Paying The Price For Being Acholi : The Beasts at Burcoro – Part 2

At sunrise on Tuesday the 16th the people were awakened after only a few hours of sleep. At around 8:00am the men were taken out of the pit one by one and forced to sit together under a tree. Most were weak and disoriented from lack of food and the time spent trapped. Those that still looked strong were assigned to go and construct latrines while the others were ordered to remain seated.

Up until this moment hardly any food or water had been distributed to the people detained in the school. Respondents described how the soldiers would only let people drink a bit of water that was passed in jerrycan lids and how they were only given raw mangoes to eat. Even these raw mangoes were not passed gently, but were thrown with great force by the soldiers.  Some of the women were fed porridge so they could regain their energy and they were allowed to bathe in a nearby stream in order to clean themselves for the soldiers. Others were expected to dance for the soldiers as some men played Nanga.

The physical and emotional abuse was constant, as recounted by one respondent, “They were mocking us saying that we were rebels, that we were all going to die and that this was just to show us what the Acholi had done at the Luwero triangle… They were speaking in Alur, Langi and other languages.”

It was not long before more people started to arrive. The soldiers had continued to raid villages they missed the day before and detained everybody they came across. As recalled by one man:

I was ordered to join the soldiers who dragged me up to Loyoboo village. As soon as Gung35 got to Loyoboo village, they began to bomb the place and the captives started fleeing. I did not run but was brought back to Burcoro by the soldiers. When we reached the scene of a killing the soldiers assembled us there and began beating us before forcing us to move through River Abera. They kept beating us until we reached Burcoro. 

The body they came across was that of a man called Lucoc who had been taken there and stabbed to death by the soldiers earlier that day. The operation had now covered the villages of Olano, Unyama,

Oding, Agung, Ngom Rom, Laciri, Obyella, Gwengdiya, Loyoboo and Burcoro. Several hundred people found themselves detained in Burcoro Primary School and no one knew what the soldiers’ next move would be. More women had been detained during this day; some were as young as 16 years old.

However, the soldiers did not repeat the screening exercise for pregnant women done the day before. No one would be released this time.

The battalion’s commander, Major Ikondere, then approached the people who were gathered in the school compound and ordered a group of soldiers to begin to pinpoint the RCs and other local and traditional leaders who were among them. These local leaders were then given a notebook and told to write the names of all the parents whose children were in the bush. As described by one of the RCs:

The commander came and called all of us to attention. We turned to him and he said that he wanted each of us to give him the names of 10 parents of rebels. Out of over 25 of us, only one local leader stood up and gave the name of five people he suspected to be rebels. He was taken away from us. I reflected a bit and became hesitant because my own son was abducted by the rebels and had not yet returned… I refused to move anywhere and refused to touch their book or pen. 

Several of the other RCs and local leaders were also hesitant to collaborate with the soldiers and preferred to keep silent. This reluctance angered Major Ikondere who called for a platoon of soldiers to come with sufficient sticks. As soon as they arrived they were ordered to repeatedly cane all the leaders assembled there who had refused to cooperate. Another of the RCs described what happened:

We were made to lie down and they began to beat us. We were beaten in all the possible ways from

10:30am to 2:00pm. It reached a moment when people failed to cry and were just looking on as the soldiers beat us. There was nowhere to hide and some people even collapsed during the beatings.

Some people were bleeding through their nose because each time the beatings became more intense and when they lifted their heads the soldiers gave them hard kicks on the head. At one point I decided to stand up, but this did not go on well with one of the short soldiers who hit the back of my head. At one point I wrestled the soldier down because I was so angry. I was ready to die. I was pulled away from the soldier and made to go back to my colleagues, but the soldier came and hit my lower waist with a log and pierced me with his bayonet. When I got up I was bleeding; fortunately one of the commanders ordered them to take me away from there.

The rest of the crowd watched powerless as this abuse went on and on. The soldiers were highly unpredictable and no one knew what could take place next or what would happen if they protested in any way. One of the religious leaders described his own experience, “Being a religious leader, I was beaten until I could not bear the pain anymore. As I tried to shield myself from the canes using my hand, it got beaten and wounded very badly. The beatings went on until one of the commanders showed up and talked to their leader.”

