He was accused of being a rebel; he wasn’t. For having committed a crime of “resembling a rebel”, he nearly paid with his own dear life. But he could have still paid dearly for his life even if he didn’t look like the alleged rebel, or so it seemed.
Sunday, August 17 to Tuesday, August 19, 1986, are days that will forever remained imprinted in the memory of Ventorino Okidi, 73, a resident of Palameny Central village, Paluo parish in Omiya Anyima Sub-county, Kitgum District.
Until then, he was a dedicated teacher who looked forward to imparting knowledge to the children who went to Lajok Ogayo Primary School. He taught in the same school as his younger brother, Marshal Otto, the head teacher at the time.
That Friday, the school never ended normally. Gunshots heard in the area of Pella, a village a short distance from the school, prompted the school authorities to disperse the pupils. “We sent back the children home early that day telling them to return on Monday only if the bell is rung,” Okidi recalls.
By then, soldiers of the 35th Battalion of the National Resistance Army (NRA), who had just arrived in the area shortly after the overthrow of Gen Tito Okello’s government in January that same year, were combing the bushes in search of the fleeing remnants of Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) soldiers. The battalion was reportedly under the command of one Capt Matovu.
Unknown to them, the NRA soldiers camped in the vicinity of Omiya Anyima trading centre the entire weekend. In the dead of one of the nights, they stormed the home of one Obotto, a teacher in the same school as Okidi, whom they allegedly instructed to go ring the bell Monday morning so the children could come to class.
“When we heard the bell ringing, we were puzzled since there were rumours that NRA soldiers were around and people were scared. But my brother (Otto) and I took off to school to go find out,” Okidi recalls. But as they approached the school compound, they spotted footmarks left by the boots of the NRA soldiers, and they started getting worried; more so when they failed to hear the normal noise made by school children.
They bumped on Obotto and Amos, a Senior Four student of Lango College in Lira who was on long vacation at home at the time, trying to scoop sugar that had scattered on the ground at the home of a clergy who had fled on sighting the soldiers as he took tea.
Otto, the head teacher then suggested to them to proceed to the school, where upon reaching they confirmed the pupils had not yet turned up. Shortly after, 11 soldiers emerged out of nowhere and proceeded straight to where they were seated, moving in a curve formation and eventually engulfed them in the middle.
“They asked us in Kiswahili who we were and what we were doing there. We told them who we were but they again asked where the pupils were if indeed we were teachers. They ordered us to produce our identity cards,” Okidi reminisced.
When they did so, Amos was arrested with the claims that he was a rebel from Lira hiding in Kitgum. Pained by the kicks and slaps heaped on the innocent student, Otto tried to stop the soldiers telling them the boy was not a rebel, but Obotto restrained him saying he was inviting trouble to himself.
As they walked Amos for a short distance, one of the soldiers who appeared to be their commander ordered that all be arrested but to their surprise, they handed Obotto his identity card and told him to return home. “They tied some of my colleagues ‘three-piece’ with ropes (tying both arms tightly behind the back in such a manner that the chest protrudes outwards, producing searing pain) while I was also tied with my hands behind me, but raised up in the air,” Okidi recalls.
“Up to now I still feel pain in my neck especially when I try to bend,” Okidi says about 27 years later since the nasty incident.
It was at this point that the soldiers started accusing him of being “Ojuku”, as Stephen Odyek, the then renowned UNLA Captain was popularly called. He is better remembered for keeping at bay marauding Karimojong warriors who sneaked to Acholi to rustle livestock in the early 1980s.
He was also one of the UNLA fighters who put up a spirited resistance to the advances of NRA to northern Uganda shortly after the takeover. Okidi, like the late Ojuku, wore long bushy beards, perhaps the reason for the NRA soldiers’ suspicion.
Their identity cards were removed from them and they were ordered to stay under a tamarind tree at the trading centre from about 9:30 am to 2:30 pm as they waited for a vehicle from Kitgum Town to take them to Namokora.
“As we sat, about 10 other civilians were arrested and brought to our group. Among them was a woman called Atto who emerged from a grass-thatched hut in the company of some soldiers. Judging from her appearance, it was obvious that she was raped,” Okidi said.
They were later sorted out, the elderly were released, while the able-bodied -about eight of them-had their hands tied up behind their backs while at the same time were connected to each other using ropes. The soldiers got words that the vehicle would not be coming for them so they ordered them to trek towards Namokora, more than 10kms away.
Despite being tied thus not enabling easy movement, the soldiers further forced them to carry along heavy luggage consisting of household effects like sacks of edibles and livestock, which the soldiers looted from the villagers. When they reached Pella, a village midway between Omiya Anyima and Namokora, they sighted some fleeing civilians crossing the main road towards Onyala Hills to hide.
