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When Protectors Become Killers

For a silent village in the north-eastern parts of Uganda, 16 June comes with memories; not ones of birthdays and anniversaries but those of pain and loss. Indeed 16 June remains stuck in the minds of many for this is the day when the community of Obalanga in Amuria district commemorates the days in June 2003 when the Lord’s Resistance Amy (LRA) infiltrated Teso sub-region in eastern Uganda for the first time. The civilian population and the government army were caught unaware, a factor which had disastrous humanitarian implications. In line with their trademark pattern of atrocities, the rebel soldiers carried out killings, abductions, maiming, looting, rape arson and pillaging. By the time the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) repulsed them, almost 8 months later, approximately 90% of the population in Teso sub-region had been displaced into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, several thousand children had been abducted and thousands of people had lost their lives and property.

Reading the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) report of 2012 about the said LRA attack titled “the day they came” reminds me of Kenya’s “operation okoa maisha” (save lives) by the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) in Mount Elgon, western Kenya. When soldiers who are meant to protect the people literally prey on them. The JRP report documents the events of those days in mid-June when the people of Obalanga went all the way to hell and back. Apart from the atrocities committed by the LRA, the report contains a whole section titled “when protectors turn perpetrators.” This recounts painful experiences and horrors of the community in the hands of the very people they expected to come to their aid, government soldiers. For instance, it is reported that in Obalanga Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, civilians often became victims of the UPDF soldiers guarding the camp.

Disturbing stories on how victims were bombed by the UPDF helicopter gunships in Angica and Morungatuny as the army ‘hunted for LRA rebels’ have been documented. Most of the civilians had fled the villages and sought refuge in Obalanga IDP camp. This particular group of people remained to nurse a sick person, who was critically ill and could not flee with the others to safety. As they went about attending to the sick and performing domestic chores, a helicopter gunship suddenly emerged from the direction of Obalanga at around 4:00pm, and on sighting them, immediately opened fire. The civilians scampered for safety as bombs exploded to their left and right. One survivor lost five members of her family in that incident. After the helicopter departed, the survivors of the incident were left with the remains of their relatives and the smoke and ashes from the mortar shells.

The burials were conducted the following day, but under pressure from the UPDF, the people had to hurry up with the burials because many were afraid that the LRA could still be nearby. The soldiers even forbade the relatives of the dead to weep loudly, in fear that it would attract the LRA’s attention. Even though it is possible that the helicopter gunship could have mistaken the civilians for rebels, the surviving relatives of the victims are still bitter about the incident since they tried to signal the soldiers that they were innocent civilians with raised hands, signals that soldiers ignored and went on to flatted the village with bombs. In neighboring Morungatuny subcounty, another incident of a helicopter gunship bombing civilians had been earlier reported. This particular incident involved approximately 50 civilians who had left the safety of Morungatuny to look for food. Two people died on the spot and several others were injured. Many women, whose husbands were killed by the UPDF, both in the helicopter attacks and numerous other ground attacks, had to struggle on their own to build new homes, or rely on the goodwill of neighbors, relatives and some humanitarian agencies.

Most of the incidences have never been investigated, leave alone holding the soldiers who committed those crimes accountable, despite the fact that victims have since been able to identify the officers that committed crimes. In addition, Survivors and surviving relatives of the victims have never been compensated. Obalanga remains a community waiting for justice; thirsting for some even though President Yoweri Museveni promised to compensate victims for health complications. The UPDF has neither apologized nor issued any public statement to the families of the victims either in Morungatuny or Angica. The bitter memories of June are the lot of the people in a peasant Obalanga community. Just when shall they ever receive justice? Who will wipe their tears?

When Protectors Become Killers When Protectors Become Killers Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on June 21, 2016 Rating: 5

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