Suddenly, a Tuesday bright and sunny morning unfolded the worst day in their lives. "They came and pointed a rifle at me. I dropped the child I was carrying and raised my hands," a survivor of the Atiak massacre on April 17, 1995 narrates.
"...My boy had been shot in the leg and was still alive when the rebels came back. They finished him off with a bayonet," another survivor said.
These harrowing stories are just two but part of dozens documented by the Justice and Reconciliation Project, Northern Uganda. The Atiak massacre was not only one of the biggest in post Independence Uganda, but also particularly shocking in how a community member can kill his own people at will. It followed warnings by Mr Kony to "punish the Acholi people for refusing to support us."
Mr Kony sent his deputy, Otti Lagony and a then junior commander Vincent Otti, whose home is located near Atiak trading centre. Otti (until recently the second-in-command of the LRA), believed to be one of the most eloquent rebel leaders, was once a businessman who sold merchandise to Makerere University students in Wandegeya on the outskirts of Kampala. But on this day, he reportedly ordered LRA fighters to attack with no fear or favour.
"Otti told us that we were undermining their power. He also said we people of Atiak were saying that LRA guns have rusted," another survivor says in the report. "He said he had come to show us that his guns were still functioning ... then ordered his men to shoot at the civilians."
Mr Otti, now believed to have been killed by his boss Kony in October 2007, bewildered his family. Just like any other Acholi family in the last two decades, they did not know who was their friend or foe. Both the LRA and the government forces then known as the National Resistance Army (NRA) turned their guns on the civilians at different times during this conflict.
The same situation befuddled every victim of LRA's vicious policy of abduction and conscription, among other crimes.
Though the National Resistance Army (NRA) changed its name following the promulgation of the 1995 Constitution to the Uganda People's Defense Forces (UPDF), it did little to change the bad reputation that the army gained in northern Uganda. NRA's image problems started way back in 1985.
Six months after General Tito Okello's coup, and just one month after the execution of the Nairobi power-sharing agreement, the NRA unilaterally abrogated the treaty and proceeded to militarily capture Kampala.
Government forces were overrun and expelled from the capital and then NRA finally took full control of the country. Mr Kony has accused President Museveni's army of committing atrocities when they arrived in Gulu.
"When they came they did very many bad things to our people, they killed so many of our brothers," Mr Kony says in a May 2006 video recording. But most of the initial atrocities allegedly committed by the NRA were actually by the Federal Democratic Movement (Fedemu), an anti-Obote rebel group which had joined Gen. Tito Okello's junta following the July 1985 coup against Dr Obote.
Fedemu did not enjoy a reputation for discipline. It was comprised mainly of Baganda combatants, among whose families were the victims of Luwero Triangle atrocities, allegedly committed by forces of Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) that had first been Dr Obote's military and then broken down into factions, one of which backed the 1985 coup.
When the NRA overthrew the Okello government, Fedemu switched sides and was integrated as a distinct unit into the NRA, which from that moment assumed responsibility for its conduct. This group reportedly committed one of its worst atrocities at NamOkora, Chua County in Kitgum District. This was at the birth place of former president Gen. Okello. At least 45 civilians were roasted to death.
"They burnt people in the huts, they held their prisoners up-side-down and poured paraffin through the anus," Josephine Apire, formerly an LRA negotiator in the Juba peace talks, has said of the incident. When the NRA, which was predominantly made up of soldiers from western Uganda, took control of Gulu, this is a reputation they inherited. Years on, the UPDF's conduct in certain instances perpetuated that impression through various acts of indicipline.
During Operation North that was characterised by reports "of arbitrary arrests and detentions and blanket cordon and search operations intended to net the so-called 'rebel collaborators', which in the end generated resentment against the army and the government," writes Billie O'Kadameri, a journalist based in the north then, the Acholi suffered greatly.
Gen. Tinyefuza was recalled by President Museveni and subsequently dismissed in 1992 to placate the people. But commanders that followed including then Col. Sam Wasswa, Brig. Chefe Ali (RIP) and Gen. Salim Saleh did too little to improve the army's image. The war continued puzzling observers who kept asking one question; how can a ragtag ill-trained and ill-equipped group persist? But it is not entirely accurate that LRA were running rings around the national army. There was a second enemy: corruption in the army.
