The peace, prosperity, and stability around Kampala leaves one little prepared for the almost complete destruction which rebel conflicts in the west and north of Uganda have left in their wake. In the north, where a rebellion has been active for more than fourteen years under various banners, currently under that of the Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony, the entire infrastructure lies in shambles and the majority of the population are forced to live under dire conditions in "protected villages." An earlier Human Rights Watch report described the gulf between north and south:
It is only a four-hour drive from Kampala to Gulu or Kitgum, but it might as well be a thousand miles. Cultural and linguistic differences ensure that residents of southern Uganda have few social reasons to venture north, and the relative under-development of the far north makes it unlikely that southerners will visit Gulu or Kitgum for commercial reasons. The danger of mines and ambushes along northern roads further diminishes southerners' incentive to visit their Acholi compatriots, and the lack of telecommunications infrastructure in the north makes even phone contact rare.55
Although more recent, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) conflict in Western Uganda is also creating a human rights and humanitarian crisis. Several other rebel movements also continue to operate in Uganda at lower levels of activity, such as the Uganda National Rescue Front II (UNRF II); the West Nile Bank Front (WNBF) made up predominately of Amin-era soldiers56; and the Uganda Peoples Army (UPA) headed by Peter Otai, minister of defense in Obote's secondgovernment.57 In late 1998, a new rebel group calling itself the Uganda Salvation Army (USA) made an appearance in eastern Uganda, attacking Tororo prison and abducting a number of inmates. There have been repeated reports of collaboration and coordination between some of these rebel groups through meetings in Sudan.58
On May 31, 1999, six armed persons, most of them dressed in military uniforms, attacked the Boroboro police post on the outskirts of Lira. One policeman was killed in the attack, and another two were wounded. The rebels left behind a letter identifying themselves as the Citizens Army for Multiparty Politics (CAMP), and stating that they were fighting for the restoration of multiparty politics in Uganda.59 According to the UPDF, the new rebel group was organized by the former chief of staff in Milton Obote's UNLA army, Brigadier Smith Opon Acak. Brigadier Acak was killed by UPDF soldiers during a July 18, 1999, ambush on a CAMP rebel training camp near Lira.60
Human Rights Abuses in Areas of Rebel Conflict
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been responsible for a campaign of terror against civilians in Northern Uganda. Supposedly dedicated to overthrowing the Museveni government, the LRA spends most of its time brutalizing and killing civilians, stealing their children, and looting and burning their homes. The LRA is mostly an army of abducted children, many as young as twelve. It is estimated that as many as 6,000 to 10,000 children have been abducted by the LRA for induction into their army. At times, the LRA has targeted schools and churches to abduct children en masse: such incidents took place in October 1996 at St. Mary's School in Aboke, Lira district, where the LRA abducted 139 girls, and in June 1998 at St. Charles Lwanga School in Kalongo, Kitgum district, where thirty-nine girls were abducted. Abducted children face a harsh and often deadly march to Sudan,and inhuman conditions in the Sudanese training camps. Those who attempt to escape are tortured and killed, most often by other recent abductees who are forced to participate in the killings. Abducted girls are "given" as "wives" to senior LRA commanders and face a life of sexual abuse and regular beatings. It is estimated that as many as 5,000 of the captive children have died during battle, from malnutrition or disease, or from LRA torture and execution; the children who manage to escape are scarred for life, forever reliving their brutal treatment and the atrocities they were forced to commit. The girls face the additional burden of often having been infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
The LRA rarely engages in direct combat with the Ugandan army. Instead, it attacks civilians in direct violation of international humanitarian law protecting noncombatants. It sometimes seems that every civilian in the north can recount instances of LRA abuses. Villagers live in constant fear of LRA attacks. The LRA, normally operating in small units, move around the remote countryside, traveling from family compound to family compound and leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Civilians are routinely killed by the LRA for no apparent reason; belongings are looted. In order to enforce its rule of terror, the LRA has mutilated civilians: civilians seen riding or in possession of bicycles have had a foot cut off, local officials have had a hand amputated, and civilians have had their lips cut off to send a message to the government. The LRA has placed landmines throughout the northern districts of Uganda, and civilians are often injured and maimed by them. The testimonies of former abductees and the placement of the landmines on village footpaths suggest that the LRA deliberately targets civilians with them.
Much of the population of northern Uganda has been displaced by the LRA conflict. In November 1996, the Ugandan army, the Uganda People's Defense Force (UPDF), began placing the population into a series of "protected camps." The UPDF campaign to bring the civilian population to the protected camps was accompanied by significant violence and force, and civilians who refused to move were beaten or threatened with having their homes burned. The sites of the protected camps were not prepared with the necessary infrastructure to receive and accommodate the large number of displaced persons, and conditions in the camps continue to be harsh and inhuman. The population of the camps, denied the ability to cultivate food crops, is completely dependent on international humanitarian organizations for relief.
