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Abuses by the LRA and the UPDF against Civilians

The reason I ran was because I know how soldiers are in the bush. It is best to run from them, unless they catch you red-handed. You can’t separate between LRA and UPDF so you must just run.
—Walter K,28 Awach camp, Gulu, February 28, 2005.

Northern Uganda is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world because of the extensive and prolonged displacement of a very high proportion of its inhabitants into large camps where the conditions are poor to appalling and there is little prospect of work, health care, education, or return home. The displacement has been caused by widespread human rights abuses by both sides.

Under international humanitarian law (the laws of war), the armed conflict in northern Uganda is considered a non-international (internal) armed conflict. Applicable law includes article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949,29 the Second Additional Protocol of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions,30 and customary international humanitarian law.31  International humanitarian law, which applies to both government forces and rebel groups, prohibits direct or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian property, and requires the humane treatment of all persons in custody. 

The Ugandan government is also bound by international and regional human rights law such as found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights32 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.33 Human rights law places a burden on states not only to prevent abuses by government officials and personnel but also to prosecute those responsible for serious violations. The Ugandan constitution and laws recognize human rights and the Uganda Human Rights Commission was authorized in that constitution.

Although engaging in a few attacks on UPDF detaches (military detachments or posts), the LRA continues to make the people of northern Uganda its main targets. The LRA is responsible for years of willful killings, beatings, large-scale abductions, forced recruitment of adults and children, sexual violence against girls whom it assigns as “wives” or sex slaves to commanders, large-scale looting and destruction of civilian property, forcing the displacement of hundreds of thousands and being a prime factor in the destruction of the economy of northern Uganda and the resultant impoverishment of its inhabitants. Many northern Ugandans have abandoned hope of justice—although not of personal revenge—and long for peace at any price.

The Ugandan army is stationed in or near every camp in the districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader in northern Uganda, ostensibly to protect the civilians residing in the camps. It frequently fails to live up to this responsibility, rarely patrolling aggressively and sometimes running away if faced by a large LRA force. Its performance has somewhat improved in the last year, as indicated by some witness comments.

In every camp visited, Human Rights Watch found cases of abuse by the LRA and also by UPDF soldiers. UPDF-administered beatings of civilians were extremely commonplace, but the killing of civilians, sometimes inside the camps, was also documented. In some camps, civilians faced UPDF abuse on a daily basis. The scale of UPDF abuse continues at an unacceptable level and the protection and accountability structures that would put a stop to such abuse are not in place.

By the LRA

Willful killing of civilians

The LRA continues to commit mass killing of civilians in northern Uganda, keeping the population—and its own combatants, mostly forcibly recruited during childhood—in a constant state of terror. Since February 2005, rebel attacks on camps and settlements have increased. In March, seven civilians were beaten to death with hoes in Adjumani in an attack on Dzaipi trading center.34 In May, ten civilians were killed in a raid near Koch Goma camp in Gulu district.35 In July, the LRA killed fourteen civilians in an ambush on a pickup in Kitgum district; several of them were burned inside the vehicle.36

The LRA abducts children and adults to serve as soldiers, and girls to serve as sex slaves to its commanders—and brutalizes all abductees to deter their escape. Those abducted persons attempting to escape are killed or seriously wounded as an example to other abductees. One woman, abducted by the LRA on August 9, 2004 told Human Rights Watch how a girl, a fellow abductee, tried to escape. When she was captured the rebels “beat her until she died. They used traditional tools, used to make sculpture, to beat her—they hit her on her neck, her hands and her legs until she died.”37

Some LRA killings appear to be the result of simple annoyance and the LRA attitude of callous disregard for human life. The LRA abducted a group of women going to fetch water on February 24, 2005. According to several eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, one of the women had a baby with her who was crying.

[The five LRA fighters] told the woman they wanted the baby—they were going to kill it. After some minutes the woman threw the baby down and ran. The rebels grabbed the woman and beat her to death with a gun. When the woman was killed one rebel got a stick and pierced through the child’s head. The child was two weeks old.38

The LRA does not hesitate to execute those who do not obey the rebels’ orders to perform certain tasks, even if the person is physically incapable of carrying out the task. One woman described how the rebels beat to death Malone Okwir, a man of about sixty, after he threw down the large load of food he was carrying on his back. He was unable to transport it further than the three miles he had already traveled—“so they beat him to death with a hoe and cut him with a panga [farming implement with a long blade].”39

Local officials are commonly targeted by the LRA. A relative of this parish-level local councilor40 (LC2) recalls how he was killed while performing his duties:

Okello Saul was killed on May 20, 2004. He was going from Paicho camp to Cwero to supervise the building of the hospital. On his way back he was ambushed by the LRA. He was on his motorcycle. And they shot him dead. Then they burned his motorcycle and took his belongings. They undressed him, leaving him in his underwear. He was shot with eight bullets.41

The victim left behind a wife and four children.

Several LRA deliberate killings have been committed under duress by abductees, often children. One twelve-year-old boy interviewed by Human Rights Watch killed a civilian by beating him with a stick. This occurred one week after the youngster was roused from his sleep and abducted by the LRA in June 2004 at a village outside the camp. At first he refused the order to kill the civilian but the LRA abductors beat him until he agreed. He escaped two months later.42 A similar case involving a twenty-four-year-old farmer took place in 2003: the farmer witnessed and under duress participated in the deliberate killings of nine civilians during the two months he was held by the LRA.43

Others are killed, or left for dead, because the LRA fighters simply want to rob them. One thirty-eight-year-old man was on his bicycle in January 2005 when he saw five LRA fighters coming toward him on the road; he threw down his bicycle and ran. They pursued him and when he tired they shot him through the cheek from a distance of less than two meters. He lost consciousness. When he awoke hours later he found they had stolen his bicycle and the clothes he was wearing. He was hospitalized for three weeks.44

Torture and Other Mistreatment

Civilians in northern Uganda continue to suffer gross abuse at the hands of the LRA. The LRA beats and otherwise mistreats civilians as a part of a campaign intended to instill terror in the population.  It severely punishes anyone who does not do what it demands, even if that person lacks the physical capacity to comply.