The soldiers, thinking those could be rebels planning on ambushing them, stopped the captives as they moved cautiously in a curve movement towards the centre of activities. Reaching there, they fired at the fleeing civilians who ran into disarray. It was difficult to tell if there were casualties.
“During the shooting, four captives who were perhaps tied loosely took off and succeeded in escaping. When they returned and found out, they straight away blamed me; that I was the one who untied the escapees since I was a soldier (Ojuku),” recalled Okidi adding he was beaten in retaliation.
Hell in place of God
Luckily, a military truck they were waiting for arrived from Kitgum Town and carried them for the remainder of the journey. They reached Namokora at about 6pm and were herded into the Catholic chapel, where they joined other civilians arrested earlier. More than 80 of them crammed in the rather small church hall, competing for oxygen and fighting heat.
“When we arrived, the soldiers shouted to one another in Kiswahili that ‘today we have arrested Ojuku’ as the excited soldiers came in large number to look at me,” Okidi says. In the ensuing excitement, one of the soldiers stubbed his private parts with a bayonet, piercing and injuring his testicles in the process.
The now elderly Okidi says he had hope that he would survive or at least not be mistreated if he met the overall commander, since he was the ad hoc committee secretary for security, the precursor of the Resistance Council then, and the two of them knew each other.
Shortly after the beatings, Capt Matovu reportedly asked him if he was a soldier, to which he answered in the negative. That was the only word he would hear from the man he thought would rescue him as he disappeared into the night.
As if the acts of torture and inflicting life-threatening injuries on him were not enough, that Monday night, two soldiers came into the church hall and dragged him outside and performed sodomy on him in turns. “Yes, they did it to me,” he said without much change of emotion on his face.
Perhaps the many years that have elapsed since that nasty experience has numbed his sense of shame. “I still have difficulties up to today when passing stool; I don’t need to take long otherwise I would feel a lot of excruciating pain,” Okidi reveals.
On Tuesday morning, his brother Marshal Otto, together with other captives, was sent to fetch water from a nearby stream. When they returned, they were forced into a single line as the soldiers recorded their details; names, their village and what they did and so forth.
Those with identity cards had them removed and were kept by the soldiers. When his turn came, Okidi was again asked if he wasn’t a soldier, still he denied and got more hitting with gun butts for saying so. He remembered he was the 83rd captive on the list as they took his particulars while one more person remained behind him.
Done with the registration, the soldiers led them in a single file to the parked army lorry and ordered them to climb inside. As they did so, the soldiers indiscriminately rained blows, kicks and gun butts on the captives as they struggled to climb, hampered by the ropes tied around their hands.
Then one of the soldiers remembered that two captives had remained inside the chapel. The commander ordered that they too be brought to join the rest. They were; Yesaloni Yona Okot, the first RC3 chairman of Namokora to be elected in 1986, and one Achola, said to be a sister to Ali Kiseka, a former Chua Member of Parliament.
They were told they would be taken to Kitgum Town, so the truck took off a few minutes to 9am. Okidi recalls that Achola somehow got wind of the mischievous plans the NRA soldiers reportedly had in store for them.
She told them in a conspiratorial tone in the truck that they were not meant to reach their supposed destination of Kitgum Town. Achola told them there was a section (11 soldiers) of the 35th Battalion deployed somewhere along the road and given the express orders to waylay the truck in an ambush.
The arrangement was such that the soldiers on board would jump off the truck from an agreed spot, leaving the civilian captives on their own, then the soldiers who had laid an ambush would open fire with the intention of killing every single occupant in the lorry. It was meant to look like an ambush, so as to make it easy to blame the incident on the then marauding remnants of the UNLA ‘rebels’.
Leap of death
About a kilometre from Namokora trading centre, at Wii-Gweng in Oryang village in Pogoda West parish, along the road going to Kitgum Town, Achola jumped off the truck as it negotiated a corner. Others followed suit despite pleas from other captives urging their colleagues not to jump, insisting they would talk themselves free from the bondage once they reach Kitgum. Okidi did not hear that plea; he too jumped off the truck and like the rest, rushed into the bushes to take over.
On realising what was happening, some of the soldiers started shooting at the fleeing captives but as the lorry came to a halt, the soldiers became more accurate as their bullets mowed some of the fleeing captives, killing them instantly. Those that remained in the vehicle were herded down and shot at point blank, killing them like insects.