The presence of landmines and intermittent attacks by LRA rebels have always complicated the work of international humanitarian groups working with the internally displaced persons and Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda. In April 1998, the LRA issued a statement stating that they would consider theseNGOs "legitimate military targets" because the NGOs supported what the LRA called Museveni's "concentration camps." Food convoys of humanitarian groups such as the World Food Program (WFP) and Oxfam were attacked in the North, and heavy fighting in Kitgum district coupled with renewed LRA threats forced a temporary withdrawal from Kitgum district by most NGOs in May to June 1998. In December 1998, heightened insecurity in Gulu district again led to the interruption of humanitarian aid delivery when private transport companies canceled their delivery contracts out of fear of rebel attacks. Interference with the work of humanitarian organizations place large civilian populations that are completely dependent on humanitarian aid at great risk.
The UPDF has a difficult relationship with civilians in northern Uganda, based on historical animosities as well as a past record of UPDF abuses there. The UPDF's response to LRA attacks is often slow, and when the UPDF responds in time to engage the LRA in combat, civilians often get caught in the middle. Incidents of abuse and torture of suspected rebel sympathizers at UPDF barracks continues. One man was arbitrarily arrested and placed in an underground pit at Awer detachment in February 1998. He described having been tortured by having his testicles tied with a rope and being the victim of a mock live burial. In another case, soldiers beat the mother of a suspected rebel collaborator and burned down his compound when they did not find him at home. In a number of other cases, soldiers beat suspected collaborators. Eight civilians at Layik detachment in March 1998 were tied in the hazardous and outlawed kandooya method (involving the tying of the arms tightly together at the elbows behind the back) which can cause paralysis, and caned severely, while a woman who was arrested with them was raped at the same barracks. Human Rights Watch received many reports that soldiers, especially soldiers attached to the mobile units, commonly loot the abandoned compounds of displaced civilians. Several reports of rapes by soldiers were received by Human Rights Watch, and in some cases no action had been taken by the responsible authorities.
Since November 1996, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) has been engaged in a guerrilla war against the Ugandan government in the Rwenzori mountains in Western Uganda. The ADF is an alliance of at least three rebel groups, including the remnants of the secessionist Rwenzururu movement, the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, and extremist elements from the Tabliq Muslim community. The activities of the ADF have become increasingly focused on civilians, who have faced the brunt of their violent abuses. It appears that the ADF is aiming to sow terror among the civilian population through attacks on civilians which often result in massacres. As one civilian victim of an ADF attack recounted to Human Rights Watch, "they just came to cut and kill." Onoccasion, the ADF has mutilated its victims, sometimes cutting off the ears of civilians or decapitating persons and, in at least one reported case, placing the head on a stake along a footpath. Several victims told Human Rights Watch that the ADF is brutalizing civilians because they are resentful at the lack of civilian support for their campaign against the Museveni government.
Like the LRA, the ADF has abducted a large number of children and adults for the purpose of forced recruitment into their rebel movement. The abductees are taken to remote training camps in the Rwenzori mountains or in the Democratic Republic of Congo where they receive rudimentary military training. Civilians are abducted from both Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Adults are also abducted, sometimes for the purpose of carrying looted goods back to the ADF camps. On several occasions, the ADF has conducted children en masse from schools. On August 16, 1997, the ADF attacked the St. John's Catholic Seminary in Kasese district, abducting nineteen seminarians and two workers. One worker was killed soon after the abduction by cutting his throat, and the abducted children were told that a similar fate awaited them if they attempted to escape. On February 19, 1998, the ADF abducted thirty girls and three boys from Mitandi Secondary School outside Fort Portal.
On June 9, 1998, the ADF attempted a similar mass abduction of students from the Kichwamba Technical School in Kasese district. When the students heard the rebels coming, they attempted to resist by locking themselves in their dormitories. The ADF rebels doused three of the dormitories with gasoline and torched them, killing an estimated fifty to eighty students who were trapped inside. The bodies were burned beyond recognition, making identification and an accurate death toll difficult. The rebels then retreated into the Rwenzori mountains with an estimated one hundred abductees, including students and civilians. An additional ten bodies were found in the region over the next days, including several civilians and a student, as well as two UPDF soldiers who were reportedly beheaded.