One woman was abducted by a group of LRA rebels who were interested in surrendering to the UPDF. The commander of the rebels asked her to ensure that the soldiers would not attack them if they went to surrender, then when she failed to comply sufficiently, beat her unconscious and left her for dead.

According to the woman:

When I tried to answer the questions they [the rebels] got four young boys to go and get sticks. They returned with many sticks. Some were tied in a bundle. They began to beat me seriously. I tried to cry and reached a position where I kept quiet. They beat me on the head and the leg. I don’t know what happened—I was unconscious. While they beat me they told me I would be beaten to death because I was tricking them. They said, “You women like to make false statements in order that we release you.”

When they left me I was unaware. It was dark. I tried to wake up. I looked around and didn’t see rebels. I couldn’t walk. I was very thirsty, very hungry and very very weak. I started to crawl following the way back. I crawled looking for water at the river. I crawled into the water and got water. I tried to cry but I couldn’t.

When I came out of the water I tried to walk with grass as a support. I was dizzy, fell down, rested a bit. I began to crawl and heard vehicles. I tried to crawl in their direction and came abruptly to the road. The road was too hard to crawl on and I fell to the roadside. I met a man coming from Namkara and he took me to Kitgum Matidi, to the barracks. The Intelligence officer took a brief statement then they took me to the hospital.45

Another woman described her temporary abduction in January 2004 by a unit of the LRA under the command of Lagony Otti. She was pregnant at the time, and had gone with a group of ten women to harvest their fields. The rebels intercepted the women, who “were beaten through Saturday and Sunday. The rebels kept hitting my chest and waist. They hit my chest with the butt of a gun while at the same time using tree branches to hit me.” The baby she was pregnant with survived but was born “very weak,” which she attributed to the beating. “Up to now I feel chest pain. I was beaten until I was unconscious. I don’t know how they set me free—I was rescued by friends.”46

A nineteen-year-old woman said that she lives in fear of the LRA. In 2003, her father and two brothers were abducted from their camp and beaten to death with sticks by the LRA the same day; her sister was abducted one week later by the LRA and killed that same day. She said:

I stopped school in 2003 when I was in P.6. My father died and I was heartbroken and stopped going. There was no one paying the school fees. I live with my mother and one brother and two sisters.47

In December 2004 she went with another woman to a garden five miles from the camp, where seven LRA fighters found them at 10 a.m.

The rebels ordered us to go with them to the bush. They beat us. One of the rebels said they should kill me, but another said let her go back home. They were boys and men. I was undressed, they took everything, I was naked. They told me to hurry back home. None of them defiled me.

I found some lady with a child who gave me a headscarf to wear home. I still go and work in the garden. I get scared. Sometimes I don’t even reach the gardens and come back home. I fear the rebels the most.48

Other attacks seem motivated by the need for supplies following cutbacks by the Sudanese government. One farmer, on his way back from harvesting simsim (sesame) with his wife in Pipei parish near Agoro camp on September 5, 2004, encountered rebels who “began beating me and my wife using sticks.” The couple dropped their bundles and escaped: “I started running—they went off, they were contented with the simsim,” he said.49


Since February 2005 there has been an upsurge in attacks in which the LRA has brutally disfigured civilians. The LRA first started mutilating civilians in the early 1990s as a response to the government’s attempts to form local militias in northern Uganda. Victims’ hands, feet, noses, ears, lips and breasts were cut off, often as punishment, causing widespread panic amongst the population. These brutal tactics have been extremely effective in promoting fear and deterring cooperation with the government: mutilations symbolically cut off the allegedly offending part, i.e., the ears that hear, the lips that kiss, according to what the LRA fighters tell the victims.50

As with other methods, a surge in mutilations may follow quickly on the heels of government statements the LRA wishes to disprove. President Museveni declared on February 17, 2005 following the surrender of lead LRA peace negotiator Sam Kolo that the military conflict in northern Uganda was “finished—those remaining fugitive commanders can't fight anymore.”51

Just a few days after the publication of this and similar statements, eleven women were briefly abducted by the LRA near Ngomoromo, Kitgum. One of the women was beaten to death with her baby because the baby was making too much noise. The other women were herded into an abandoned hut, made to strip naked, and then mutilated.52

One woman told Human Rights Watch:

After discussing with his colleagues he [the rebel] came in and started chopping off our lips. When he was cutting he ordered us not to make any noise otherwise he would kill us—so we persevered. The rebels cut our lips because they said we “loved the soldiers at Ngomoromo barracks.”53

In the ensuing weeks the LRA conducted several more brutal attacks on civilians. Thirty women who had gone out to collect firewood were attacked by the LRA in Agoro sub-county, Kitgum on March 20, 2005. The rebels cut the lips and ears off one woman and the breasts off another. Then the rebels left, abducting others among the group of thirty women and leaving the disfigured victims to find a way home.

