No one dares disturb the dead. A huge sense of desolation hangs over the air. Nobody dares get near the scene of the 1995 massacre where about 250 people were butchered in cold blood at Atiak by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels.
The nearest homestead is 5km away because the residents fear awakening ghosts of the dead buried in the mass graves.
On April 20, 1995, LRA raided Atiak Trading Centre in Amuru District and abducted the residents. The rebels herded them and crossed Kitang stream to a spot 500 metres away where the killing took place under the command of Vincent Otti, the then deputy LRA commander.
A cluster of several mass graves stands in the midst of tall spear grass and other shrubs. The only way to the place is a dirty beaten track created by transit trucks ferrying charcoal from other distant places to Amuru Town. There is no sign of national recognition at all.
When Daily Monitor crew visited the site of the massacre last week, residents were shocked that the journalists had returned alive.
“How did you reach there? Nobody goes to that place and comes back alive,” a survivor of the massacre, who declined to be named, said.
Residents say even birds are too scared to sing. Such is the tension about the site. The stillness of Kitang stream invokes a sense of that past precursor to death.
That 20th day of April 1995 was a turning point in the lives of the Atiak community. About 250 bodies lay scattered across a stretch of more than 100 metres on Mr Paul Oryem’s piece of land.
Mr Willy Chowoo, one of the survivors who was aged seven, lived in Paduka Parish in Atiak. Mr Chowoo says Otti and his father were close friends and used to talk a lot about the war whenever the rebel commander visited them at their home in Atiak at night.
One night a few days before the massacre, Chowoo heard Otti tell his father how he was going to teach Atiak people a lesson to make them stop supporting President Museveni’s government.
“Otti told me, ‘Willy, you are going to be a very intelligent boy.’ I used to bring for him chairs whenever he came home. He used to be friends with my dad. He was a family friend. I would go and bring chairs and drinking water for him,” Mr Chowoo reveals.
“I heard my dad ask him about something like a 1992 peace agreement. What I remember hearing Otti tell my dad is that even if he was going to remain alone in the bush, he was not going to surrender. We were seated around the fireplace; four of us. Me, Otti, one of his children and my dad,” he adds.
Chowoo, now aged 39, says he plans to release a book he has written about his childhood interaction with Otti, the butcher of Atiak. He describes Otti as a heartless man who could wreak evil of epidemic proportions.
Another survivor, 47-year-old Denis Nyero, who was a student at Atiak Technical Institute at the time of the massacre, says 45 students and three staff members were abducted from their hostels after the LRA overran the army base that guarded the Atiak camp for the internally displaced people.
Mr Nyero remembers the wailings at school two weeks later when they went back and made a roll call to establish who had been killed or survived the bloodbath.
He says some teachers survived the abduction by entering the ceiling of the school’s administration block.
Nyero was 19 years old then, studying bricklaying and concrete making. “It was around 5am. The LRA attacked Atiak Trading Centre. They overpowered the NRA (National Resistance Army now Uganda People’s Defence Forces) soldiers and burnt the detach (army base). The rebels started picking up civilians and students. We were all sleeping together in a hostel. After abducting us, they ordered everybody in Atiak centre to follow them,” Mr Nyero says, pointing to the mass grave at the massacre site during the interview. The rebels gathered 500 people at the scene.
“We had old women, children and elders. They said they were going to take us all to Sudan. They meant a different thing to distract us from being attentive that we were going to be killed at that moment,” he says.
Mr Nyero says the rebels removed children and pregnant women.
“After the screening, the rebels told us to lie down and they ordered the shooting,” he said.
Moments before the shooting, a rebel commander shouted out orders halting action. The commander said whoever he kicked should get up and Nyero said he was the first to be kicked. He stood up alongside three other abductees. Nyero and his colleagues were spared to carry a wounded rebel of a high rank.
“We were like four of us who were ordered to stand aside. Afterwards, the rebels started the shooting. After shooting all those lying down, the rebels told the children and mothers to go back to Atiak Trading Centre and give the report of what had happened,” Mr Nyero says.
More than 250 people lay lifeless on the ground. Mr Nyero’s classmate was shot in the chest and when he raised his head to say “Jesus help me” the rebels shot him several times until he lay still.
Whoever showed fear would be told to join the dead and face the same fate, Mr Nyero says.
