Uganda People’s Defence Forces soldiers detain men suspected to be militia members on July 6, 2014, after attacks on Bundibugyo town in western Uganda.

©2014 Reuters

(Nairobi) – The government response to deadly ethnic violence and reprisals in the Rwenzori region of western Uganda in July 2014 has been inadequate. The government should arrange for a credible independent investigation to examine the circumstances of the initial attacks, the subsequent response – including the possible involvement of government forces in reprisal attacks and torture, and the adequacy of protection for civilians in the following days.

Many details of the violence, including the total death toll, remain unclear. But Human Rights Watch research and credible media reports indicate that the violence began on July 5, when some members of the Bakonzo ethnic group – possibly hundreds of people – organized in small units attacked police and army posts in several districts with guns, machetes, and bows and arrows. The attacks sparked reprisals by members of other ethnic groups, and possibly the security forces, as well as brutal counter-security operations against Bakonzo civilians over the following days.

“Horrific acts of violence took place in western Uganda four months ago, and members of all the ethnicities involved should have timely justice,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher. “The government should urgently support a serious, credible, and above all, independent investigation into the July violence in Rwenzori.”

From August to October, Human Rights Watch conducted research into the July attacks and the government forces’ response, interviewing 52 victims, witnesses, journalists, and religious and local civil society leaders, as well as local members of government and cultural leaders from the various local ethnic groups in the region. Human Rights Watch also visited hospitals, an informal center hosting applicants for a government-initiated amnesty, and victims displaced by the violence, as well as several attack sites.

The coordinated attacks on July 5 by members of the Bakonzo ethnic group, some wearing masks, were carried out in Kasese, Bundibugyo, and Ntoroko districts. In some areas, particularly Bundibugyo district, government forces did not adequately protect Bakonzo civilians from retaliatory attacks, including beating, mutilation, and killing. Police and the military in Kasese district responded to the initial attacks by rounding up, beating, and detaining unarmed civilians. Human Rights Watch received reports that some security officials were involved in reprisal killings and beatings and that numerous victims of the violence had been buried in mass graves.

“I entered the hall and saw blood and brain spilled on the floor,” said one man in Bundibugyo who is from the Bakonzo ethnic group. He, along with others, had been ordered to remove the bodies of victims of a reprisal attack. “Heads were shattered.”

Local media reports suggest that over 100 people were killed during the violence. On July 7, President Yoweri Museveni said that 65 Ugandans had been killed by “schemes of some confused and selfish bunch of people.” However, reprisals continued over the next three days. Witnesses and victims reported targeted attacks on Bakonzo civilians by other ethnic groups and security operatives in the area. On July 10, Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga told parliament that in all, at least 92 people had been killed.

Victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that the total is likely higher as people were buried in unmarked graves and some people remain unaccounted for. Several witnesses said at least 50 of the alleged Bakonzo attackers are believed to be among the dead, though many more were probably people fleeing the violence. In one area, some Bakonzo elders compiled a list of 83 people who are missing.

“I counted 53 bodies, which we loaded on a tractor,” said one man ordered to bury people in mass graves. “We picked up the bodies from inside the barracks. Some of the bodies had no heads and hands, others had bullet wounds on the head and chest.”

“The question remains, who is buried in these mass graves and who killed them?” said Burnett. “Without timely and independent investigations, those questions remain unanswered and victims have no justice.”

Bakonzo cultural leaders told Human Rights Watch that the attacks were not meant to target local ethnic groups, but were a protest against perceived historical marginalization by the central government. Some leaders of the Bakonzo, who are predominantly farmers, allege that the government favors the Basongora ethnic group, mostly cattle keepers largely from Kasese district, and the Bamba ethnic group predominantly from Bundibugyo district.

On July 28, a Bakonzo group claiming responsibility for the attacks wrote to President Museveni explaining their motivation, highlighting land conflicts, the refusal of the president to meet Bakonzo cultural elders, and high unemployment rates among Bakonzo people.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by credible allegations that in Bundibugyo district, Bakonzo civilians were attacked, detained in private homes, mutilated, tortured, killed, and burned or buried in mass and unmarked graves. Witnesses and community leaders told Human Rights Watch that these reprisals allegedly occurred under the supervision of local leaders and members of the security services. Several photographs gathered from community members and local journalists, which Human Rights Watch believes are authentic, show dismembered and mutilated corpses. In one case, a relative identified a dismembered man in a photograph as his brother.

