Paying The Price For Being Acholi : The Beasts at Burcoro – Part 3

Three men suspected of being rebel collaborators were transported to the army barracks in Lukome where they spent one night inside an uncovered pit. The next morning the three men were put in a military vehicle and taken to the Fourth Division barracks in Gulu town. As one remembered:

When we reached the division barracks we were taken to the army prison, but it was terrible in that prison. Each day different people died because the prison cells were really small and people struggled to get space to survive. By this time several captives from other places were brought here as well. You had to fight to get space for yourself in the prison cell. 

His friend also recalled his ordeal:  Once there, they started questioning and investigating us more. We were beaten, tortured and asked to confess the location of rebel soldiers. They even put their guns in our mouths and threatened to kill us if we didn’t tell them where the rebels were. Every single day that they brought us for questioning we never changed our statements. I think that is why they released me after two weeks 

While this man was released after a few weeks, the others were not as fortunate. They were eventually taken to Lira and then to Luzira Prison in Kampala. One man remained in Luzira for one year:

I don’t even know how I was eventually released. This was strange because initially they had told us that we the convicts from Lira would take some time. As a point of caution, I was told that if I was disciplined enough then I would serve my sentence for five years, and if I was undisciplined then I will serve my sentence for ten years…. Then one day we were just told to leave our white [prison] uniforms and come out… When I returned back home everything was a mess. My father had died, my wife also left and went away, and my child also died. There was nothing left. 

The third man spent some time in Luzira and was then sent to work at a prison farm in Mbarara. He spent over a year in detention simply for being suspected of rebel collaboration.

They Accused Us of Being Rebels

One Man’s Experience of Illegal Detention

We spent several days at Burcoro Primary School after the operation uprooting grass and building the soldiers a temporary barracks. When it was time to depart, the soldiers marched us to Lukome. On the way, I was given an accumulator battery to carry, but as we crossed the river in Burcoro I fell and the battery hit my chest. This affected my chest and I still experience a lot of pain.

We spent only one night in Lukome before we were made to board an army vehicle which took us to the Fourth Division barracks in Gulu. At the barracks we were forced to slash grass from morning to evening as the soldiers beat us. Within that time, perhaps there was some intense war going on somewhere, because they would come and take us to carry dead bodies from the military mortuary. It was our work to pick up these dead bodies, clean them, dress them and pack them in the waiting coffins. We stayed there for one week then we were transferred to Gulu Central Prison where we spent another five days. The next day at 2:00pm, some vehicles came and transported us to Lira. All this while our numbers kept on growing, we were 1,400 by the time we reached Luzira Prison.

We spent one week in Lira without food or water at the barracks. They kept us in a small field, and because of our great number, we squeezed into each other’s space. Most of us squatted and we were expected to stay that way from morning to evening. We had no food or privacy. If you wanted to urinate or defecate, you had to do it right where you squatted. Fortunately, because most people were starving, they didn’t litter the area with faeces.

That was our life for five days.  One evening at the end of the week we were ordered to board lorries which had been brought to take us to prison. As we boarded the soldiers said, “You have been jailed for five years. If you maintain high discipline then you may not finish all those five years. But if you don’t then you will stay there.” In our hearts, we believed we were going to be thrown into Karuma Falls to die on the way. This, however, did not happen. We successfully crossed Karuma to Luwero and continued to Makindye When we reached Makindye, due to our large number, we were referred to Luzira Prison. For two months we were at Luzira before some of us were distributed to go to the different prison farms in Uganda. I was among the 100 men who were taken to Kivura Farm in Mbarara.

Some people went to farms in Jinja and Mubuku Farm in Kasese. I stayed there for one year and four months. Our only work at the farm was digging and harvesting crops. At some point the Red Cross visited us at the farm and that was when we were brought back to Luzira Prison.

We had not been back in Luzira for long before we were surprised one morning by the news that we were being set free. Immediately we left Luzira and came back home. In total, I would say we were away from home for one year and six months just because the soldiers at Burcoro suspected us of being rebel collaborators.