“They picked me to carry a wounded soldier. We were four. We carried that soldier deep in the bush to that side of Adjumani border with Amuru. We were told to protect him not to fall down. He was a commander. He was badly wounded and you could see some of his internal organs,” Mr Nyero recounts.
He and his three colleagues were then ordered to leave the wounded commander in the bush and move back to Amuru. However, the rebels tied their hands to their back and stabbed them with bayonets and left them to die. The rebels continued to an unknown location.
Mr Simon Ojwiya, 34, a son of Oryem, the landowner of the massacre site, says they cannot use their customary land for fear of ghosts of the dead.
“It is the human body that dies but the spirit lives on. Even as we talk, the spirits are here hearing us,” Mr Ojwiya says.
He urges government to build a monument in memory of the massacre victims.
At the time of the massacre, Mr Macimo Olum Bitorio, now aged 78, was a councillor for Olam Nyuu Village in Pogo Parish, Pabbo Sub-county in Amuru District.
He says he and four other leaders collected bodies and buried them in mass graves and also saved three who were still alive.
“I told them to bury those who were dead. I decided to carry those three who were still alive on my bicycle, one by one. I ferried them across Ayugi river,” Mr Olum says.
He blames government for neglecting the massacre site.
A monument was built by NGOs after the insurgency but it is at Atiak Sub-county headquarters, about 10km away from the massacre site.
At the monument site, people identified some of the 127 inscribed names of the victims who were known to them.
Ms Pasta Aketo was 15 years old when the massacre occurred. She claims she survived the killing because she was below 13 years.
Ms Aketo’s former classmate in the rebel ranks tipped her to under-declare her age to save her life. She has never recovered from the nightmare of witnessing death at close range. “When they said children should get up, I also got up. My mother also got up and joined our group because she was carrying our baby brother,” Ms Aketo says.
“My father, uncle and brother were then killed among the rest. Their names are here on the monument; Nyeko Richard, Opira Gipi our firstborn who was in P.7. If my classmate who was a rebel then had not alerted me as we were moving to the massacre site, I would have been killed too. She was already a rebel with a gun. We were together in P.4 class,” she recounts but breaks down in tears.
Ms Aketo and other 19 surviving members of the family relocated to Gulu Town and were crammed in a small house of her uncle. She dropped out of school and her future destroyed.
“We used to sell water around Kanyagoga to buy food. My mum used to work in a farm at St Jude orphanage. She would come back with beans, flour and cooking oil. For us, we would sell water to buy firewood or charcoal,” Ms Aketo recalls.
Her family returned to Atiak in 1996. She got married aged 16 and today has two children. But her husband died.
Ms Aketo says she wants to return to school but the family responsibilities at hand are beyond her control.
She also wants government to compensate the victims of the Atiak massacre.
However, it is not only the compensation issue that has not been resolved but also the exact number and identity of the dead.
A day after the massacre, the government-owned New Vision newspaper reported on its front-page that 82 people were massacred in Atiak. The survivors put the number at 250 yet those who buried the dead give a different account of about 350.
Mr Fred Okot, who was among those who buried the dead, was a teacher at Olya Primary School in Atiak Sub-county.
“The then Minister [for Water] Betty Bigombe said we should retrieve some of the bodies. But not all bodies were removed. Some of them were left there because the people killed were not only indigenous people of Atiak. Their remains are still there. We left them there,” Mr Okot says.
He says he cannot determine the number of people who were massacred because a week after transferring some bodies to relatives, some people went after them and recovered the bodies. He says he and then village chairperson Keny Aliwu Alana buried 20 people in a mass grave.
Mr Okot, the chairperson of Atiak Sub-county, says their database has a record of 285 who were killed.
Otti is reported to have been executed by LRA chief Joseph Kony in 2007 in Garamba National Park in DR Congo. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him to answer 33 counts of crimes against humanity on July 8, 2005.
Mr Francis Nono is the manager at the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre, which was started under Refugee Law Project in Kitgum District to document human right violations in northern Uganda.
The centre has documented 350 deaths and Mr Nono says reparation can help in the recovery process but cites the challenge of contradicting data on the number of the dead and survivors.
In 2006, government rolled out a voluntary return of people to their homes after the Juba Peace agreement but most people who were directly affected by the insurgency say their pain and suffering are far from over since no reparation has been accorded to them. In July 2019, Parliament passed the National Transitional Justice Policy to address the reparation for victims and truth-telling to enable healing and reconciliation.