The situation was now becoming increasingly desperate for all those detained by the soldiers.  Most people had been given hardly anything to eat and little water since they had been forced out of their homes the day before. Many of the women who had been released the day before had come back very early in the morning hours with cooked food for their husbands and family members – just as they had been instructed. To their dismay, the soldiers refused to let them deliver this food telling the women to leave it at the side of the road and to return home while they began distributing it among themselves. Those that protested or pleaded for compassion were beaten and threatened by the soldiers.  As recalled by a female respondent:

A soldier then accused us of sheltering rebels and told us to remember the things that happened in Luwero… He said that if we knew what had happened in Luwero, then we wouldn’t be asking for water or cool shelter for the children, because in Luwero the children were pounded with mortars. 

At around 5:00pm, a 40-year-old man from Unyama was brought by the soldiers to Burcoro Primary School. His name was Kapere Alfoncio and he had been detained by the soldiers earlier that day. Community members described how the soldiers continued patrolling the surrounding villages and detaining people. They described how the soldiers had found a pair of gumboots and two pairs of military uniforms in his home and that was enough to raise their suspicions. However, community members all agree that those uniforms did not belong to Kapere. As explained by one respondent:

Kapere had a brother who was a government soldier. His brother had fallen very ill and was sent home to receive some medication. On the day of the operation, this brother had gone to Lacor hospital but left his uniform back home. When the soldiers came, they found the uniform in that home and accused Kapere of being a rebel. 

According to Kapere’s nephew, “I believe my uncle was afraid that if the soldiers found those uniforms then they would accuse us of being rebel soldiers, so he tried to hide them.”  His attempt to conceal the uniforms was not successful and the soldiers interpreted his actions as proof of rebel collaboration. As soon as they reached Burcoro Primary School Kapere was presented to Major Ikondere, who questioned him for some time and later issued an order for Kapere to be placed with the 35 men who had been labelled rebel collaborators the day before.

Once the sun started to go down it became clear to the people that their pain and suffering would extend for another day. The 35 men who had already endured a terrible night in the pit were forced back inside just before the sun started to set. By now they were very weak from the constant beatings and the lack of food and water. They could hardly keep track of time or follow what was taking place outside. It was only through the sounds that reached their ears that they could imagine the suffering that others were undergoing. They could hear the screams of people being beaten and the cries of women being raped. As described by one of the men trapped inside the pit:

The soldiers guarding us brought the wife of one man and raped her in turns at the entrance of the pit; we could hear her moan. It was such a disgusting thing. Hearing how this woman was fighting these soldiers saddened me and I felt that it could have been even worse for the rest of the other women. We could hear the constant strangling and slaps she was receiving from the soldiers.

Hardly any woman was spared. One lucky survivor explained, “Those women that put up any resistance were beaten. I only survived from being taken because I had my baby with me and I clutched it strongly in my arms. I was the only woman that had a child at that moment. Almost all the other women were taken.” 

Other girls were also lucky: “I only survived because the women were so scared of being taken that they gathered together and they would fall on top of each other. I managed to survive because they fell on me while I was down and covered me.”  Another horrendous night befell all those unfortunate enough to have been detained by the Gung Battalion.

April 17, 1991: Suffocation and Death

As Wednesday the 17th dawned, the situation had become desperate for the people detained in the school compound. The passage of time had become almost irrelevant to the people and what mattered to them was simply staying alive. The ongoing torture had taken a severe toll on the detainees who were by now extremely weak and disoriented. It was not long before the soldiers began repeating the previous day’s routine:

Very early in the morning the soldiers removed me and three other men from the pit and they started beating us while we moved. The beating was so brutal that I thought they would kill us there, so I told the other men to pretend to be dead so we fell to the ground. Once we fell the soldiers began to kick us and step over us. 

It was impossible to know whether this would finally be the day of their release. For those women that were being kept in a classroom the situation had become almost unbearable:

We urinated there, defecated there, and that was the same place from where the soldiers always picked you up to be taken and raped. We were not allowed to eat any food. We were given water in jerrycan lids. The torture was constant. Soldiers would just come, lift you up, beat you and then start to rape you and you could not complain. 

Physical abuse, threats and interrogations would continue to take place throughout the day, and as sunset approached the people braced for another horrific night. When evening finally came the bonfires were lit again and the rape resumed. As described by one woman that survived the night before:

When the fires were lit the soldiers would come and just pull you and pass you to other soldiers. We were just given out at random. At that time I was still very young. I was taken to a tent, and when I got there I saw three soldiers waiting. I was too young and I was screaming at the top of my voice. Then one of the soldiers finally put a gun to my chin and said that if I kept crying he would kill me… All three took turns to rape me. 