The Fate of the Abducted Girls

The majority of the girls that were locked in the classroom throughout the operation were never released; they were taken by the soldiers as they departed from Burcoro. One man recalled, “One of those girls abducted was from my village of Olano. She left a son behind… She never came back.”73 It is presumed by most of their relatives that these women were taken as wives by the officers. As described by the mother of one of these girls:

In the school, my two girls were taken away by the soldiers as I remained with a group of women. Both of them were raped by the soldiers and one was actually taken by them. Her name was Akello Agnes. She was only fourteen years old and her breasts were just beginning to form. Unfortunately, she became part of the girls who were taken away from here by the soldiers. Maybe one of the soldiers took her for a wife. A few of these girls have returned, others have died, while others like mine cannot be traced. Whether she is still alive or not, I can’t tell… My daughter has been missing for over twenty years. It is impossible to forget her; this is my problem. It is my destiny from God and I can’t escape from it. 

The few clues to what happened to these women came from the testimony of one living returnee and those few mothers whose daughters returned years later but have since passed awayAs recalled by one of these mothers:

My daughter was also taken by the soldiers, her name was Adiyo Ajulina. She says that she was taken to Kampala where she lived for some years. She was mistreated there until she decided to escape. She returned three years later. By then she was infected with HIV/AIDS. 

Another mother claimed that her daughter had been taken all the way to the southwestern region of Uganda. It was only after five or six years that she managed to escape and return to her community. She was HIV positive when she came back and died sometime after.

It is estimated that between 30 and 50 women were forcefully taken by the soldiers when they left Burcoro. One woman explained that they were taken to Pakwach from Lukome and then on to Koch Goma Barracks where she stayed with her new ‘husband’ (it is unclear where the remainder of the women were taken).

This woman shared her story of living away from home as a wife to this soldier for eight years before he passed away.

My Time is Already Wasted

One Woman’s Story of Abduction and Forced Marriage

The majority of us were picked during the operation. So many horrible things happened during the four days that we were camped with the soldiers in Burcoro Primary School.

We were kept in makeshift barracks within the school. All of the girls who were at the school were repeatedly raped by the soldiers. A lot of girls contracted HIV, but I can’t tell whether I have it or not, I have never been tested. We were quite many. Over thirty girls remained with the soldiers in Burcoro Primary School [after they released the other people]. They said we were now their wives. I was 17 years old and the others were around 14, 15 and 17 years old.

One of them was my cousin Jennifer. I also remember Auma, Alum, Agnes, and Anneta (the daughter of Odori). All these were girls from my own home area of Burcoro. There were very many other girls, but I did not know them.

We left Burcoro with the soldiers in shifts. The girls I knew and I were the first to leave Burcoro and we went with the soldiers first to Lukome and then to Pakwach where we stayed for a while before relocating to Koch Gomah barracks. I stayed in Koch Goma with my captor-turned-husband until he left the army.

After he left the army he took me to his home in Patongo where we stayed until he passed on. I lived with him for eight years and gave birth to two boys and one girl. The girl and one of the boys passed on. Life wasn’t by any means easy. I stayed for all those years without visiting my home or my relatives. Each time I brought up the topic of visiting my home people he would turn violent and say the day I set my foot out of our home I would cease to be with him. I lived in fear and never visited home until he died in 1998.

After his death, I spent two full years with his family because I hadn’t yet figured out how I should leave. His people grabbed everything they could lay their hands when he died saying it belonged to their son. They said I should remain there because returning to my home meant I had plans to hide their brother’s children. When I finally left in 2001 I was empty handed.

On my return home, my relatives laid down Opobo and an egg for me to step on (a traditional Acholi cleansing ceremony performed for those who have been away from home for a long period of time to ward off evil spirits). I stayed home from 2001 until 2005 when I met the man I am living with now. I have two children with him and he has taken my son as his own. My son is now 20 years old. We have had a difficult relationship. When he was growing up I would tell him again and again, “You came in my life simply because your father raped me. Had he not raped me I wouldn’t have had you.” We fought frequently when his father was still alive, but now that his father is dead, I am not very much bothered about it.

My time is already wasted. I can’t undo what happened to me. The only thing the government can do for me right now is to pay for the education of my children and compensate me for the years of my life which have been wasted.

Sexual Violence: The Hallmark of the ‘Gung’ Battalion

The unfortunate hallmark of the Burcoro operation was the high level of sexual violence which took place. The majority of women and many of the men in the community suffered some form of sexual violation at the hands of the soldiers. As noted above, for four nights the women detained at Burcoro Primary School were repeatedly raped by the soldiers: “A soldier would take you to his tent, rape you and kick you out to return to the crowd. As you walked back to the crowd, another soldier would pick you up immediately for another round of rape.”