The enormity of this debilitating second and internal enemy was finally to attract national attention with the release of a report in a scam which has since come to be known as the "Ghost Soldiers scandal". It revealed that commanders in the north deliberately inflated the exact troop strength under their command, by among others keeping the names of dead soldiers on the army roll, so as to keep drawing their remuneration.
The report seen by Sunday Monitor estimates over 10,000 ghosts existed in northern Uganda and this will have greatly affected the UPDF's efforts to defeat the LRA.
"When a head count was carried out in January 2002 at Aswa Ranch, the strength of 4 Div found on the ground was 2,400. This was a shortfall from 7,261 who were supposed to be there. Therefore, the ghosts were 4,861," the report that was compiled by a team instituted under presidential directive 2004 noted.
The report also concluded that "out of the annual wage bill release of Shs133bn, Shs47-Shs88bn goes to ghosts." So, as UPDF commanders apparently enriched themselves Mr Kony, with Khartoum's backing, was almost given free rein to unleash terror on the people in northern Uganda.
Kony's art of war
The future looked bleak. The Atiak massacre and others that followed had sent a chill down the spine of many to the extent, that it was, therefore, surprising that the LRA would still be contemplating peaceful resolution of the conflict. However, according to Ms Betty Bigombe (former minister for northern Uganda) the rebel leadership still had peace talks in mind, whether genuinely or as a ruse.
"Soon after the massacre Kony sent me a letter and said he is willing to personally meet me," said Ms Bigombe. "But clearly the massacre had discouraged everyone. It was around June, he even gave me a meeting date but I could not get clearance from President Museveni because he had travelled out of the country," she added.
And then in June 1996, Mr Kony reportedly ordered the killing of two Acholi elders, Olanya Lagony and Okot Ogony of the Council of Elders Peace Committee on suspicion that they were making money out of a peace project.
The war continued for months mainly taking a toll on the civilian population. As the war got out of government's hand, the same year cabinet took a decision which would see the entire rural population in Acholi forced to move into internally displaced people camps (IDP)--a move that angered Kony.
"Museveni has put all the Acholi people in camps so that they can die there," Mr Kony says. It was a catch-22 situation with the government insisting that the people could be protected better inside the camps - although the rebels routinely sneaked through UPDF defences and killed inside the camps. While the camp residents automatically became LRA targets, those who stayed outside were treated by government as rebel collaborators.
Across the districts of Kitgum, Gulu and parts of Apac and Lira, the LRA marauding bands abducted and killed at random while ambushing vehicles along the main roads. At times they got into contact with government forces and fought pitched battles. But it was in October 1996 when 139 girls from St. Mary's College Aboke in Apac District were abducted, that national and even international attention was again intensely directed at this conflict.
Fortunately, the deputy headmistress of the college, Sister Rachele Fassera pursued the rebels and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls.
Still the atrocities continued. In mid-January 1997, a group of suspected LRA rebels again carried out a campaign of mayhem in the Kitgum villages of Lokung, Palabek and Padibe that left more than 300 people dead. 60,000 people were displaced from their homes as a direct consequence.
According to the accounts of former abductees who somehow escaped, "the LRA [was] revenging on the population of Kitgum for its alleged co-operation with the UPDF."
And then suddenly, from his Jabelein base in Southern Sudan, in November 1997, Mr Kony instructed his 'Secretary for Foreign Affairs', Dr Alfred James Obita to write to President Museveni asking for peace talks.
"We hereby, therefore, inform you that in response to the demands and wishes of the majority of our people, the Lord's Resistance Movement/Army have resolved to pursue a peaceful resolution to the northern conflict through constructive, meaningful and honest dialogue with your government," Mr Kony's letter dated November 6, 1997 reads in part.
The letter was delivered to Kampala by a Southern Sudanese, whose name has already come up in part two of these series which was published last Sunday, Dr Lenzio Angole Onek.