While this was happening, the men were again ordered into the pit, but little did they know that this night things were going to be different. Having failed to find more evidence of rebel collaboration, the soldiers decided to change tactics. Those outside the pit could clearly see what was about to take place. The soldiers brought dry grass and used it to make a torch to which they tied some red pepper. They placed it at the edge of the small opening to the pit such that the smoke would drift directly inside. A couple of minutes later they lit the torch and as it burned they blew the smoke into the pit. As soon as the men in the pit realized what was happening they began to lose control and the situation became desperate. As recalled by a woman who witnessed what was happening from a close distance, “As soon as the smoke reached the men in the pit it created chaos and confusion. The people in the pit began to sneeze and scream at the top of their voices as they fought for their lives.”

One of the survivors of the pit described his ordeal: “Some people began to shout, others were running crazy and quarreling. The whole place became a spectacle… There was hardly any fresh air left in the pit, the men began to sneeze as some cried. This was also the very moment when a lot of men started suffocating, heat became so intense that some people sweated and dropped dead… I became so helpless that one of the men in the pit had pity on me and began to console me. He said that I wasn’t going to die and that he would protect me. He laid me down and guarded me. My whole body was dripping with sweat… Unfortunately this same man who passionately protected me from death succumbed to the heat and died. 

By this point the men had endured two brutal nights trapped inside the pit and now it seemed the soldiers were going to suffocate them to death. Another of the victims recounted his experience:

This time the pit became so hot that people started suffocating. Kapere became crazy and started biting people. Any attempt to restrain him was futile as he bit anything that came across his mouth. The people pleaded with him to remain calm but he kept repeating that he didn’t know if he was going to survive. People tried to console him but we struggled in vain. 

The situation inside the pit became so desperate that a man by the name of Opiyo Abee started to confess falsely in order to be taken out of the pit. As described by a witness:

The soldiers then ordered for that man to be pulled out of the pit. The man in his madness confessed that he had a gun but when they pulled him out of the pit and asked him to show them where the gun was he was too helpless to do anything. He couldn’t get up on his own or speak any sense. 

The soldiers then tied his feet together with wire, covered his legs with grass and set the grass on fire to punish him. The situation was desperate for the 35 men tightly squeezed together fighting to get any fresh air:

“I stayed next to the entrance of the hole, so when I felt hot I would lift my head up towards the entrance in order to breathe fresh air, but when the soldiers saw your head up they would beat you. My head has a lot of scars as a result of those beatings.” 

This torture went on for three hours until the soldiers decided to stop blowing the smoke and let the fire die out. The men would remain in the pit until the morning hours; not all would survive the night.

April 18, 1991: The Final Day

During the early hours of the morning of Thursday the 18th the soldiers finally allowed the men out of the pit for good. Those that were still alive slowly crawled out. They were incredibly weak and frightened; many had removed most of their clothes due to the intense heat they had endured the previous night. As witnessed by one of the RCs, “Most of the survivors were out of their minds… They were too frail to do anything.”  The majority of the men that had been forced inside the pit survived the previous night’s horrendous ordeal. However, the bodies of Okema Rodento, Opwonya Opige, Okot Ogoo, and Ojabu remained at the bottom of the pit; they had suffocated to death. Once the men were out, the soldiers quickly collapsed the logs to cover the pit and conceal the bodies that remained inside. One of the survivors from the pit described what happened next:

One of the soldiers asked us whether we wanted to live or die, then another asked what had prompted us to join the rebellion. Hearing that last question sent my brain berserk and I replied that we were not rebels, that rebels do not have homes and that I had been captured in my garden. A soldier shouted back at me and then he stabbed me in the chest with a bayonet. His colleague came and grabbed the gun away from him. The man went on to verbally insult me and say that that no farmer could look as healthy as I did. He then ordered us to get out of his sight. 

Not long after, a car arrived and stopped right next to the primary school. A man dressed in civilian clothes stepped out and approached some of the commanding officers. This is one of the most mysterious incidents of the whole operation since few people were able to comprehend what was taking place and hardly anyone was able to hear what was being discussed. Despite the confusion surrounding this incident, the majority of those present strongly believe that Betty Bigombe, a member of the Uganda Parliament and the State Minister for Northern Uganda at the time, was one of the occupants of the vehicle and that it is thanks to her intervention that the operation was suddenly stopped.

The community widely believes that Ms. Bigombe was in the area when she got news of the operation in Burcoro.  However, much confusion still remains with regard to whether she was actually one of occupants of the vehicle and on the role that she played that day. As recalled by a female respondent that claims to have witnessed this incident, “I saw Bigombe come, but she did not get out of the vehicle… She then proceeded towards Awach.”