There was nothing anyone could do to stop the rapes. An elderly woman who was a women’s leader at that time painfully recalled her helplessness, “I was told to sit under a tree and to take care of those young girls. I sat with them until the evening when the soldiers started coming and picking up the girls and taking them to be raped. I had to sit there watching as they were taken away.”

One woman, who was 18 years old at that time, was held in the classroom and repeatedly raped: From [the classroom] any soldier that wanted to take you would just pick you up, take you to the bush and rape you. [The rape] was in shifts. The morning soldiers would come and rape us, then in the afternoon another group of soldiers would come and rape us again. Then in the evening another group of soldiers would come and rape us. I even have a scar on the side of my stomach from when I was thrown against the ground on one occasion by a soldier that was going to rape me and a small stick cut me. 

Emotional abuse was as prevalent as physical abuse, and often whenever a woman was dragged away to be raped the soldiers would mock the others left behind. As remembered by one woman in a focus group discussion, “They would tell us that we Acholi say that we are very strong, but can we now show that strength that we say we have? They said that what we were going to witness right now was what happened in Luwero. That we were all going to be wiped out like insects.”

The sexual abuse was not limited to the mass rape of the majority of women detained during the operation, but also extended to some of the men. Community members recalled numerous cases of male rape or ‘tekgungu’ – male sodomy, as it is commonly called within the community – which took place throughout the operation.

Tekgungu was much less conspicuous than the sexual abuse perpetrated against the women because of the shame and stigma attached to male rape in Ugandan culture. The men were generally raped by small groups of two to four soldiers in the bushes or even in the men’s own homesteads. The soldiers would tell their victims ‘Mzee, gung agunga’ or ‘bend over for me.’

This phrase would yield the nickname ‘Gung’ that survivors use to refer to the battalion.  Because of the high level of shame attached to male rape it was difficult to find many survivors willing to tell their stories. One brave man came forward with his experience:

I am not going to fear anybody, I will tell my story… At the time that the soldiers took Lucoc to be killed I was there as well. This was in Abera River. After he was stabbed they turned to me and took me to some rocks nearby. They then told me to bend over.  There were four soldiers. They told me to hold with both hands to the trunk of a tree while bending over. Then they told me to put my head down. One of them undressed himself and then undressed me while another soldier was holding me. Then it happened… It was finally stopped when a soldier that was not part of the group came and addressed the group of soldiers abusing me. 

This abuse took place out of sight from the rest of the community members who only found out what had happened to these men much later. It seems that not even the elderly men were spared from being raped: In this village alone we came across three incidences of old men who were raped. Most of them were found in their homesteads by the soldiers, who later abandoned them after they were sodomized. Most of these men are dead by now. Some died when we were in the IDP camp. 

These allegations seem to support the perception held by many community members that the sexual abuse of men was utilized as a way to further humiliate the people of Burcoro by stripping the men of dignity. In northern Uganda, rape is generally considered a very shameful act. It is rarely discussed in public and men who have been raped are considered to have lost their status as men. As described by one local leader:

I was not in Burcoro during the operation, but when I returned to the area for a visit sometime after I talked to an elderly man there. He asked me whether I was a real man, because ‘we don’t have many around here’ he said. He then admitted to me that a lot of the men in this area had been ‘slept with’ during the operation. 

For most men, the shame they felt as a result of this abuse forced them to remain quiet about their experience and cope with the aftermath of this abuse alone. One man lamented:  I thought I would forget the incident. I even went back home and resumed normal life. But it turned out to be something that I will never forget. I have never told anyone about it. I do not know where I got the courage to keep this secret for all these years. Most people who had a similar experience keep it a secret until this day. 

As a result of the silence that surrounds the majority of these male victims, it remains impossible to determine the number of men that were abused and the consequences that this has had on their families after more than two decades. At least one man in the community now suffers from serious health complications arising from the abuse he was subjected to.

Man’s Story of Sexual Violence and Shame

I used to be a strong man compared to today. I was fat and healthy. But after my experience with the soldiers in 1991, my life changed. I am always weak and sickly these days.  The day the operation began the soldiers found me at home. They arrested me and took me with them to Burcoro Primary School where all the arrested civilians had been assembled.

