Lira — The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels who killed scores of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in a camp near the northern town of Lira on 5 February gained access to the camp by pretending to be government soldiers and militias, survivors of the attack told IRIN.
Camp residents and church leaders said 52 people were killed in the attack on Abia camp, 28 km northeast of Lira, while the medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), gave the figure at 51. The Ugandan military, however, put the death toll at 20, while other government sources talked of 47.
Victims of the attack who were huddled in Lira hospital on Saturday - many more than the beds in its three wards could accommodate - said the attackers had lulled them into a false sense of security by entering the camp posing as a Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) mobile unit.
"They [the LRA] came at 17:00 GMT. No one suspected a thing. They said they were soldiers, so we just stayed with them. People were playing football. The LRA watched it," one survivor of the attack, George Odong, told IRIN. He said he had first become suspicious when the rebels started deploying throughout the camp and ordering people not to move.
Other victims said they had no idea what was going on until the LRA started firing. Some members of Amuka, a local militia group trained and armed by the UPDF to defend the camp and who clashed with the LRA at the scene of the attack, said they had even escorted some of the rebels into the camp, taking them to be UPDF.
Odong said the rebels had then launched a full-scale attack on the camp, spraying its largely defenceless population with bullets, firing mortar bombs into huts where people were hiding, or just setting fire to the shelters with torches. A number of people tried to flee, only to find the whole camp surrounded. Eyewitnesses interviewed by IRIN estimated the number of rebels at between 300 and 350. The attack stopped when the UPDF sent reinforcements in an armoured personnel carrier.
Many of the surviving victims taken by local church leaders to Lira hospital were disfigured by severe burns. Some had multiple bullet wounds, others had large machete gashes on their heads and upper bodies. Many had both. They said anyone who tried to escape was hit with a pounding-stick or a machete.
A number of children were hit in the face or head. A three-year-old baby girl, Denise Atim, was beaten repeatedly with a rifle-butt. Her eyes were swollen and completely closed up.
"We are definitely overwhelmed, but we are coping. We are trained to be ready for any disaster, but we have consumed a lot of utilities in this one. We have enough drugs for now, but there is a shortage of bandages and examination gloves," Jane Aceng, a medical officer at the hospital, told IRIN.
The UPDF spokesman in Lira, Lt Chris Magezi, told IRIN that the attack on the camp had been "an unfortunate one-off incident". "They can't do it again. Just yesterday [Sunday] we pursued this group of terrorists and killed three of them and captured one alive. We are trying our best to fight an elusive enemy."
But John Okello, the intelligence officer for the Amuka militia, complained that the militias were not adequately resourced. "We joined the militia because we want to end this war - but we have had no support from government," he said.
In this context, the minister of state for the reconstruction of the north, Grace Akello, told journalists at a press conference in Lira that the Amuka were just about to receive a batch of arms. "The LRA struck Abia just at the point when the Amuka were to be armed fully and deployed. It was only their first week - but we are going to sharpen their defence," she said. "There is no doubt the LRA are under pressure: we have killed many of their army commanders."
But local peace groups renewed their calls for a peaceful settlement of the war, saying the latest massacre was evidence that the LRA were not being defeated militarily, and noting that that this latest brutal attack represented a marked change in tactics and had sent "a clear message to those who are saying they are finished".
"This attack was highly unusual. People are telling us there were 300 of them. I have never heard of such a concentrated rebel movement. And they came from the west, instead of the usual route - the Pader [District] corridor in the northeast," Father Sabat Ayele of Lira Catholic Mission, who helped evacuate wounded victims of the attack, told IRIN. "The attack was a display of power and a message to the army and the people of northern Uganda that they [the LRA] are able to strike anywhere," he asserted.
President Yoweri Museveni has announced a probe into the circumstances surrounding the attack, in the wake of an increasingly damaging row over blunders made by the UPDF in heading off the attack, concerns over lack of resources for Amuka and questions surrounding the manner in which the LRA had infiltrated the camp so easily long before they started firing at anyone.
The New Vision government-owned newspaper quoted Museveni on Monday as saying the attack had not been a "massacre of civilians", but a battle between the LRA and the Amuka in which civilians were "caught in the crossfire".
But victims in Lira hospital said the LRA attack had mainly targeted them, with the rebels' fight against the under-manned, 12-man security force in the camp acting as a diversion. They said the rebels had deliberately opened fire on civilians inside the camp, and then, brandishing machetes and clubs, chased those who tried to run away.
The probe will investigate why the UPDF did not respond quickly enough or pursue the rebels when they fled. The other question it will ask is why the army did not immediately call for helicopter gunship reinforcements to pursue the rebels.
Since the attack, tensions have risen between the government, the UPDF and the Amuka. On a visit to Abia on Saturday, Akello, was loudly heckled while addressing camp residents by a visibly angry Amuka foot soldier. Before being dragged away by the UPDF, the militiaman, Tom Otim, repeatedly asked her how the LRA had managed to get UPDF uniforms when the Amuka themselves lacked enough of them to round.
Akello later told journalists at a press conference in Lira that getting hold of uniforms similar to those of the UPDF was not very difficult. "We should not put too much weight on this issue of the uniforms. Army uniforms are much the same - green trousers, a shirt, a hat. It is not very hard to pose as a soldier," she pointed out.
Other members of the Amuka group defending Abia said they had neither received salaries nor logistical support from the UPDF. "We Amuka think the UPDF are too lazy. They never respond quickly enough and they never pursue the rebels into the bush. We would be happy to do this, but we don't get the resources," Okello told IRIN.
MSF, which is treating some of the wounded and providing medicines in Lira, said in a statement, that the attack illustrated "the very insecure and volatile situation in the area, in which civilians are subjected to large-scale violence, killings, mutilations, abductions and terror".
"Local officials estimate that there are around 200,000-300,000 displaced people in Lira District fleeing the fear and insecurity in their villages. Because of these unpredictable attacks and ambushes, access to the people living in about 20 camps outside Lira Municipality is very limited for aid workers," MSF said.
The war between the LRA and the UPDF army had been going on for 18 years, but since last year the fighting had increased, MSF said. The shadowy rebel group says it is fighting to overthrow Museveni and install a government based on the Biblical Ten Commandments. Museveni has refused to negotiate with the LRA, vowing to kill their leaders.