Human Rights Watch today strongly condemned the attack by the rebel Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) on the Kichwamba National Technical Institute in Kaborole, Western Uganda, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated fifty to eighty students at the school.
"The ADF has consistently shown a complete disregard for the lives of civilians in this conflict and for the laws of war designed to protect noncombatants," said Jemera Rone, Counsel to Human Rights Watch, "We call upon the rebel movement to immediately stop targeting civilians, and to stop abducting children for forced conscription into their ranks."
According to press reports, at about 5:30 a.m. on June 9, 200 to 300 ADF rebels attacked the institute, apparently aiming to abduct the students for conscription into their ranks. The students locked themselves in their dormitories to avoid being abducted. The rebels responded by setting fire to three of the seven residence halls (Kahaya, Rukiidi and Balya residence halls) at the Institute, and the students inside burned to death. The bodies of the victims were burned beyond recognition, making identification and an accurate death toll difficult. The ADF managed to gain access to some of the other dormitories and retreated into the Rwenzuru mountains with the abductees.
According to research recently conducted in the region by Human Rights Watch, the ADF is comprised of an alliance between the nationalist National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), which aims to establish an independent kingdom in the region, and disgruntled elements within the Islamist Tabliq sect, who aim to establish an Islamic state in Uganda. The ADF operates bases in the remote Rwenzuru mountains and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and has been active in the region war since re-entering Uganda from the DRC in November 1996.
Human Rights Watch conducted a fact-finding mission to the region in April 1998, and documented numerous abuses against civilians by the ADF. According to victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch, one of the reasons the ADF targets civilians is their failure to support the ADF rebellion. Kichwamba and Kabatunda were previously attacked by the ADF on April 9, 1998, leaving sixteen dead and forty-three abducted according to sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch. A survivor of that incident, left for dead by the ADF, told Human Rights Watch that the rebels said that they would not waste their bullets on civilians but would rather cut them to death with machetes: "They said they were killing us because they were suffering in the bush while the civilians are enjoying life in the town." Tens of thousands have been displaced by the conflict, seeking refuge in towns and trading centers and creating a serious humanitarian crisis. Outbreaks of cholera in the overcrowded camps have caused numerous casualties.
The ADF has repeatedly targeted schools in attempts to abduct large numbers of children. On August 16, 1997, the ADF attacked St. John's Catholic Seminary in Kiburara, abducting nineteen seminarians aged between twelve and twenty, as well as two young employees. One of the abductees later escaped and told Human Rights Watch that one of the workers had been killed with a machete soon after the abduction in order to terrify the boys. The ADF also abducted students from the Mitande School in Kabarole district in early 1998, and attempted to abduct students from a school at Kabatunda on the night of April 9, 1998, the same evening as the attack on Kichwamba.
Human Rights Watch also calls upon the Ugandan government and especially its military, the Ugandan People's Defense Force (UPDF), to respect the human rights of civilians suspected of supporting the ADF rebels. During our April 1998 mission, Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of suspected rebel supporters who were remanded for trial on treason charges. Some of the suspects claimed to have been beaten severely by UPDF soldiers, and had wounds which were consistent with their testimonies. Some of the suspects told Human Rights Watch that they were beaten until they confessed and named other "rebel collaborators." This second group of suspected rebel collaborators was then arrested by the UPDF and allegedly subjected to the same abusive treatment. According to police and judicial authorities, it is routine to detain such suspects for up to one year on the basis of confessions extracted by the army. According to information Human Rights Watch received from UNICEF and NGOs in Uganda, detainees remanded on treason charges also include children. Human Rights Watch calls upon the Ugandan government to stop such abusive practices, and to respect the rights of suspects.