Kampala, Uganda – As embattled Ugandan government accuses the vicious rebel force of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) of committing all sorts of atrocities on hapless civilians in the war-wrecked northern region, human rights groups have found its army guilty of committing similar crimes against humanity.
In separate “stinging” reports obtained Monday, both Amnesty International (AI) and Uganda Human Rights Activists (UHRC) accused the Uganda People Defence Forces (UPDF) of turning their guns against civilians during their counter-insurgency operations against LRA and disarmament operations in the country’s north-eastern sub-region.
AI, a UK-based human rights group, in a report based on a five-month study in no rthern Uganda districts of Gulu, Amuru, Kitgum, Pader and Lira, found widespread sexual and physical abuses perpetrated by both the government soldiers and rebels, leaving their victims traumatised.
“Hundreds are left impaired, unable to fend for themselves any more, yet discriminated by relatives and state authorities,” Dr. Godfrey Odongo, AI researcher for East Africa and lead author of the report, stated.
“Many years on, victims and survivors of human rights violations still bear the scars of these violations (and) little has been done to ensure that they access effective reparations to address their continued suffering and help them to rebuild their lives.
“There was general impunity for soldiers who committed Human Rights violations a gainst civilians.”
Dr. Odongo, who described the stinging reports as forward looking, said they focused on reparations rather than what happened or the violations suffered, citing a host of victims giving harrowing testimonies of the suffering they are undergo i ng, caused by UPDF.
Geoffrey Okumu, a war victim, was quoted in the report as saying, in May 1990, government soldiers stormed their neighborhood, arrested and killed his father an d brother on allegations of being LRA rebel collaborators and possessing illegal guns.
“My father and brother denied the accusations but the soldiers took them away. Not very far from where I remained, I heard gunshots and later realised they had been killed. We had lost a bread winner (so) I dropped out of school to fend for my siblings,” AI quoted Okumu as testifying.
In Amuru district, the reports quoted Rose Apio as saying that she watched four of her relatives die after being shot by government soldiers and is now struggling to raise four orphans left by her eldest brother killed in the bizarre shooting.
Martin Abit, 38, a resident of Pader District told AI that UPDF soldiers arrested his elder brother, a non-combatant, during a counter-attack on LRA and he was later killed together with “several other people”.
“The UPDF battalion (in the area) took his body with them and promised to give the body to the family for burial but to this day, the body has never been returned to our family for burial,” the reports quoted Abit as alleging.
“It is not clear if the government army took the corpse away to destroy evidence that would otherwise incriminate them in committing murder or for ritual purposes, a common practice in some parts of the country.
“Survivors need medical attention, counseling and psychological support. Formerly abducted children need access to education,” the UK-based rights group asserted.
“Families need compensation for the deaths and injuries that occurred, restitution for their destroyed land and property, an apology for the violations and proper reburials for their loved ones.
“The government needs to start acting on these needs now,” the report added in conclusion.
As usual, Army and Ministry of Defence Spokesman, Major Paddy Ankuda, poured sco rn on the reports, saying AI cannot be taken seriously because people who should have given the side of the UPDF account were available but were never contacted.
“If there is any incriminating evidence that our soldier kills anyone, there is no shortcut; they face the law,” Ankuda said on telephone Monday afternoon.
“The fresh allegations of human rights abuses by the UPDF chronicled by AI are “outrageous and indefensible,” Ankuda shot back.
Since the United Nations sponsored International Criminal Court (ICC) issued warrants of arrest for LRA leadership to answer multiple charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, courtesy of Uganda government, there has been voices saying Uganda army too should face trial in the Hauge.
The indictment remains a sticking issue in the country’s peace process brokered by Southern Sudan Vice President Dr. Reick Macar, with LRA leader Joseph Kony refusing to sign the final peace pact if not withdrawn.
Uganda Human Rights Activists (UHRA), in a separate report, stated that soldiers deployed in the disarmament programme code-named ‘Operation Restore Hope’ in July this year, are torturing and extorting money from residents in Teso and Karamoja sub-regions.
According to the report, Mr. John Ogwang, a resident of Kokong Parish, Kapir Sub-county, in Kumi District, died after he was reportedly tortured by soldiers in an attempt to get a gun from him.
“The late Ogwang was arrested 2 September by soldiers under the command of Major Alfred Obore Opio, from his village.
“They tied his arms behind the back before taking him to Kapir military barracks while being tortured to reveal where he kept a gun.
“By the time they reached (the barracks), Ogwang’s body was swollen from head totoes. At the military detach, he was starved for two days till he collapsed,” UHRC cited one, out of host of cases in its report.
“Although the operation has good intentions of getting rid of illegal guns in Teso, the officers have abused their authority and should be brought to book,” the report, signed by UHRA Coordinator, Valentine Moses Oleico, suggested.
The 3rd Division spokesperson, Captain Henry Obbo, was quoted to have confirmed Ogwang’s death, saying “he died while in transit from Kapir military detachment to Soroti police” base.
Captain Obbo also dismissed reports that Ogwang was starved to death while in their harsh custody.