However, Okidi, Achola and others managed to escape to safety, even though the soldiers reportedly followed the fleeing captives into the thickets, killing those injured mercilessly. Okidi remembers that the gunfire rained for nearly the whole day, beginning from around 9:30 am to 6pm nonstop. A total of 13 captives are said to have survived this particular massacre.
“The soldiers started shooting indiscriminately at the captives, killing more than 35 instantly and those who jumped off the truck were followed and painfully killed like tired chickens. An estimated 15 to 17 people died in the bush with sustained injuries and were never discovered up to date,” states part of a document about the massacre written by the victims and reportedly delivered to President Museveni by State minister for International Cooperation, Mr Henry Oryem Okello, who also hails from Namokora.
It is important to note that nobody seems to know the actual number of people who died in the massacre. But according to Okidi, there were at least 84 registered captives who all boarded the ill-fated truck. If 13 out of those are said to have survived the killings, then it is a safe bet to say at least 70 civilians could have perished at the hands of the government soldiers.
The victims hailed not just from Namokora area alone, but also from other sub-counties like Orom, Omiya Anyima, Lagoro, and Kitgum Matidi in Kitgum District, as well as Wol and Omiya Pacwa sub-counties in Agago District. Most had come to Namokora to attend the market day, referred to as “auction”, that weekend.
Aside from the killings, residents also lost many household belongings and unspecified number of livestock such as cattle, sheep, goats and chicken that were looted by the NRA soldiers shortly after carrying out the heinous act.
We are seated at Gil Gal Restaurant in Kitgum Town to conduct this quickly arranged interview this late Monday evening. Ventorino Okidi is accompanied by Alfred Ochola Omenya, 49, a resident of Pakumu Jang-yat ward, Ibakara parish in Kitgum Matidi Sub-county, who also lost two brothers in the carnage. They had travelled for a radio talk show on a local FM station in the town to update listeners on the preparations to mark the massacre day. I have to hurry with the interview because they must ride back home, more than 35miles and it is getting late.
Ochola’s brothers, Obwona George and Opio Ventorino, had that fateful weekend travelled to pay a visit to their sister Atto Christine in Orom, a sub-county neighbouring Namokora. But while there, they heard about the arrests in Namokora. So while returning, they took a detour and meandered through the bush skirting the dreaded Namokora from a distance towards Kitgum Matidi. But as fate would have it, the two brothers lost direction of where they were going and instead found themselves in Omiya Anyima trading centre on Sunday, from where they were arrested together with other captives.
Home at last
Days later, Okello Kenneth, one of the survivors of the massacre, managed to reach home and informed them that if his brothers don’t show up in the next few days then they should rest assured that they had also been killed at the massacre site. More than two weeks or so after the massacre when the risks eased a bit, Ochola stealthily trekked to Wii-Gweng where he could not believe what he saw.
“Body parts were lying strewn everywhere and most bodies were badly decomposed already. Dogs had feasted on the bodies and carried some parts away, so it was difficult to identify the bodies,” Ochola said. He eventually managed to identify the remains of his brothers from the under pants they had put on. “I collected the remains and took home to accord my brothers decent burials,” he said.
Nearly three weeks or so after the massacre, the Roman Catholic parish priest of Namokora, Fr Tarsicio Pazzaglia, an Italian priest given an Acholi name- Luyaramoi, together with the help of locals collected what remained of the bodies of the slain civilians and buried them in a mass grave at the present site.
United in grief
Survivors and family members of the massacre victims recently came together under a unifying body: Namokora Survivors and United Relatives Association (NASURA), to organise for the first time a memorial prayer for the victims. Members recently contributed funds plus donations from some non-governmental organisations and well-wishers that were used to erect a monument at the massacre site in Wii-Gweng.
The chair of NASURA, Charles Onen Sali, who is also the Namokora Sub-county LC3 chairman, said they decided time was now ripe to organise remembrance of the victims of Namokora massacre. He explained that the memorial prayer could not have been organised earlier because as LRA war still raged on, people were more concerned about their own safety than trying to remember the dead.
“We are not inciting people, or mobilising the people against the government for what its armed soldiers did here. We just want to remember our people who lost their lives and try to push government to address the plight of the survivors,” Onen said.
The survivors want the government to build a memorial polytechnic school at the massacre site to train youth, especially formally abducted children, on formal and informal business and vocational skills. Their last appeal to the government is that it grants a special education support to two children of the late Okot Y.Y, the first elected RC leader in Namokora, who was also killed.
For the elderly Okidi, the planned annual memorial prayers could be part of a healing process from the trauma he suffered from the events of the three days of August 1966, as opposed to it reminding him of the pains he suffered. He says people have not yet been able to accord the dead a befitting send off, given the many years of LRA insurgency that have only ebbed.