In Kasese district, police and military swiftly countered the initial attacks with cordon and search operations, beating and arresting many Bakonzo people. Victims and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that alleged suspects were again beaten in police detention and denied access to lawyers and their families. Photographs from one session before the military court show defendants injured, struggling to walk and move because of alleged beatings. Many were eventually taken to Katojo prison, where they remain.

Military prosecutors charged over 170 Bakonzo suspects with a range of offenses before the military courts. One lawyer who attended the court martial sessions in Kasese expressed concern that civilians are appearing before a military court. The lawyer told Human Rights Watch that some witnesses are recanting earlier statements and that translations for suspects appear to be unreliable.

The trial of civilians by the military court violates international treaties to which Uganda is party. In 2009, the African Commission called on Uganda to “[i]ntroduce legal measures that prohibit the trial of civilians by Military Courts.” Uganda’s military has repeatedly promised to end trials of civilians before the military courts, but has not done so. No one from other ethnic groups is being prosecuted for reprisals committed against the Bakonzo.

An activist who has also been attending the military tribunal proceedings told Human Rights Watch: “When you look at the court martials in both Kasese and Bundibugyo it appears like one tribe is being tried. It is ugly.... It is entrenching hatred.... I don’t think this is justice. It is a kangaroo court.”

“Prosecuting civilians in military courts has been a matter of convenience and expediency for President Museveni’s government for decades,” Burnett said. “But it is unjust and unlawful under both international law and regional human rights treaties.”

About 500 suspects were given amnesty, but the amnesty was not carried out in accordance with Ugandan law, knowledgeable sources told Human Rights Watch.

“Quickly granting amnesty does not address the violence and only sweeps it under the rug to re-emerge another day,” Burnett said. “Those who attacked government security forces and those who carried out reprisal killings should both be held accountable.”

The Initial Attacks
In one early incident, a Bakonzo group attacked two policemen guarding the weigh bridge near the Kasese Cobalt Company. The attackers killed an officer and stole the policemen’s guns, then escaped into nearby Queen Elizabeth National Park. Another group of attackers then killed 11 people in Bigando village in Kasese district, including an off-duty soldier and his three children. They also set houses on fire.

More attacks occurred in neighboring Bundibugyo district. The attackers targeted the Kanyamwirima military barracks and two police stations, armed with machetes. At the barracks, soldiers fired at the attackers, killing many. The soldiers continued shooting, both on foot and from armored personnel carriers, witnesses said, in some cases killing innocent bystanders.

Vigilantism and Security Force Abuses in Bundibugyo
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a few hours after Bakonzo gangs attacked Bundibugyo town and the army barracks there, local authorities and civilians of other allied ethnic groups began to single out members of the Bakonzo ethnicity for reprisals. From July 5 to 10, 2014, security and vigilante forces carried out mass arrests and mob justice against Bakonzo people. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that fleeing Bakonzo were caught at roadblocks and killed and that some were buried in mass unmarked graves.

Victims in Bundibugyo said that Gombolola Internal Security Officers (GISOs), local-level members of Uganda’s Internal Security Organization, and local leaders organized vigilante groups to hunt down fleeing Bakonzo.

One witness in Kirumya sub-county said that a GISO gathered some Bakonzo in an open space near a video hall and mobilized vigilantes to hack seven Bakonzo people to death:

All those arrested were beaten and cut with machetes. They cut them in the elbow, ankle, and knee joints. Only two were spared. These two … tried to escape in the night. The youth got hold of them and cut them into pieces. The body parts were scattered all over and I saw the legs and arms of people thrown apart. Some bodies had only the head remaining.

This man was later ordered to remove the bodies from the video hall with some other Bakonzo men: “I entered the hall and saw blood and brain spilled on the floor. Heads were shattered. I and two others lifted one body and took it outside. This person had been hit on the head. The legs and arms were cut in the joints.”