One man’s four children were abducted by the LRA on May 24, 2004 and his finger was cut off as punishment for farming. He said:

It was at eight in the night. A group of LRA came to my house. I was living there with my wife and children. The rebels looted my household…. They beat me with pangas on my back and rear three times. They burned all of our huts. Then they put my hand down. They cut off my finger with a panga. The rebel who cut off my finger was a young boy in his early teens. I pleaded with them not to hurt my hand, but they said since they found me farming at home they would have to kill me…. Then they left with my children.54


In general, the LRA has not been implicated in acts of rape during attacks on displaced persons camps or even when encountering women in rural areas. On this mission, Human Rights Watch did not document any cases of rape by the LRA in the camps, or when rebels encountered women or girls in the fields.

Rape, on many occasions gang rape, has been committed after the young women and adolescent girls were taken back to the LRA camp. The lack of rape in the field and the gang rape after returning to base suggests that these crimes are sanctioned if committed according to orders. A woman told Human Rights Watch how she was abducted with her sister in January 2004 by a group of one hundred rebels near Agoro camp in Kitgum. They were taken back to a rebel encampment “and distributed to the top commanders who raped us during the night.”55

One community leader told Human Rights Watch that the reason LRA fighters did not rape captured women and girls before taking them to the LRA stronghold was Kony’s hold over the LRA combatants: “They are superstitious that Kony knows everything they do. Kony doesn’t want them to ‘contaminate’ women because Kony picks the women and then shares the rest among the others.”56 

The LRA has abducted thousands of women and girls who are still being held by the LRA and have given birth to children in captivity. Others have escaped, with or without their children. 

Over the years, many caretakers and community leaders have surmised that this behavior was due to a perverse awareness of HIV/AIDS. LRA fighters have sometimes accused older married women they have captured and then released of being wives of UPDF soldiers and therefore of being infected with the HIV virus.57 The LRA abducts younger girls who are more likely to be virgins and therefore not exposed to the HIV virus.


UNICEF estimates that some 20,000 children have been abducted in the nineteen years of war. The level of abductions surged after the LRA returned from Sudan following the UPDF Operation Iron Fist inside Sudan starting in mid-2002. Abductions appeared to be declining in the second half of 2004, but reports in February and March 200558 indicated that the LRA was again abducting children to bolster its ranks.

The LRA often engages in large-scale attacks on camps or villages where they will abduct many people all at once. At other times, farmers and others are abducted in small groups or alone when they go to their fields for food to complement the small emergency food rations they receive. Although forced outside the camps to look for necessary supplies the camps are lacking, the displaced rarely are given protection by the UPDF when they venture out.

After abduction, the LRA brutally indoctrinates children and adults alike and incorporates them into its ranks. Families have been torn apart by these abductions. On May 24, 2004, all four of the children in one family were abducted on the same night; only two returned and the other two are still missing.59

A pregnant woman, living outside the camp at the time, described how rebels assaulted her, robbed food, demanded money, and then abducted her twelve-year-old daughter. She said:

In July 2004, I was… sleeping at our house in the T… village, behind the center. The rebels came at 10 p.m. There were nine rebels. My husband was away and I was pregnant with my child.… They asked me for money. I said there was no money and they hit my chest with their guns. Then they just left me in the house but they took my eldest daughter.

The child moved with them for some time. They got attacked by the government soldiers and she was rescued. She was twelve years old. Then she came back home. The rebels should all come back home. The leaders should be put in jail.60

The LRA forces the children and adults to commit atrocities as part of the indoctrination process following abduction. Children especially are intimidated and brutalized to such an extent that often they are frightened to return home. Extreme violence is a way for the LRA to psychologically remove the abductees from their previous, normal life at home. One abductee from Agoro camp, aged twelve, told Human Rights Watch how, after he was abducted on July 21, 2004, he was beaten until he agreed to kill a civilian with a stick.61

The rebels often do not abduct adults permanently but release them after they transport stolen goods to the LRA camps. One woman’s experience was illustrative of these two different trends, permanent abduction for military recruitment or “marriage” and temporary abduction as a porter. She and her five fellow abductees were forced to carry baggage. When they reached their destination “the pregnant and weak ones were released but the young and strong remained. Two girls remained, Scovia Akello, aged fifteen, and her friend of the same age. They have not returned.”62

The short-term porter abductees transport stolen food and other property such as clothing and radios. Commonly the abductees are beaten into submission and then forced to carry heavy loads for hours at a time. Those that tire on the journey are beaten more severely or even killed.

By the UPDF

Willful killing of civilians

The UPDF has unlawfully killed a number of civilians in northern Uganda in recent years. People found outside the camps are commonly assumed by the army to be rebels or “rebel collaborators” and frequently find themselves being shot at by the army. But several victims have been shot inside the camps. Many shootings occur at night at close range, and are deliberate and not merely cases of mistaken identity as the army often asserts in its defense.63 Other deaths are the result of beatings so severe the victim dies.

On August 3, 2004, a Local Defence Unit (LDU, locally-recruited guards under army supervision) member killed David Nyeko, a twenty-eight-year-old farmer from Pajimo camp in Kitgum district, after finding him with a group of friends inside his hut at ten o’clock in the evening. In response to an inquiry from Human Rights Watch, the government of Uganda set forth its knowledge of the case as follows:

[David Nyeko] was killed around 15 Feb 05 at 07:30 hrs by 11th Battalion foot patrol soldiers. He had ambushed the foot patrol soldiers, he aimed and threw a spear at them. This took place at Gwengdia village in Awach in Gulu district. Inquiries made indicated David Nyeko had a military background, he served in various armies respectively; UNLA, UPDA and later as an LDU at Awach. He later deserted as an LDU and was living at Obade village. After his death he was buried by the locals of Awach Internally Displaced Persons Camp. [64]

Human Rights Watch found witnesses whose account sharply contradicted the Ugandan government version of events. Human Rights Watch was told that the shooting was witnessed by several people who were present with the victim in his house and one witness said:

We were in our house with some friends conversing, but not drinking.… One soldier [actually LDU] came to the house and ordered all of the men to lie down. But they protested, saying they would not lie down. They said [to the LDU] that he could do what he wanted, they would not lie down. The LDU then fired three shots, without saying anything.  Two shots went into the wall, and one hit Nyeko in the stomach. He died instantly.65

In this case, the LDU, who ran away, was arrested and sent to the barracks. A postmortem autopsy of the victim was conducted. The LDU, whose identity is known to community members, apparently remained on duty in the same barracks at the time of the Human Rights Watch interview six months later.66

The killings sometimes seem to be for no discernible reason—other than because the soldiers can do as they wish and later claim the civilians injured or killed were “rebel collaborators,” whatever the circumstances.

