20 January 2013

Uganda: Barlonyo Massacre - Nine Years Later

"Why are the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) commanders that have renounced rebellion set free and given all the resettlement packages far better than the survivors of their brutality?" Quinto Okello wonders.

Okello, who was speaking to The Observer in Barlonyo village, 26 kilometres north of Lira town, is clearly unhappy

"For example, the former LRA commander, Brig Kenneth Banya, who renounced rebellion and was granted amnesty, is being looked after well, while the survivors are still suffering."

Okello's concern reflects that of the other survivors of the LRA atrocities and brutality, who argue that one cannot talk about justice without reparations to the victims. Nearly nine years after the LRA Barlonyo camp massacre on February 21, 2004, in which over 300 people died - survivors agree on the 'contentious issue of compensation' but disagree on whether the perpetrators should be punished.

"Government has delayed in our reparations because we don't have the means to pressurize it or even take it to court," says Silivano Olagra, 51, chairman of the Barlonyo Care and Maintenance committee.

He is not alone in his frustrations.

"For me, the government has failed to make reparations to us because nobody has pressurized it to compensate us for our dead relatives," 58-year-old Ida Ojok says in a sad tone. Ojok lost her nephew Otole to LRA gun shots. Otole's wife and Ojok's sister-in-law were burnt in their grass-thatched house.

On that February day, the rebels overran a UPDF detach at the camp before going on a killing spree. The LRA were wearing a military uniform similar to Amuka militia and in the ensuing melee advised the civilians to keep in their huts, which they later set ablaze killing a big number in the attack. The Amuka militia was made up of young Langi men who assisted the UPDF in its pursuit of the rebels.

The rebels clobbered Lilly Ajok's grandfather to death with sticks and burnt her three step-children in their house. "I have led a very difficult life because I still carry sad memories of how my relatives were killed. In the first place, we had been brought to internally displaced persons camps (IDPs) where we were leading difficult lives and depending on hand-outs," Ajok laments.

"Our Onywal Ipyeba clan lost seven relatives in that massacre. I lost my two brothers and my cousin was attacked with an axe on his jaws, but luckily he survived and was rushed to Mulago hospital in Kampala. Although his jaws were repaired, he can't chew foods like cassava and meat," Patrick Amos Okello said.

Silivaria Ayugi lost a husband, son, sister, cousin sister, grandfather and brother-in-law. "I survived by hiding in the only iron-roofed house that the rebels would not set on fire. Otherwise, all the surrounding grass-thatched huts were put on fire," Ayugi recounts.

But the rebels denied responsibility for the massacre, claiming that the civilians, who died, got killed during the crossfire between the UPDF, the rhino (Amuka militia) and the LRA.

Barlonyo monument

The Barlonyo survivors dispute the LRA claim. "We are sure that Odhiambo led the LRA massacre. Out of the 29 children abducted from Barlonyo, nine have returned and confirmed that it was Odhiambo who commanded the attack," the Barlonyo Massacre Monument Preservation committee, chairman, Moses Ogwang, said.

The Barlonyo massacre attracted local and international condemnation. There are varying estimates of those killed at Barlonyo - 124 according to the government, while district officials, the villagers and aid workers put the number at 301.

"Here lies the remains of 121 innocent Ugandans, who were massacred by the Lord's Resistance Army terrorists on February 21, 2004," reads an inscription on the Barlonyo monument.

But there is disagreement on the monument's meaning to the people here.

"This is a place where government buried our people. And it is also a place to remember our dead and reconcile with those who committed the atrocities. We should forget the past and come together after the war," Alice Awor said.

But to Olagra, who lost a sister with two of her children - all to LRA gun shot says: "The Barlonyo site symbolizes the worst LRA brutality in northern Uganda. This has been Kony's routine method of killing people where he wanted to prove government's failure to protect its citizens. The Barlonyo massacre was a shock to us."

The department of Museums and Monuments of Uganda (DMMU) is joining the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage (ADCH) to conserve cultural heritage in northern Uganda in order to build peace and promote reconciliation. The Barlonyo Massacre site and St Mary's College Secondary School Aboke in Kobe district are among the four sites selected for conservation.

"The memorial landscapes of northern Uganda form a very important asset of the cultural heritage of this country. They act as historical touchstones of the insurgency that took place in northern Uganda for more than 20 years," the commissioner, museums and monuments in the ministry of tourism, wildlife and heritage,

Rose Nkaale Mwanja says. "They represent a focal point that links the past to the present, enabling us to remember and respect the sacrifice of those who died innocently during the war.

The people of northern Uganda are still afraid of the LRA rebels returning to wreak havoc since rebel leader Joseph Kony and his other top commanders have not been killed or captured. The situation in the region is normalizing after the rebels were mopped out of the area and pushed to the Central African Republic (CAR).

"Because Kony has not been captured or killed, he can come back. Kony and his commanders should be arrested or killed so that his group is disband or destroyed," Lilly Ajok argues.

Punishment or forgiveness?

And she is not alone in her fears.

"I still have fears because Kony still has the capacity to cause atrocities. Recently we heard rumours that Kony is coming back," says the 57-year-old Alice Awor, who lost four sisters-in-law. One was beaten to death with a pestle while the other three died from gun shots.

But Ayugi has a different view. "For me, I don't keep thinking about this sad day. I have forgiven the LRA, but if Kony is arrested, he should be taken to court. I would prefer he is taken to the International Criminal court," Ayugi said.

According to George Ayo, another resident, there has been a lot of support to deal with the trauma.

"After the massacre, several NGOs came to our aid and offered counselling services through which we were able to cope with the aftermath of the deadly attack," Ayo says. "We have recovered from the trauma and are now setting about with carrying out our normal duties especially agricultural and sending children to school. We are no longer worried."

The Barlonyo memorial site general secretary, Quinto Okello, contends: "We are ready to forgive the people who committed this crime, but our focus now is to look at how we can achieve sustainable development. If we keep putting out fire with fire, there will be no achievement. We have witnessed this where government has fought the LRA and it is the people who have suffered the most. Why don't we come together and undertake the goals that will bring about development and peace?"

Kony and four of his top commanders were interdicted by the International Criminal court in 2005 over war crimes and crimes against humanity. They face 33 counts of murder, rape, sexual enslavement, and recruitment of children, among others.


With assistance from their lawyer, Krispus Ayena, the Barlonyo survivors have drafted articles of association in order to have a common voice and also deal with the question of detriment they suffered as a result of the atrocities. This will also form a strong foundation for institutional memory.

"They will also have an opportunity to demand for reasonable compensation and reparations from government and the international community," Ayena says.

"I don't think there is a serious reasonable person in government who will find any problem in appreciating the just claim of these people, whose protection it was and still whose duty it was, to protect them. These people also suffered material loss apart from loved ones. Maybe a psychotherapy institution could be among the rehabilitation avenues because these people are traumatized."

Ayena doesn't rule out legal action in getting the association's voice across.

"The court is the forum for last resort, but we shall begin by talking to government. Basically, government should have early-warning systems so that we don't have to wait for what happened," Ayena, who is now MP for Oyam North in Oyam district, says.

Uganda Human Rights Initiative Executive Director Livingstone Ssewanyana acknowledges that the task ahead is tough.

"The issue of reparations ... arises out of the failure of the state to discharge its obligations," Ssewanyana says. "I do not think limitation of time should be the issue here; the issue is about determining the rightful claimants and the amount of reparation possible."

He explains that the reparation could take the form of rehabilitating the survivors to ensure they have a decent life. However, Government spokesperson Mary Karooro Okurut says the Attorney General will handle the matter when it is brought up by the affected parties.

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