This visit seems to have taken no more than a couple of minutes and few witnesses could be traced. Not long after the car’s departure, the soldiers ordered the people to gather together at the side of the road that ran opposite the primary school.

The Murder of Kapere

As the pit was being collapsed Kapere had been bound and blindfolded then locked in one of the classrooms. A few minutes after the visitors departed, Kapere was escorted to where the people were gathered by approximately a dozen soldiers who had camouflaged themselves with leaves. Kapere was paraded before the crowd for a few minutes before being tied to the trunk of a tree across the road from the school. Ogwete, the Intelligence Officer, then addressed the people telling them how they had been warned about the dangers of keeping a rebel amongst them and that this would serve as an example for all other rebel collaborators.

The soldiers then brutally shot Kapere until they had emptied their magazines. By the time the shooting stopped, Kapere’s body was so badly maimed that skin had peeled off from some parts. Ogwete ordered the women to ululate while he turned to the men who had been in the pit and selected the ones who still looked strong to dig a grave for Kapere:

As we were digging the grave, the hoes given to us were very useless, but if they found you struggling with the hoe they would tell you to use your hands to dig the grave. Time and again they told our colleagues to stop work and then they would beat them brutally.

Those that were selected had to make use of whatever strength they had left after being trapped in the pit for days. One man who was scooping out sand from the grave with his hands collapsed from exhaustion, he recounted his narrow brush with death, “The soldiers began to force [my colleague] to hack me to death, but my colleagues defied their orders and said ‘if this is what you want to do to him … then better kill us all’ They pulled me out and continued digging the grave.”

To date the community fears the place where Kapere was executed and buried. People avoid passing that tree because they believe the place is haunted by his spirit and requires a traditional cleansing ceremony.

The 22nd Battalion Departs

Soon after the burial of Kapere the soldiers released the remaining civilians. One man described the end of the operation:

The soldiers turned to the rest of us and told us to go back to our homes, to resume normal life and to report any rebel presence in the area. They said that they didn’t want to round us up and bring us to Burcoro Primary School a second time. In response the people started saying thank you [to the soldiers] as they clapped… And just like that people began to return home 

The soldiers then began caning people to disperse them faster. Those that still had strength fled quickly without looking back, but many were incredibly weak from the long days of torture and lack of food and they could not move fast enough to escape the soldiers’ final blows.

Many of the people that were released preferred to head for the bush as soon as they could and spend the night in hiding. Even travelling on the main road was seen as quite dangerous because of the possibility of running into the soldiers again: “We would flee at the sight of any human being; we were so scared and traumatized.”  This prevented many people from seeking much needed medical attention.

When Friday the 19th of April arrived, the people woke up deeply frightened because of what they had experienced. They had no idea whether the soldiers were still present in the area and nobody dared to approach the primary school to verify. Only those that needed urgent medical attention risked venturing out to the main road in order to make the long walk to Gulu town. As recalled by a female respondent who had been raped repeatedly, “The day after we were released we tried to make our way to the hospital in Gulu town, but I could not even walk because of what had happened to me. It took us the whole day to get there.”

Despite the fear of running into the NRA soldiers, at around midday a number of people made their way to the school in order to attempt to retrieve the bodies of those that had been killed. Acholi traditional beliefs hold that special treatment must be given to the bodies of those killed in order to appease the spirits of the dead. This generally involves showing respect by covering as much of the body as possible, as well as organizing a proper burial service in the family’s homestead. Failure to do this would be considered kiir, or a transgression of traditional values, and is believed to lead to cen, a spiritual affliction that would torment and inflict ill on those responsible for violating traditional Acholi values governing the treatment of the dead.68 However, rumors of sightings of the soldiers around the area drove the people back to the bush and prevented them from approaching the school.

It was not until the next day that the community members dared to reach Burcoro Primary School and finally retrieve the bodies of those found within the collapsed pit and surrounding areas. It was around this time that some community members began to realize that not everybody had been released by the soldiers after the execution of Kapere. The soldiers of the Gung Battalion had decided to take with them many of the women that had been held in one of the classrooms throughout the operation, as well as three of the men who had been forced inside the pit and who the soldiers allegedly believed to be genuine rebel collaborators. These people would be taken to Lukome and then spread farther afield.

The full report can be accessed at: www.justiceandreconciliation.com