For example, Charles B left his wife and fifteen-year-old daughter in Pabbo camp, Gulu overnight to go to work his small plot of land. When he returned to the camp the next day, in early February, 2004, he found his wife and daughter dead. His neighbors told him that ten UPDF soldiers had surrounded the house of a prostitute nearby and knocked repeatedly on her door. When she did not answer they fired into her hut. These neighbors saw one of the soldiers enter Charles’ hut. Shortly afterwards they heard gunshots from inside the hut. After the soldiers left, the neighbors went to look inside Charles’ home and found his wife and daughter dead.67

Charles B reported the case to the local barracks and a few days later soldiers arrived and removed some discarded bullet casings, presumably evidence. A military report about the incident, which Charles read, said that the soldiers had been looking for rebel collaborators at the house of the prostitute, and they saw two men in black approach Charles B’s hut nearby so they started shooting into it.

His neighbors who witnessed the shootings told Human Rights Watch that this story was false. The official investigation apparently ended there.68

Regardless of the presence of possible rebels or rebel collaborators inside displaced persons’ homes inside the camps, the UPDF has the duty to take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population under its control against the effects of attacks. Soldiers carrying out an attack must be able to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilians. Shooting into huts inside displaced persons camps where there was no apparent rebel activity is an indiscriminate use of force in violation of the laws of war.  The summary execution of any person is a war crime.

UPDF 11th Battalion: Cwero and Awach, Gulu district

The abuses in Cwero and Awach displaced persons camps stood out among the ten camps that Human Rights Watch visited in February and March 2005: they were “protected” by the 11th Battalion of the UPDF, which had generated many more complaints of abuse than other military units in northern Uganda at that time.

These two camps, situated next to each other some ten to fifteen kilometers northeast of Gulu, had experienced the same pattern of general UPDF abuses noted in other camps—until the 11th Battalion was deployed to the area at the end of 2004. In the few months that the 11th Battalion was stationed near those camps, UPDF abuses of displaced persons increased dramatically.

The abuses were not the acts of just a few undisciplined soldiers. People going out to the fields to harvest or fetch firewood and water invariably found themselves confronted by the UPDF, whose soldiers beat or tortured people almost every day for the first two months of 2005.

Human Rights Watch documented four negligent or willful killings of civilians by the UPDF in three weeks in February 2005 alone. This does not include one other person suspected of being summarily executed by the army and two people who reported being shot at and badly injured. Beatings of civilians had been occurring almost daily since the 11th Battalion arrived.

In some of the UPDF killings, the civilians appeared to have been summarily executed. The government of Uganda provided the following information to Human Rights Watch about the cases of Vincent Ayeila and Richard Kidega:

The two above were killed during across-fire between UPDF and LRA enemies. It was around 18 Feb 05 in the areas of Ogur. Subsequently on the 19 Feb 05 their dead bodies were identified in the battle areas together with those of LRA by one called Mr. Obina Willy. He (Obina Willy) later informed our forces that the two had been abducted by LRA around 17 Feb 05 at Pukanyo village. [69]

One witness, a farmer living in Awach camp, told a different story, however. He left the camp on February 18 with Vincent Ayeila and Richard Kudega to fetch poles to build a hut. Soldiers found them in the bush and shouted at them to stop, then they fired on the men. The witness managed to escape but the other two were arrested by the soldiers.

The following day, a friend went to the barracks to ask for the two men. Both nearby barracks denied arresting the two. At 4:00 p.m. that day, their bodies were found. “Both had been shot in the head and chest, and both had been cut with bayonets on their hands and arms. One of the dead was still wearing gumboots and if the LRA finds these, they take them, so we suspected it was the army,” said a friend.70

The 11th Battalion has treated civilians, whom they are supposed to protect, in a callous and brutal manner. In Cwero camp, an old man was beaten to death by 11th Battalion soldiers. The man was out late at night attending a funeral. A witness narrated how soldiers ordered a group of people to disperse, and then beat the elderly man as he emerged from the latrine:

The soldiers began to beat him with the butt of his rifle several times in the chest until the old man fell to the ground. The soldiers then turned back to the group which was now dispersing and threatened them, telling them to leave. My mother went to the old man and tried to help him get up, but he couldn’t move. Then one of the soldiers went over and started talking to the old man, but he wouldn’t respond.71

The man died after lying incapacitated in his hut for two days.

