercing insights into what exactly happened there.
During a five-day spell, between April 14 and 18, 1991, the village which lies16 kilometres northeast of Gulu town was turned upside down by NRA soldiers from the 22nd Battalion which was commanded by Major Reuben Ikondere under the auspices of Operation North, whose overall commander was the then Maj Gen David Tinyefuza.
At Burcoro Primary School, the report notes, “several hundred” people were detained by NRA soldiers and were “released only after being interrogated, tortured, and sexually abused throughout the four days of the operation.”
“In this instance alone,” the report says, “government soldiers committed crimes including murder, rape, sexual violence, torture, cruel treatment, deprivation of liberty, outrages upon personal dignity, attacking civilians, pillaging and other inhumane acts.”
The report says the people of Burcoro came to refer to the soldiers of the 22nd Battalion “as the ‘Gung’ (‘bend for me’) battalion in reference to their acts of male rape.”
The 28-page report, released in July last year, is based on the recollections of the survivors of the incident and is heavy on survivor accounts, some of which we reproduce below.
Excerpts from the Report
A woman’s first encounter with NRA
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. 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.
Another woman’s experience
“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 axe and tried to hit her with it, but she managed to move in time and ran away to another home.”
A man recalls running to the bush
“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 on how they were taken to Burcoro
“(They ordered us) 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.”
A woman accused of hiding rebels
“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.”
At the school
“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.”
Another woman’s perils
“Once in the school, the soldiers began to ask us whether we knew what had happened in the Luweero Triangle. We said that we didn’t. They then said they would do to us what the rebels had done in Luweero. 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.”
“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.”
One man recounts
“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.”
Another man says
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.” 35 men either volunteered or were selected from the group. The soldiers considered them the principal rebel collaborators.
Arach Ogwete, the intelligence officer of the 22nd Batallion, to the crowd
“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.”
Remaining men separated from women
“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 five 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.”
Woman recalls rape 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.”
“In the school, my two girls were taken away by the soldiers as I remained with a group of women. Both of them were raped by the soldiers and one was actually taken by them. Her name was Agnes Akello. She was only 14 years old and her breasts were just beginning to form. Unfortunately, she became part of the girls who were taken away from here by the soldiers. Maybe one of the soldiers took her for a wife. A few of these girls have returned, others have died, while others like mine cannot be traced. Whether she is still alive or not, I can’t tell… My daughter has been missing for over twenty years. It is impossible to forget her; this is my problem. It is my destiny from God and I can’t escape from it.”
Digging pit for the 35 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.”
One man describes the finished pit
“[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.” The 35 men who had been selected as rebel collaborators were forced inside the pit. They would be allowed out in the morning and then forced back at night for three nights.
One night in the pit
“The soldiers guarding us brought the wife of one man and raped her in turns at the entrance of the pit; we could hear her moan. It was such a disgusting thing. Hearing how this woman was fighting these soldiers saddened me and I felt that it could have been even worse for the rest of the other women. We could hear the constant strangling and slaps she was receiving from the soldiers.”
Suffocated with pepper smoke
The report notes that on the third night in the pit, the occupants were suffocated with pepper smoke. One man who escaped the pit recalls: “As soon as the smoke reached the men in the pit it created chaos and confusion. The people in the pit began to sneeze and scream at the top of their voices as they fought for their lives.” By the time the pit ordeal was over, Okema Rodento, Opwonya Opige, Okot Ogoo, and Ojabu were dead.
A pepper survivor recounts
“Some people began to shout, others were running crazy and quarrelling. The whole place became a spectacle… There was hardly any fresh air left in the pit, the men began to sneeze as some cried. This was also the very moment when a lot of men started suffocating, heat became so intense that some people sweated and dropped dead… I became so helpless that one of the men in the pit had pity on me and began to console me. He said that I wasn’t going to die and that he would protect me. He laid me down and guarded me. My whole body was dripping with sweat… Unfortunately this same man who passionately protected me from death succumbed to the heat and died.”
Kapere goes berserk over pepper smoke
This time the pit became so hot that people started suffocating. Kapere became crazy and started biting people. Any attempt to restrain him was futile as he bit anything that came across his mouth. The people pleaded with him to remain calm but he kept repeating that he didn’t know if he was going to survive. People tried to console him but we struggled in vain.”
After the pit
Very early in the morning the soldiers removed me and three other men from the pit and they started beating us while we moved. The beating was so brutal that I thought they would kill us there, so I told the other men to pretend to be dead so we fell to the ground. Once we fell the soldiers began to kick us and step over us.
Fate of a religious leader
“Being a religious leader, I was beaten until I could not bear the pain anymore. As I tried to shield myself from the canes using my hand, it got beaten and wounded very badly. The beatings went on until one of the commanders showed up and talked to their leader.”
A soldier then accused us of sheltering rebels and told us to remember the things that happened in Luweero... He said if we knew what had happened in Luweero, then we wouldn’t be asking for water or cool shelter for the children, because in Luweero the children were pounded with mortars.
Lone rape survivor
“Those women that put up any resistance were beaten. I only survived from being taken because I had my baby with me and I clutched it strongly in my arms. I was the only woman that had a child at that moment. Almost all the other women were taken.”
The murder of Kapere
“Kapere was paraded before the crowd for a few minutes before being tied to the trunk of a tree across the road from the school. Ogwete, the intelligence officer, then addressed the people telling them how they had been warned about the dangers of keeping a rebel amongst them and that this would serve as an example for all other rebel collaborators. The soldiers then brutally shot Kapere until they had emptied their magazines.
By the time the shooting stopped, Kapere’s body was so badly maimed that skin had peeled off from some parts. Ogwete ordered the women to ululate while he turned to the men who had been in the pit and selected the ones who still looked strong to dig a grave for Kapere.”