I was called forward by one of their leaders, Ogwete, along with ten other men. He told us that he wanted to give us an important task to perform and that task was to dig a hole for him. He gave us three hoes; others had to use their hands. We began digging the hole but as we were digging the soldiers who were supervising us kept on beating us. Ogwete ordered some of the men to sing funeral songs. I think it was a form of humor for them. We changed roles frequently.

As some men sung, others dug. When the hole was as wide and deep as Ogwete wanted it to be, we were ordered to go and cut some logs and grass. I was among the men taken to a nearby home which was surrounded by trees so that we could get some logs for covering the hole.

As we were cutting the logs I was suddenly called by two of the soldiers. They told me I was a ‘lanywar’ (insolent person). I think they felt I was being stubborn or that I was not giving them enough respect or that I was not working as hard and as fast as they wanted me to.

They took me away from my colleagues and led me into a nearby clump of trees where they ordered me to remove my trousers. I could not resist because they had their guns pointed at me. I undid my trousers and let them fall to the ground. Then they told me to bend over and kneel down. I obeyed and knelt down although I did not know what they were going to do. One of the soldiers then went behind me as the other stood in front and kept the barrel of his gun pointed at my head. Up to this point I did not know what they were up to. Then suddenly I just felt “lyeto pa coo” (the heat of a man) penetrating my rectum. I then realized that I was being sodomized. I was too shocked to do anything. I just kept kneeling there until he finished. I was also frightened because I had the barrel of a gun pointed at my head. When he had finished, he changed places with his colleague, who also came and sodomized me.

After that I was told to get up and was escorted back to rejoin my colleagues who were still cutting logs. I was quickly ordered to get back to work. Everything happened so fast that I had no time to recover. I simply rejoined my colleagues and resumed work as though nothing had happened. I think I was not myself at that moment.

That is what happened to me on that day. It is an incident I will never forget. I have never told anyone about it, not even my wife. I do not know where I got the courage to keep this secret for all these years.

I thought I would forget the incident. I even went back home and resumed normal relations with my wife. However, after six months a strange growth developed in my rectum. It continued to grow until it caused me complications.

I cannot eat hard foods such as millet and dry meat, and last year the growth grew so big that I could not pass stool easily.

My wife does not know the cause of my condition. She thinks it is a natural cause. I cannot tell her the truth. For a long time I have not had the courage to talk to anyone about my experience. I have not even talked to any NGO representative. Most people who had a similar experience keep it a secret. It is only my uncle who confided in me that he had also been raped. There is another individual whom I suspect also had a similar incident but he does not talk about it. This experience is generally difficult to talk about.

Mass Infection with HIV/AIDS

The terrible consequence of the prevalence of sexual violence in Burcoro seems to be mass infection with HIV/AIDS. It was not long after the end of the operation that reports of HIV/AIDS infections within the community became more prevalent. The people attribute this rise in infection rates directly to the mass rape by the Gung Battalion during the 1991 operation. One man voiced the opinion of many in the community when he said that, “these soldiers came knowing very well that they are sick of HIV/AIDS and yet they decided to rape women and men.”  

A female respondent explained: Nearly every household in this place is affected by this scourge. If a registration book was opened here for people to register so that we determine HIV/AIDS prevalence, you will realize that only very few people will survive… Most people in this place are moving corpses who are just surviving at the mercy of ARVs. In the absence of ARVs the majority of the people you are seeing here could have died a long time ago. 

Despite the fact that the community was generally aware of the mass rape that took place, a culture of silence prevailed. Some women were able to tell their husbands what happened to them, while others felt they had to keep silent. (Male rape victims overwhelmingly kept quiet.) As explained by one female respondent, “To whom can you tell what happened? We kept quiet. We don’t even have a platform where you can freely talk about these things. We resolved to keep quiet and only told ourselves that if the soldiers infected us, then that was that.”

According to a local NGO worker, “There was a conspiracy of silence here. You know those things that have to do with sexuality people don’t talk about openly… The people know that sex was used as a weapon and so the HIV/AIDS rates are so high here.”

Gender relations were greatly affected by the rapes. Some husbands blamed their wives for being infected, despite the fact that they were raped, and divorced them. Others took back their wives, understanding that the rape was not their fault, and in turn exposed themselves to HIV/AIDS:

I saw when my wives were being raped by the soldiers. Even after I returned home, they did not hide away anything from me but narrated to me what transpired. The only disadvantage we had at that time was that we could not easily access medical care like these days. There was no provision to test these women for any infections after the rape. You just had to persevere and live with your wife even if she was infected by the soldiers. 