The 11th Battalion also brutally punished breaches of the curfew. The curfew hours were irregular, depending on the mood of the soldiers. According to a local leader at Awach: 

The soldiers are not cooperative at all, they don’t listen to the leadership [of the camp]. They normally accept people to leave [the camp] between 9-5. Even if they have set the time [for curfew], sometimes they open the roadblock at 11, depending on their mood. Sometimes you enter [return to the camp] five minutes late and you get beaten and taken to the barracks.72

At a UPDF roadblock outside Cwero camp during February, 2005, a local council official found soldiers arresting civilians for violating the curfew. He protested that the curfew did not begin until 5 p.m., and it was only 4 p.m. The soldiers said they had changed the law. The council official (referred to as an “LC” throughout Uganda) continued to protest, and, according to him, the soldiers said they would “cane me [the official] also. They gave me sixteen strokes.” At the same time they beat the civilians at the roadblock. When the LC went to the barracks to complain he saw other civilians being beaten at the barracks in front of a lieutenant. When he asked why the people were being beaten the lieutenant asked him, “Do you know the rebels?” The elected official went away without registering a complaint, fearful of the repercussions.73

Soldiers of the 11th Battalion were also responsible for torture. A forty-year-old farmer from Cwero was accosted by soldiers when he was found making a fire break around his cultivation five kilometers outside the camp in mid-February, 2005. The soldiers claimed that he was working for the rebels and then tortured him, he said:

They made me lie down and started caning me and kicking me so many times. Then they tied a rope around my testicles and pulled on it. They took me unconscious to Cwero barracks where I stayed one night. Because I was very sick they released me.74

In early February, 2005, UPDF soldiers shot a twenty-nine-year-old man. It was 10 p.m. and the man was with four others conversing in his home at Awach camp. Then two soldiers arrived and one entered the hut and stood inside. When the young man went outside, the second soldier shot him in the leg by putting the gun against the victim’s leg and shooting him point blank.

The first soldier rushed out of the hut and said to the shooter, “What have you done?”

The victim, who was not running away before he was shot, ran after he was shot as the bone in his leg was not broken. “I kept running and falling down, getting up, until I reached the LC’s [local council official] place. I reported to the LC and they took me to the health center. They rang the hospital the next morning, and then sent an ambulance” and took him to Gulu Hospital, where he remained for several weeks.

The LC lodged a complaint with the police who sent a letter to the UPDF Public Relations Officer and the 11th Battalion. The UPDF 11th Battalion commander in Awach, however, claimed that the other three men who were in the victim’s home “should find the soldier who shot…, otherwise they were the ones with the gun.”

One of the three men was detained for two days at the barracks then released with orders to report daily as to whether he had found the soldier, which orders were not enforced. “It is a way to intimidate us,” the victim said. A case was also filed with the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the government human rights monitoring body that has the power to hear and decide human rights cases.75

Such gross mistreatment was so routine it became part of normal life at Cwero and Awach camps. One woman who was beaten by soldiers who pulled her out of her shop at 9:00 p.m. on January 10, 2005, said, “I did not complain. I thought soldiers were on their work so I didn’t take it to the LC [local councilor].”76

Torture and Other Mistreatment by UPDF soldiers

Government soldiers routinely abuse civilians in the displaced persons camps of northern Uganda.

Civilians alleged to be “rebel collaborators” are commonly detained and sometimes tortured or severely beaten with sticks as part of the interrogation process. Some of the detainees reported being held in pits with other prisoners for several days. Very few of those detained ever receive a trial.

One farmer, twenty-three, was beaten together with his friend by UPDF soldiers near Cwero camp on the morning of January 23, 2005. The soldiers, apparently as punishment, beat the hands of nine men captured that day with a large stick until they bled, then the soldiers left. The man said:

That morning my friend and I went to cut sorghum in a garden near the camp. While we were working a group of soldiers approached us. They had with them seven other civilians from the camp who they had stopped along the path to the camp. They must have been coming to the fields to work as well. Anyway, they forced all of us on the ground. One by one, we were taken to a tree stump and told to put our hands across it. Then they beat our hands with a large stick until they bled. When they had beaten everyone they left. I took my friend to a nearby river and washed his hands because they were bleeding so badly.… [The soldiers] also destroyed my identity papers.77

One man, a relative of LRA commander Vincent Otti, was arrested by soldiers near Pabbo camp in Gulu on February 20, 2005. They alleged that he was a rebel collaborator and took him back to the barracks. At the barracks he was taken into a “small hut, a torture house, where they kill people. Four big wooden logs were hanging in the hut. The soldiers tried to hit me with the logs but I dodged them.”

The soldiers then took him out of the barracks; they “beat me with sticks, hitting my head and chest with the butts of their guns. When they beat me they said I had no energy to move.” The soldiers forced him to walk on further until they reached a place called Guru Guru and stopped. The man said:

They [the soldiers] were hitting me with sticks and the butts of their guns. I was suffering from pain in my legs and chest. When I was hit on the head I was spinning around. I couldn’t move anymore. The men put a rope around my neck and started strangling me. Four soldiers were sitting on my chest and the fifth was pulling the rope around my neck. They told me they were going to kill me because I was the [relative] of Otti. I fainted, I don’t know what happened after.78

Many UPDF beatings of civilians occurred where the soldiers believed the victims were breaking the army-imposed local curfew, which restricts the times that civilians are allowed to be outside the camps. They even impose a curfew on how late the displaced can be outside their homes at night—although the homes are small huts in the middle of a displaced persons camp.

In a case that is typical of this kind of abuse, soldiers in Paicor camp beat Patrick F at 7:30 p.m. in mid-August, 2004 outside his home.

Two soldiers came when I was sitting in front of my house. They started beating me. They were drunk and said, “Get inside, nobody should be outside by now,” and just started beating me. They hit me with their sticks and told me to lie down inside the hut. As I was lying down they hit me and wounded me badly.79

The situation has become so serious that some civilians seem to view such outright abuse at the hands of the soldiers as normal. As one man said, after being beaten by LDUs for returning late to the camp, “We did not complain to anyone about this. It is a normal thing when you come late and no one follows it up. We were late because we had gone far.”80 The soldiers stole what the men had hunted, leaving them with one small animal each.

