Uganda: Breaking the circle: Protecting human rights in the northern war zone

March 16, 1999

Uganda: Breaking the circle: Protecting human rights in the northern war zone

In July 1985 a power struggle between Langi and Acholi troops culminated in the Acholi senior army officers Tito Okello and Basilio Okello seizing power. The military government, however, only lasted a few months and in January 1986 the primarily southern and western-based NRA seized power and Yoweri Museveni became President. The Okellos and many other troops fled northwards. Some soldiers buried their weapons and uniforms and returned to their homes. Others passed beyond Kitgum and Gulu Districts into Sudan. There the troops regrouped and in August 1986 reinvaded Uganda calling themselves the Uganda People's Democratic Movement/Army (UPDM/A). The NRA victory did not end conflict in Uganda; it moved it to more outlying areas.

Since 1986 the war in Kitgum and Gulu has gone through many phases involving different fighting groups. The abuse of human rights by one side or the other has been a consistent theme. In late 1986 human rights violations by government troops deployed in the north fuelled the conflict. In 1987 raiders from Karamoja east of Kitgum decimated cattle herds, which were both a social and economic resource for the Acholi. This took place, allege many Acholi, with the collusion of NRA soldiers who did little to intervene and in some cases looted cattle themselves. The UPDA did not last long as a military force. In June 1988 most UPDA troops came out of the bush after peace accords were signed with the government. A small section remained in bases inside Sudan. Other UPDA leaders reconciled with the government in 1990.

Meanwhile a woman called Alice Auma, also known as Lakwena (Acholi for messenger), created a force that became known as the Holy Spirit Movement. Alice Lakwena was already mobilizing deserting UPDA soldiers, former members of the UNLA and Acholi and other Luo civilians by late 1986, using a powerful combination of local ideas about the spirit world and Christian beliefs. Her forces were eventually defeated outside Jinja in November 1987.

Following her defeat, an armed group led by Joseph Kony, initially known as Lakwena Two before also becoming known as the Holy Spirit Movement, emerged as the focus of military opposition to the NRA in Gulu District. Like Alice Lakwena, Joseph Kony claims to be possessed by religious forces that use him as a medium.

From the very beginning, forces led by Joseph Kony have committed serious human rights abuses against civilians. For example, in 1988 Kony's forces hacked and clubbed to death hundreds of villagers in raids in Koch Goma and many other parts of Gulu and Kitgum, including in February bed-ridden patients in a dispensary. The abduction of children and adults to be soldiers has been consistent practice, although not at the levels that began in 1995. For example, on 6 March 1989 over 300 civilians were abducted in Ngai in Apac District. Scores of villagers were killed in incidents in Kitgum District in early 1990; for example, 43 villagers were hacked to death at Alwi in Acholibur near Kitgum town. In 1991 and 1992 the group, now known as the United Democratic Christian Army (UCDA), went through a period of mutilating villagers by cutting off their hands, ears or lips or by putting out their eyes as punishment for joining or supporting vigilante groups known as "Arrow Brigades" [12].

Government soldiers were also responsible for gross human rights violations. In one of the most intense phases of the war, between October and December 1988 the NRA forcibly cleared approximately 100,000 people from their homes in and around Gulu town. Soldiers committed hundreds of extrajudicial executions as they forced people out of their homes, burning down homesteads and granaries [13]. People flocked to the town and nearby trading centres -- but nothing had been prepared to receive them. For months displaced people had inadequate shelter, sanitation and water, and insufficient supplies of food.