Other survivors said they were caught by community members, beaten, and then handed over to the GISOs for further beatings. Victims reported seeing Bakonzo corpses burned or dumped into valleys or other graves.

A man from the Bakonzo group said he was attacked when he went to check on his goods in the market after he heard gunshots in Bundibugyo town:

One [man] had a panga [machete]. He arrested me with the help of policemen. They tied me kandooya [hands tied tightly at the back] and started beating me and took me to police. On Sunday they beat me and hit me on the head with a club. [That man] cut me with a panga all over my body. Then they took me to Kanyamwirima barracks. They continued to beat me. At Kanyamwirima the beating was done by the army and police. They kicked me in the chest, stomach, and all over my body. I spent a night at Kanyamwirima barracks.

Human Rights Watch saw numerous injuries and fresh scars on his body.

A motorcycle taxi driver from Bundibugyo said:

On July 5, I heard gunfire in the town. People said the Allied Democratic Forces [a Ugandan rebel group] and Al-Qaeda have attacked the town. But, then I saw an [armored personnel carrier] firing bullets in every direction. A man called Yasin was shot dead by the [armored vehicle].... I ran off the main road and went into the bush. Later, I met a group of people with spears, pangas, metal bars, sticks, bows and arrows. They grabbed me and said: “These are the Bakonzo disturbing us.” They started beating me, they checked my pockets and took 220,000 Ugandan shillings [US$80], my shoes, a cap, and my identity card. They tied me kandooya. They beat me very badly.

NTV, a local news station, broadcast footage of several people, including a police officer, local officials, and two GISOs severely beating suspects in front of Bundibugyo police station. One witness told Human Rights Watch that a GISO told members of the Bamba ethnic group who were handing Bakonzo over to them: “When you arrest others, don’t call us, just kill. We just want to hear that you slaughtered them.”

The GISO then took three people to a police station and detained them for four days. Other GISOs, district councilors, parish-level internal security officers, and police beat them further before releasing them. One told Human Rights Watch, showing a large scar on his head: “They used sticks, stones, and gun butts. I was hit on the head.”

Mass Graves
Reports of mass graves in the area have proliferated since the July attacks. Local elders and community members told Human Rights Watch of graves in various locations in Nyakiro and Bundikeki parishes in Kirumya and Bubukwanga sub-counties and in Saara village, all in Bundibugyo district. Other suspected sites include Bundimulombi center, Bundimulombi, Mulongooti, and Tookwe Valley River. The elders and community members said some graves have between 13 and 15 bodies. One witness said he was forced to help dig a mass grave in Bundimulombi where nine people killed by vigilantes were buried.

Media reports also said there were mass graves in Kirumya. When an NTV crew attempted to record a mass grave on video on July 11, police told them they could not visit the areas without notifying police in advance. Police arrested a local district council member who had taken the news crew to a mass grave in Bundimulombi and later released the person without charge. The police spokesman for the Rwenzori region told the media that this matter was sensitive and that journalists needed to be “patriotic.” Though he initially told the media that the Kirumya GISO had no information about mass graves, days later police went to the same area and exhumed five bodies.

Several people told Human Rights Watch that they had been taken in groups from the police station to collect and bury the dead in a mass grave near Kanyamwirima military barracks. One man from the Bakonzo ethnic group was beaten and detained at the barracks on July 5. On July 6, he was taken with a group of 15 other suspects to bury bodies of Bakonzo attackers apparently killed by the army and vigilantes:

I counted 53 bodies, which we loaded on a tractor. We picked up the bodies from inside the barracks. Some of the bodies had no heads and hands, others had bullet wounds on the head and chest. I do not know who had cut off the head and the arms of the dead bodies. They were all buried in one pit. After collecting the bodies and loading them on the tractor they told us to go back where they had detained us.

Arbitrary Arrests in Kasese
In the morning of July 6, witnesses said, Uganda’s military and police began an operation to arrest Bakonzo suspects from public venues. The police gathered people in Bigando trading center in Kasese district, which is dominated by members of the Bakonzo ethnic group, and arrested more than 10 people. The army cordoned off an area known as Kidodo cell, a densely populated slum close to Queen Elizabeth National Park, and also arrested Bakonzo civilians, taking many to Kasese police station.