The Movement System and Conflict
A common theme among the many rebel groups operating in Uganda is that they are fighting against what they characterize as a dictatorial government imposed by President Museveni. Peter Otia, leader of the presently inactive rebel movement the Uganda People's Army (UPA), recently claimed his movement is fighting for a return to democracy in Uganda:
Today, in the constitution, Ugandans are denied the basic and fundamental right of freedom of association. NRM is a totalitarian regime under the control of one man. When you have a leader of apolitical party which is synonymous with the state, and is also the president, defense minister and in charge of all security organs, you are creating a garrison.... We are fighting for the restoration of democracy.61
In a public meeting in London in June 1998, representatives of the LRA's political wing, the Lords Resistance Movement (LRM), similarly claimed that the LRA was fighting against political oppression in Uganda. According to LRM spokesperson David Masanga, the LRA is fighting to overthrow Museveni's "dictatorship" and to establish a multiparty system in Uganda: "We oppose Article 269 of the constitution banning political parties... We are fighting a war for freedom of conscience in Uganda, fighting for the enjoyment of fundamental human rights and freedoms of every person in Uganda. We cannot talk peace when there is no freedom."62 The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group have similarly claimed to be fighting against what they perceive to be the one-party state established by President Museveni.
Such statements should be evaluated in the context of the conduct of these rebel groups, as well as their general inability to establish a popular basis of civilian support. The human rights abuses committed by the LRA and ADF are severe, and do not match the causes they ascribe to their rebellion: both have been responsible for a campaign of terror against the civilian population in their areas of operation. Robert Gersony, an independent consultant who carried out a field study of the conflict in the north for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) concluded that popular support for the LRA is minimal:
Of the Acholi people in Gulu and Kitgum, more than ninety percent do not respect, welcome, encourage, support or voluntarily assist the LRA. The proportion of those who repudiate its conduct and continuation of the conflict is probably even higher in Kitgum than in Gulu. ... The attitude of the Acholi people appears to have evolved from enthusiastic support for the UPDA and Alice Lakwena; to skepticism during the Severino [Alice Lakwena's father] and early Kony period; to total opposition during the current LRA period, characterized by bitter anguish over what they fear is the "disappearance of the Acholi people." ... Repudiation of the LRA should not be construed as support for thecurrent government. The National Resistance Movement and President Museveni are seen as alien to the area. While support for the armed anti-government struggle has evaporated, the population's political opposition to the current government remains.63
All of the persons interviewed by Human Rights Watch in the North expressed strong opposition to the current LRA campaign, and many called upon Kony to abandon his armed struggle and "come home."
Both the ADF and LRA have engaged in a systematic disinformation campaign which aims to avoid accountability for their atrocities and clearly exaggerates the scope of Ugandan army abuses. For example, at a June 1998 meeting attended by Human Rights Watch, LRA spokesperson Steven Nyeko claimed that the UPDF (the Ugandan army), not the LRA, was responsible for massacres and other abuses in the north, and claimed international human rights organizations were relying on "government propaganda" when accusing the LRA of abuses. Nyeko went on to claim that the LRA did not abduct the 139 girls en masse from the St. Mary's School in Aboke, a particularly notorious case documented in prior Human Rights Watch reports,64 but rather evacuated them because the LRA "knew government troops would come and rape them."65 Such attempts at disinformation are clearly at odds with the evidence established by independent observers, the press, and international human rights monitors.
The ADF has engaged in similar disinformation campaigns, blaming attacks for which it has been responsible on the UPDF and arguing that it does not abduct civilians but merely protects them from UPDF abuse. In a statement faxed to Human Rights Watch in the aftermath of an ADF massacre at Kichwamba, inwhich an estimated eighty students were burned to death, the ADF advanced such a theory:
In many cases after engaging the army and defeating it, we withdraw then after some hours the army comes in with a lot of force pouncing on civilians out of great anger and desperation due to the beating given to their fellow soldiers and kill, maim or even burn houses.... On realising these occurrences, the civilian population always pleads with the rebel fighters to take them to avoid the Government army wrath.66
Again, as with the LRA denials, such ADF statements are in direct contradiction to the evidence from eyewitnesses and victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch and other organizations. Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous persons in the west who described being abducted by force or physically abused by the ADF rebel movement. Our interviews took place out of the presence of government representatives, and most witnesses interviewed were located by our own initiatives, not provided by a government source.67 The LRA and ADF representatives' suggestion that the work of international human rights groups represents a biased, pro-government perspective is mistaken and an attempt to deflect criticism from their own appalling human rights records.