Eighteen days later, Museveni replied: "We have never hesitated to negotiate peace with former enemies: Mustapha Adrisi, Moses Ali, Ateker Ejalu, [Col. William] Omaria, Otema Allimadi, late Tito Okello, late Odong Latek, Angello Okello, Luwero, Kironde and many others. We have negotiated with or pardoned all the above people," President Museveni replied to Dr Obita on November 22 1997.
"... we decided to adopt the policy of forgiving all members of your groups except: Kony, Lagony and Otti Vincent because they were the authors of these heinous crimes against humanity. I personally feel very strongly against these individuals because of the damage they have done to our people in Northern Uganda," President Museveni added. The President said his government had been in contact with the Community of Sant'Egidio of Rome in the search for a possible peaceful resolution, but accused the LRA leadership of being "arrogant and evasive."
But before Sant'Egidio and others could impact the peace process, the LRA forces persisted in an insurgency that continued to lay the political north virtually bare. There were more pronounced outrages like the ambushing and burning of several West Nile-bound buses at Pajok after Karuma in which tens of people died.
But perhaps Ugandans will more vividly still recall the February 2004 killing in Barlonyo, Lira District when more than 200 people were either hacked to death, roasted alive in their huts or 'fortunate' enough to have been shot to death. This was a revenge killing by the rebels who were retreating from Teso after a failed attempt to open a new front in the sub-region.
This article looks at the more pronounced incidents that compare in extremity to the 1996 massacre of more than 150 Sudanese refugees of the 10,000 that were living at Achol Pii camp.
It may make a passing reference to atrocities by government forces like those at Burchoro, where people were buried alive in a pit latrine; Pajimo and Acholibur; but it does not specifically refer to individual victims of whom there have been thousands: People whose lips and ears were chopped off, people killed and dumped in the bushes, teenage girls who were abducted and raped in captivity, property lost and destroyed and then the total destruction of an entire generation. But these facts are recorded in history as part of the consequences of the LRA's insurgency.
In the fourth part of this series, read how other attempts to find a peaceful resolution floundered
Key outrages in LRA conflict
St. Mary's College Lacor: 32 girls were abducted on August 20, 1992 while another 23 girls were abducted on July 23, 1996.
Atiak: On April 17, 1995, over 250 were clubbed or shot dead in Atiak, Gulu. Attack carried out by over 80 LRA rebels led by Otti Lagony and Vincent Otti.
Aboke: In October 1996, 139 girls from St. Mary's College Aboke in Apac District were abducted.
Achol Pii Massacre: In July 1996 more than 100 Sudanese refugees killed by LRA rebels at a UNHCR settlement on Kitgum-Gulu Road. The remaining of over 10,000 refugees were variously translocated to safer areas of Uganda like Kiryandongo in Masindi District.
Sir Samuel Baker School: On August 21, 1996, 39 students were abducted from their dormitory and conscripted by LRA.
Sacred Heart SS, Gulu: 138 girls abducted between June 1987 and March, 1998.
Padibe/Palabek: In mid-January 1997, LRA rebels massacre more than 300 in Kitgum's Lokung, Palabek and Padibe villages.
Mucwini: On July 24, 2002 in Mucwini, Kitgum, 56 civilians at Kirome village were forced to form a queue and clubbed to death or executed sparking off mass displacement of thousands of others.
Lapono: On October 14, 2002 rebels kill at least 52 villagers by hacking with machetes, while 34 were gathered together into their huts, which were then set on fire.
Abia: On February 4, 2002, 40 people killed in a rebel attack on Abia IDP camp outside Lira Town.
Forced cannibalism: In November 2002, suspected LRA rebels compelled mourners in a border village in Southern Sudan, to boil and eat their deceased at gunpoint. Those who refused were massacred.
Patongo: In September 2002, 27 civilians were hacked to death and mutilated at Patongo, Pader district and boiled in their bodies in cooking pots.
Barlonyo: In February 2004 LRA rebels reportedly led by Okot Odhiambo attacked Barlonyo IDP camp killing up to 309 people in a single raid.
General primary school abductions: Between 1987 and 2000, primary schools have recorded as many as 3,384 known abductions. Total cases of known abductions of school children however stands at 5,545, but it is likely tobe higher than this.
Source: The Monitor (Kampala)