Many more than one-third of the 170 people at displaced persons camps interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they had experienced or witnessed a beating by the UPDF in the past year, 2004-2005.

Rape by UPDF Soldiers

Rape and other sexual violence are also frequent occurrences in and around the camps. A report by UNICEF released on June 15, 2005 concluded that rape is the most common form of violence in the sprawling Pabbo internally displaced persons camp, Gulu district.81 Rape, however, is not limited to one camp or town. The lack of discipline within the army and the almost complete lack of accountability contribute to an environment and atmosphere in which women are extremely vulnerable to abuse, both from the UPDF and within the community.

Women in a number of camps told Human Rights Watch how they had been raped by soldiers from the Ugandan army. Women are particularly exposed at night if they are found outside of their huts.

One woman from Amida camp in Kitgum went out at night to use the latrine. A soldier forced her at gunpoint to the edge of the camp and raped her, threatening to kill her if she refused him. She said:

He said to me if I rejected him he would kill me. He began to squeeze me, he forced me on the ground and raped me. When he finished he left me—he knocked me down on the legs with his knee so I didn’t know where he was going.82

Girls are often the victims. A man from Bobi camp, Gulu discovered that his sixteen-year-old daughter had gone missing on the morning of January 26, 2005. He learned from a nephew that she had been taken by UPDF soldiers and one of the soldiers was raping her in a hut on the other side of the camp. He said, “When I arrived at the hut the soldier had gone and my daughter was inside the hut crying.” At the hospital the next day doctors confirmed she had been raped.83

In Kitgum Matidi camp, the UPDF beefed up its presence due to increased LRA activity in the area in April 2004. The supposed “extra protection” turned out to be a nightmare for the residents of the camp. One woman described how “a lot of women were raped at that time.” Two women told Human Rights Watch about similar incidents of soldiers barging into their huts and raping them.84 In the same month at Kitgum Matidi camp, a soldier raped a grandmother, according to her adult son, whose hut was also invaded by soldiers. He said:

Afterwards they went to my mother—perhaps the soldiers organized themselves before going to abuse the civilians. They beat my mother. They raped my mother. At night I didn’t know but in the morning we organized as a group of fifteen households to find out what had happened. My mother explained that she had been raped. She was raped by one soldier…

I did not report the incident. The chairman of the household took the report to the army barracks—up to now we don’t know, there have been no repercussions.85

Soldiers prey upon women and girls they find traveling outside the camps out of necessity—to collect firewood or water or to sow, tend or harvest crops. In such situations they are risking not only an attack and abduction by the LRA but also rape and physical abuse by the army.

In an August 2004 case, a sixteen-year-old girl was raped by a soldier while she was in the fields picking millet; her mother had left her alone briefly to go to another garden. The mother took her daughter to the doctor and then complained to the Pabbo police post. The police asked the UPDF to investigate, according to the victim, and the rapist and his commanding officer came to the hut of the girl and her mother in Pabbo camp. The rapist then returned to the hut when the mother was out, kidnapped the victim and made her his third wife in September 2004. She lived in his hut in another camp for two months with the two other co-wives, became pregnant and returned to her mother after the “husband” mistreated her. As of the interview, the rapist was still in the barracks as a soldier and had not been punished.86

In another sexual assault in Jengare camp in August 2004, a married woman with two children was raped when she left the camp briefly. She told Human Rights Watch:

It was around 9 pm. I wanted to boil some groundnuts for my son and went to look for some firewood. Out in the bush I ran into one soldier.  He got me and took me behind the camp and raped me. He threatened me with the gun. I told him that I didn’t want to and he replied that if I refused he would shoot me. I stopped fighting and he raped me.87

After the rape, he told her to get up and start running without looking back. She fled, hid and slept in the bush. When she did not return that night, her husband reported her missing. She identified the soldier the next day and he was taken to Pabbo barracks; both were tested for the HIV virus. Although the soldier was positive she tested negative. After two days the family took the matter to the police, but no action was taken and the soldier, a private, has been seen moving freely at the barracks.88

It is exceptionally difficult for women to find protection from sexual abuse by government soldiers. Rape is very stigmatized in Ugandan society and women often are ashamed to report it; many women Human Rights Watch spoke to had never described their experiences to anyone. These women were very fearful that the community would shun or reject them.

The impoverishment of displaced persons, among other factors, has caused a breakdown in social values. As one community leader put it, “Soldiers are often the only ones in the camps with money. They can entice young girls, even married women, into sex.”89 Soldiers are often the “richest” people in area because they receive regular income. Parents sometimes complain that soldiers have “defiled” their children, many younger than sixteen. They complain that soldiers have tried to marry girls without the parents’ consent and sometimes in the face of the parents’ opposition.

Overcrowded camp conditions have contributed to the occurrence of sexual violence and rape, which are reported to occur at a higher rate than when people lived in rural outposts. One fourteen-year-old girl was raped by a group of boys who dragged her away from the hut she was going to sleep in. She said:

It was on October 25, 2004. I was about to go to sleep in another woman’s house when I was grabbed and dragged out of the hut. There were five people who dragged me out. They were civilians. The woman had gone for a short call at the time…. I was sleeping in this hut because there is no space in my parents’ hut. They [the men] took me to their hut. Then I was defiled by one of them…. I didn’t know him before.  He used force with me. He slapped me and hit me because I had to resist.90

Arbitrary arrest and Detention

Fear of the authorities and reluctance to report abuses inflicted by the UPDF on the part of victims often results from fear of retaliation. Victims fear beatings, torture and perhaps death, inflicted in the barracks or elsewhere. UPDF officers have suggested that protests against UPDF abuses may be false propaganda designed to “make the government look bad,” particularly when the complaints are made to international organizations.91 Military intelligence suspicions may be raised against those complaining on the grounds that they may be “rebel supporters.” The complainant may be detained for military interrogation.