One local administrator from Kasese said: “The [army] arrested some people whom I know here from their gardens…. People got scared, some tried to hide in their houses, but they were pulled out…. They randomly arrested people. They were not interested in knowing who was who.”

On July 7, the army arrested more people in Kidodo from along the roads, their fields, and their homes, beating the suspects during the arrests, witnesses said. The army extended the search again on July 8, cordoning off more areas, searching homes and rounding up a number of people in an open area near the district mosque. The army told the assembled group to surrender any guns or uniforms, and then arrested those who surrendered items or who could not provide identification. Soldiers beat and kept the group in an open area at night and then formally arrested about 200 of them, witnesses said. Suspects were eventually brought before the court martial and some were then sent to Katojo prison.

A local activist who investigated detention conditions in Katojo prison told Human Rights Watch:

Many of [those charged] have serious wounds. They told me that while in custody they were beaten on the ankles and knees while others were handcuffed, both their legs and hands, for the whole night. I have talked to about 20 [people].... I have seen many of them with wounds and marks of beatings on their backs.

A local leader of the Bakonzo who was in Kanyamwirima barracks to observe what was happening said:

At the barracks I saw soldiers beating suspects. They lined up side by side and the suspects were made to walk between the lines, being beaten by each soldier. It did not look good. By the time they reached the end of the lines they were bleeding.

An Ad-Hoc Amnesty
The government also swiftly created an ad-hoc amnesty program for the July 5 attackers, with a reception center in Maliba sub-county, Kasese district, overseen by the police inspector general. The basis and any required conditions for granting amnesty were not made public. The informal center doubled as a camp for those still displaced by the violence. According to media reports, over 500 people who reported to the center and completed a psycho-social rehabilitation program run by the army were granted amnesty in September.

Human Rights Watch did not speak to anyone who had been granted amnesty. Uganda has had an amnesty law for many years, but the speed and opacity of this process raise serious questions about whether the amnesty process is being run in accordance with the law. The amnesty commission established under the law is to prepare communities where beneficiaries will be resettled, but the commission did not have such a function in this case.

Though an amnesty commission official presented amnesty certificates to people in the Maliba center in September, another commission official told Human Rights Watch the process in Maliba was “abnormal.”

Aftermath and Lack of Justice
Bakonzo victims have attempted to report reprisal attacks, killings, and looting of their property to the police. A community leader told Human Rights Watch that he identified and gave the deputy resident district commissioner of Bundibugyo the names of the suspected killers and the locations of mass graves, but nothing has happened.

On July 12, a volunteer member of a local peace committee in Kirumya was tasked by the same deputy commissioner to locate the mass graves. Through witnesses, he identified 34 bodies in four locations in Bundimulombi, Mulongoti, and Nyakiro. He then accompanied a team of police pathologists who went to examine the graves. However, the police recovered only nine bodies, and pathologists confirmed that corpses may have been removed from the burial sites.

“The government does not have the proper figure of those who died,” a volunteer told Human Rights Watch. “The government has not done its job. How do you exhume bodies from someone’s garden and just walk away without making inquiries how that dead person ended up in that garden? No one is questioned or summoned to explain?”

Several Bakonzo interviewed in August and September said that that they stayed at the amnesty center or with friends out of fear of returning to their homes. “On July 5, I ran to this village when the attack happened,” one said. “The following day when I went back to the village it was chaotic. We found men from the Bamba community with machetes waiting to kill us…. I came back here where I stay with a friend…. I received a message that when I attempt to go back, they will kill me.”

A member of the local peace committee and a district council member said police had taken no action when people reported that their homes were looted or their property stolen. “They arrest someone and the following day that person is out of the police cell,” the person said. “People need security. We, the community leaders, cannot provide this security. It is the responsibility of the government to protect the people.”

Another district councilor said: “The government does not want these horrible things to be known. They pretended to arrest some of the killers [involved in reprisal attacks] but within days they were out. Government has not helped Bakonzo who are displaced to go back to their homes.”