On January 26, during the NRM anniversary celebrations in Mayuge District, President Museveni publicly acknowledged that NRA soldiers committed crimes in northern Uganda during the late 1980s and early 1990s in their attempt to pacify the region of rebel activity following the NRA’s capture of power in 1986.
This acknowledgement has been long overdue. In his acknowledgement, the President admitted to crimes such as the suffocation and roasting of 69 civilians in a railway wagon in Mukura village in 1989, and the murder, suffocation and rape of civilians in Burcoro village in April 1991.
He also admitted that new crimes such as the massacre of civilians in Kanyum village, and the raiding of cattle in Nwoya District were coming to light. The President blamed the ‘wananchi’ (local people) for not reporting such crimes.
While President Museveni must be applauded, he stands to be criticised in two areas.
First, the above crimes are not the only crimes that were committed in northern Uganda. Many other examples of crimes committed by the NRA have been brought to the attention of the government through various channels such as research reports.
In Palabek Sub-county, for example, the 32nd Battalion of the NRA is reported to have led killings of several civilians under the command of a one Captain Abiriga. The 32nd battalion carried out numerous horrific incidences including: the killing of six men in Ayuu Alali village school on February, 1 1991, and the execution of seven suspected rebel collaborators in Ayuu Anaka village on April 12, 1992.
On August 19, 1986, in Namokora Sub-county, the 35th Battalion of NRA is also said to have led killings of 71 men and women. These men and women were accused of being rebel collaborators or having plans to oust the NRA government that had just come to power through a guerilla war.
Numerous other incidents have been documented in places such as Odek, Pabbo, Mucwini and other places in northern Uganda.
Secondly, it is grossly misleading, disingenuous and deceptive for President Museveni to say that the reason he did not know about such crimes was because they were never reported. These incidents have been mentioned time and again by civil society activists, religious leaders, political leaders and other opinion leaders in northern Uganda but the government has always turned a deaf ear to all these pleas.
Nevertheless, the acknowledgement by President Museveni still remains significant, and must be considered as a starting point on the long road to reconciliation in northern Uganda. A number of things need to be undertaken in moving forward.
First, there is need for full disclosure and acknowledgement of atrocities that happened in northern Uganda under the NRM regime.
There is need for full investigation of crimes committed by NRA soldiers, and disclosure of responsible officials to pave way for their punishment. It is appalling and disgraceful that despite the numerous atrocities known to have been committed by NRA soldiers in northern Uganda, only 23 NRA officers have ever been brought to book.
Secondly, acknowledgment of atrocities in northern Uganda must not only be limited to physical killings of civilians by NRA soldiers. It is also important to acknowledge other forms of human suffering and dehumanising acts committed by NRA soldiers.
NRA soldiers are known to have committed horrendous and abominable acts such as defecating in water pots and food containers of people in northern Uganda, and defecating in the mouths of their cattle simply to dehumanise and humiliate the people.
Another horrendous act was the practice of ‘tek-gungu’ or male rape that was perpetrated by soldiers against Acholi men as an act of humiliation. Women and girls were also raped in places such as Burcoro and deliberately infected with the HIV/Aids virus.
All these atrocities can only be brought to light if the government institutes an inquiry into the conflict in northern Uganda with the deliberate aim of establishing and understanding the full range of atrocities that occurred.
Thirdly, acknowledgement of crimes in northern Uganda must be accompanied by official apologies, conducted in a dignified manner, at official ceremonies deliberately organised and attended by victims’ representatives. President Museveni’s acknowledgement on January 26 took place in Mayuge District as the NRM celebrated 28 years in power.
The location and occasion were both not conducive and relevant to people in northern Uganda. We, in northern Uganda, continue to hope for the day when President Museveni will organise a function in northern Uganda specifically for the purpose of issuing an apology to the victims and survivors of the conflict, and handing this apology in written form to key leaders of the people. This will be a milestone in the history of northern Uganda.
Mr Owor is the director of the Justice and Reconciliation Project in Gulu. District. firstname.lastname@example.org