UPDF’s practice of detaining suspects for prolonged periods in barracks is not only used against people complaining of army abuses but also against others suspected of rebel activity. It is in the barracks where torture and other forms of ill treatment most often occur.92 Those so held are denied their right to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention under international human rights law.93

While the Ugandan army is entitled to capture LRA fighters on the battlefield as a matter of international humanitarian law, the military must turn such persons over to the civilian justice authorities for possible prosecution. Under international law, LRA fighters may be prosecuted by the Ugandan government for taking up arms or for specific criminal acts, although the government has chosen to amnesty most LRA fighters. There is no basis under Ugandan law for the military to detain persons beyond an immediate battlefield situation.

Most of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch over the years and for this report who have been held in military detention, often for weeks or months, said they were not captured on the battlefield. They rarely had the opportunity to challenge their detentions or evidence against them in a court of law. If charged with a capital crime such as treason or terrorism, they usually have had to wait the constitutional period of 360 days on remand in prison while the public prosecutor investigates the case.94 The remand period starts only when the UPDF turns the suspects over to the police and they are brought to the Magistrates’ Court, however—without credit for the time already spent in military detention.

Furthermore, the military does not investigate cases in the manner required by the criminal law. The superintendent of police in Gulu district complained to Human Rights Watch that the UPDF would sometimes arrest suspects, usually civilians, and then dump them on the police without obtaining sufficient evidence to allow for a conviction. “The police are not involved in the preliminary investigation in these cases, and as a result we almost always lose them.”95 Most of these cases, however, are never brought to trial.96

The Chieftancy of Military Intelligence (CMI) of the UPDF sometimes intrudes into on-going police investigations. While Human Rights Watch was visiting northern Uganda, two men were in the Gulu police station under police investigation for a complaint of assault filed by a local political rival. UPDF agents arrived and removed the men from police custody to the UPDF barracks. They were held there for several weeks for investigation by CMI before they were returned to the police and charged with another, earlier crime, a murder not related to combat. Human Rights Watch asked to interview them in private while they were in UPDF custody in the 4th Brigade headquarters, but was refused a private meeting.97

To the knowledge of Human Rights Watch, such violations of criminal procedure and civil rights law by the UPDF have not been investigated nor punished.

[28] All names of children have been changed to protect their privacy. The names of adults who requested anonymity have been changed or omitted.

[29] Four Geneva Conventions of 1949.  Uganda ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions in 1964.

[30] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), June 8, 1977. Uganda ratified Protocol II in 1991.  Protocol II prohibits, among other things, murder, torture and other cruel treatment, rape, acts of terrorism, and pillage.  Article 4.

[31] See generally, International Committee of the Red Cross, Customary International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005).

[32] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 UN GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, UN Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976.  Uganda ratified the ICCPR in 1995.

[33] African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, adopted June 27, 1981, OAU Doc. CAB/LEG/67/3 rev. 5, 21 I.L.M. 58 (1982), entered into force October 21, 1986. Uganda ratified in charter in 1995.

[34] Emmy Allio and Justin Moro, “LRA kills seven in Adjumani,” New Vision, Kampala, March 11, 2005. The Adjumani district is northwest of Gulu district on the right bank of the Nile, and also borders Sudan.

[35] Daniel Wallis, “Rebels kill 19 in northern Uganda as attacks worsen,” Reuters, Kampala, May 6, 2005.

[36] “Uganda: LRA kills 14 in northern weekend ambush,” IRIN, Kampala, July 11, 2005, (retrieved August 8, 2005).

[37] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Paicor camp, Gulu, February 27, 2005.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with victims, Kitgum, March 3, 2005.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview, eyewitness, Agoro camp, Kitgum, March 3, 2005.

[40] Starting at the village level (LC1), the local council system progresses up from the parish (LC2) to the sub-county (LC3), county (LC4), and district (LC5). The councilors are elected. The councils at the county and district level (LC4 and LC5) are local government and have financial, legislative, and administrative powers. The lower level councilors have administrative powers only. The numbers of officials on each council depends on the population of the area. See World Bank, “Module A: Decentralization Practices and Policies, Case Study Uganda,” June 2003, (retrieved August 3, 2005).

[41] Human Rights Watch interview, relative of victim, Paicho camp, February 27, 2005.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview, boy, Agoro camp, Kitgum, March 3, 2005.

[43] Human Rights Watch interview, abductee, Agoro camp, Kitgum, March 3, 2005.

[44] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Agoro camp, Kitgum, March 3, 2005.

[45] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Kitgum Matidi camp, Kitgum, March 5, 2005.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Paicor camp, Gulu, February 27, 2005.

[47] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Pabbo camp, Gulu, February 25, 2005.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Pabbo camp, Gulu, February 25, 2005.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Agoro camp, Kitgum, March 3, 2005.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview, caregiver, Gulu, February 26, 2005.

[51] Frank Nyakairu, “Guns forced Kolo out, says Museveni,” The Monitor, Kampala, February 18, 2005.

[52] Some of the ex-rebel commanders who since surrendered suggested that these attacks may have been prompted by the LRA’s desire to show that it is still a force to be reckoned with.  Kakaire A. Kirunda, “Kolo [former LRA commander] explains LRA attacks,” The Monitor, Kampala, March 11, 2005.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with eight female victims, Kitgum Hospital, March 2, 2005.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview, Robert B, Paicor camp, Gulu, February 27, 2005.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Kitgum Matidi camp, Kitgum, March 5, 2005.