Despite these important reservations about the purported political motivations of Ugandan rebel groups, it would be a mistake to suggest that rebel activity is completely unrelated to the suppression of political opposition activity in Uganda. The movement system of government deprives nonviolent political opposition of some of its effectiveness because it does not allow organized political opposition. The frustration created by the ineffectiveness of peaceful avenues of political opposition was described by an international journalist:
Unfortunately, [Museveni's] critics have nowhere to channel their criticism, except through individual members of parliament. Under Museveni's `movement' system of government, political party activity is banned, because he believes it fosters sectarianism. Theoretically, opposition politicians are instead absorbed into a broad-basedgovernment. In reality, Museveni's cabinet is full of his devotees. The movement is beginning to look less like an alternate form of democracy, and more like a benign version of a one-party state. Increasingly, people resent not being given the freedom to exercise their choice.68
Okello Okello, an opposition member of parliament for the northern district of Kitgum, expressed his concerns to Human Rights Watch that the movement system in Uganda would inevitably lead to violent conflict:
I am an old man. I have served in all the independence governments as a civil servant, as a land appraiser. In my twenty-six years of government service, I have seen many governments come and go.
In Uganda, it is not yet uhuru [freedom] the way things are. I think we are sitting on a time bomb, and it will be terrible when it explodes. What we have now is an effective one-party state, even a baby can see this. They want to use state funds to run a political party. You cannot have a political organization in which membership is by birth. This to me is a deceptive scheme designed purposely to perpetuate governance by a small clique. The actual ruling clique is quite small, with the rest of us serving as window-dressing. But people are beginning to learn that they have been tricked. This system is a declaration of future war. When you close all avenues of opposition, where do you want them to go? They will go back to the gun, obviously. There will be a time when they can't take it no more.69
Professor Mamdani of the University of Cape Town has suggested that the prohibition on an effective opposition to the NRM government has escalated political differences into military differences, stating that "failure to allow peaceful avenues for organized opposition tends to turn opposition into a violent affair."70 Professor Mamdani's argument finds some support in the historical record of rebel movements in Uganda. Among the different factions which form the ADF, for example, are Buganda federalists (advocates for the federo system which would return Buganda to the semi-autonomous status it enjoyed at independence) andmultipartyist who turned to armed opposition after their proposals for a federal, multiparty system were rejected at the 1995 Constituent Assembly. Former Democratic Party treasurer Evaristo Nyanzi and renegade UPDF officers Major Fred Mpiso and Major Herbert Itongwa are some of the figures who attempted to form the National Democratic Army (NDA) rebel group in Buganda following the rejection of federalist and multiparty proposals at the Constituent Assembly, and elements of the now defunct NDA have been incorporated into the ADF.71 Another component of the ADF rebellion, drawn from radical elements within the Tabliq Muslim community, may have turned to armed resistance after their Islamic party, the Uganda Islamic Revolutionary Party, was banned on the grounds that it violated the constitutional prohibition on religiously based and other "sectarian" political organizations.
In the view of many Ugandans, the political restrictions of the movement system are also an obstacle to peace. There appears to be widespread support for peace talks among the civilian population, church leadership, and civil society. But the movement system has not allowed for the effective political mobilization of these sentiments to serve as a counterweight to the views of President Museveni and UPDF leaders, who have maintained a public commitment to a military solution despite the views of many analysts that the army lacks the motivation or capacity to achieve a military victory. In the context of these dynamics, it is difficult to completely divorce the rebellions in northern and western Uganda from the political system in place in Uganda.
61 "UPA to resume war against NRM-Otai," Monitor, July 31, 1998.
62 Statement by David Masanga, LRM representative, Institute for African Alternatives, London, June 27, 1998.
63 Gersony, The Anguish of Northern Uganda, p.259-63. The historical development of the northern rebellion is discussed below.
64 See Human Rights Watch, The Scars of Death (1997). Human Rights Watch collected more than one hundred testimonials from Aboke girls who were abducted during this incident and later released, and reprinted some of these letters in the report. The testimonies clearly establish that the girls were forcibly abducted by the LRA. For example, one girl wrote: "It was on October 9, 1996 when the Kony rebels appeared to break into our school. They entered the school by breaking the windows of our dormitory and then managed to enter the dormitory and open the door. They came in and switched on the lights. All of us were caught and tied up with ropes and [we] walked with them all night until we reached a certain far village." Ibid., p. 87.
65 Statement by Steve Nyeko, LRM representative, Institute for African Alternative, London, June 27, 1998.
66 Press Release by Allied Democratic Movement/Army, signed by Chairman Ssengooba Kyakonye Mukongozzi, faxed to Human Rights Watch May 15, 1998.
67 Some persons interviewed in detention facilities were of course under government control, but interviews with detainees took place outside the presence of any government observers.
68 Anna Borzello, "The Charmer," BBC Focus on Africa, August 1998.
69 Human Rights Watch interview with Okello Okello, MP (Kitgum district), Kampala, April 14, 1998.
70 "Political Party Ban Threatens Uganda-Professor," Reuters, July 5, 1998.
71 Henry Gombya and Odoobo C. Bichachi, "Maj. Mpiso swears to fight Museveni," Monitor, July 7, 1997.