[56] Human Rights Watch interview, Dr. Okun Okaka, Kitgum town, March 7, 2005; for other instances of LRA fighters’ fear of and reverence for Joseph Kony’s “powers,” see “Stolen Children: Abduction and Recruitment in Northern Uganda,” Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 15, no. 7(A), March 2003.

[57] Human Rights Watch interview, anonymous woman victim, Gulu, 2000.

[58] OCHA, Humanitarian Update Uganda, February 2005, Volume VII, Issue II, (retrieved June 28, 2005), and OCHA, Humanitarian Update Uganda, March 2005, Volume VII, Issue III, (retrieved June 28, 2005).

[59] Human Rights Watch interview, Robert B, Paicor camp, Gulu, February 27, 2005.

[60] Human Rights Watch interview, Winnie P, Agoro camp, Kitgum, March 3, 2005.

[61] Human Rights Watch interview, former LRA child soldier, Agoro camp, Kitgum, March 3, 2005. He escaped the first opportunity he got, less than two months after his capture. 

[62] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Paicor camp, Gulu, February 27, 2005.

[63] When confronted with several killings committed by the UPDF in Awach and Cwero camps, UPDF Col. Charles Awany Otema, military intelligence officer for the north and Operation Iron Fist, claimed that these were cases of “mistaken identity.” Human Rights Watch interview, Colonels Charles Awany Otema and Nathan Mugisha, 4th Division Barracks, Gulu, March 16, 2005.

[64] Statement of Ugandan government to Human Rights Watch Complaints, received by Human Rights Watch on August 23, 2005. The UNLA is the former government army, the Uganda National Liberation Army, which was defeated in 1986 by the rebel forces of the NRA led by current president Yoweri Museveni; the UPDA, the Ugandan People’s Democratic Army, was a rebel formed in 1986 from the remnants of the UNLA (which included a majority of northerners).

[65] Human Rights Watch interview, eyewitness, Pajimo camp, Kitgum, March 2, 2005.

[66] Human Rights Watch interview, eyewitness, Pajimo camp, Kitgum, March 2, 2005.

[67] Human Rights Watch interview, Charles B, Pabbo camp, Gulu, February 25, 2005.

[68] Human Rights Watch interview, Charles B, Pabbo camp, Gulu, February 25, 2005.

[69] Statement of Ugandan government to Human Rights Watch Complaints, received by Human Rights Watch on August 23, 2005. The UNLA is the former government army, the Uganda National Liberation Army, which was defeated in 1986 by the rebel forces of the NRA led by current president Yoweri Museveni; the UPDA, the Ugandan People’s Democratic Army, was a rebel formed in 1986 from the remnants of the UNLA (which included a majority of northerners).

[70] Human Rights Watch interview, Walter K, Awach camp, Gulu, February 28, 2005.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Cwero camp, Gulu, February 26, 2005.

[72] Human Rights Watch interview, Emanuel G, Awach camp, Gulu, February 28, 2005.

[73] Human Rights Watch interview, Local Councilor (LC) official, Cwero camp, Gulu, February 26, 2005.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Cwero camp, Gulu, February 26, 2005.

[75] Human Rights Watch interviews with witnesses, victim, Gulu, February 28 and March 15, 2005. See the discussion of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, below.

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Cwero camp, Gulu, February 26, 2005.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Cwero camp, Gulu, February 26, 2005.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Pabbo camp, Gulu, February 25, 2005.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview, Patrick F, Paicor camp, Gulu, February 27, 2005.

[80] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Pajimo camp, Kitgum, March 2, 2005.

[81] UNICEF, “Suffering in Silence: A Study of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) in Pabbo Camp, Gulu District, Northern Uganda,” Gulu, Uganda, June 15, 2005, (retrieved June 24, 2005).

[82] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Amida camp, Gulu, March 6, 2005.

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Bobi camp, Gulu, February 28, 2005.

[84] Human Rights Watch interviews with victims, Kitgum Matidi camp, Kitgum, March 5, 2005.

[85] Human Rights Watch interview with victim’s son, Kitgum Matidi camp, Kitgum, March 5, 2005.

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Pabbo camp, Gulu, February 25, 2005.

[87] Human Rights Watch interview, victim, Pabbo camp, Gulu, February 25, 2005.

[88] Human Rights Watch interview, victim, Pabbo camp, Gulu, February 25, 2005.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview, community leader, Kitgum, March 7, 2005.

[90] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Pabbo camp, Gulu, February 25, 2005.

[91] Human Rights Watch interview, Colonels Charles Awany Otema and Nathan Mugisha, 4th Division Barracks, Gulu, March 16, 2005.

[92] See Human Rights Watch, State of Pain: Torture in Uganda (March 2004).

[93] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 9 (1):  “1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.” While this right may be suspended in time of “emergency which threatens the life of the nation” under article 4, no state of emergency has been declared in Uganda or even in northern Uganda, and no effort has been made to suspend these and related civil rights in the ICCPR or under Ugandan laws.

[94] Human Rights Watch, State of Pain: Torture in Uganda (March 2004).

[95] Human Rights Watch interview, Richard Mvule, District Superintendent of Police, Gulu District, Gulu, March 15, 2005.

[96] Human Rights Watch, State of Pain: Torture in Uganda (March 2004).

[97] Human Rights Watch interview, Richard Mvule, District Superintendent of Police, Gulu District, Gulu, March 15, 2005; Human Rights Watch interview, Colonels Charles Awany Otema and Nathan Mugisha, 4th Division Barracks, Gulu, March 16, 2005; see “Ugandan army arrests opposition politicians for alleged LRA collaboration,” AFP, Kampala, March 10, 2005.

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