The community widely believes that the spread of HIV/AIDS first occurred in those families where the men took back their wives: “Most of the women were infected… Later on the men realized that most of them caught HIV/AIDS from their women. Had we known, we would have encouraged our women to be transparent and not infect us. The women should also be given ARVs.”  HIV/AIDS was also passed on to children born to the infected women which has contributed to the high infection rate in the Burcoro community.

It is not impossible to know exactly when people contracted HIV/AIDS as most community members sought nor had easy access to medical attention immediately after their ordeal, and testing for HIV/AIDS was not readily available in northern Uganda at that time. It is also important to note that the majority of the community was eventually displaced to camps which had a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS and where a breakdown of traditional values saw an increase in promiscuity. However, the fact that the infection seems to have affected mainly those in their 30s and 40s, as well as children born to women victims, strongly indicates that most of these people were infected before their displacement.

Despite the lack of certainty surrounding the original source, the perception of the community is that the widespread infection of civilians with HIV/AIDS was a deliberate act orchestrated by the commanders of the operation to further punish the population. Some respondents believe that even if those soldiers that engaged in the mass rape were identified they would have likely already succumbed to this disease themselves.

The Ghosts of Luwero Triangle: A Motive for the Violence?

Throughout the years many of the victims have come to see the operation that took place in Burcoro as part of a broader strategy implemented by the NRM Government to target the Acholi population of northern Uganda for their links to the LRA and other rebel movements. Nevertheless, the direct motives why Burcoro and the communities that surround it were specifically targeted remain as uncertain as the names of the soldiers involved. Great confusion still surrounds the ultimate objectives of the 22nd Battalion in Burcoro. What is clear is that these activities were widespread and systematic as a part of Operation North.

Many victims saw this operation as just one more in a long series of cases of mass abuse and repression of the Acholi population. However, a more obscure motivation may offer possible clues to the reason behind the particular brutality with which the soldiers acted during the operation. Many of the survivors reported that soldiers made repeated references to the Luwero Triangle, especially while physical abuse was taking place.

As recalled by one respondent, “The soldiers began to say that we knew about the suffering that the Luwero people had undergone and yet we were demanding water for our children… We should have smashed all of your children, they said… As for me, I had no idea of anything that had occurred in Luwero.”

The reference to the events that took place in Luwero dates back to the early 1980s, when not long after the overthrow of Idi Amin’s regime, former president Milton Obote was re-elected after the contested general elections in December 1980. This sudden return to power was also attributed to the support he enjoyed from the UNLA. Nevertheless, dissatisfied opposition groups led by Yoweri Museveni quickly took up arms against the newly established government and managed to gather enough support to form what eventually became known as the NRA. A guerrilla war quickly ensued and it escalated to the point where the region of central Uganda known as the Luwero Triangle was targeted by Obote’s UNLA forces as a measure to suppress civilian support for Museveni’s insurgent group which used this region as a staging area for its newly established rebellion.

The controversy surrounding what took place in Luwero originates in great part from the belief that a significant number of the soldiers that comprised the UNLA were ethnic Acholis and Langis from northern Uganda, whereas the majority of the civilians targeted in the Luwero Triangle were ethnic Baganda.

Despite the fact that there are numerous reports of both NRA and UNLA troops being involved in the destruction of property, looting, and mass killings of civilians, the ethnic component of this divide and the eventual rise to power by Museveni’s NRM gave birth to the myth that the massacres in the Luwero Triangle had been perpetrated almost exclusively by northerners. The incidents in Luwero and the conflict between the UNLA and the NRA would greatly contribute to the formation of a wider north-south divide in Uganda.

The details of what took place in the Luwero Triangle seem to have been unknown to the great majority of the people abducted by the soldiers during the operation in Burcoro. As described by one woman, “I am not sure if I even know where this place is located.” Nonetheless, it appears that the memory of the Luwero Triangle massacres remained relevant to the soldiers of the 22nd Battalion, especially considering that the majority of the Battalion’s soldiers were not ethnic Acholis. A desire for some sort or revenge against the Acholi population of northern Uganda thus appears to have played a role in the extreme level of brutality and violence with which this operation was carried out. In addition, it could also serve to highlight the level of deep-rooted ethnic tensions and hostilities very much present in the country at that time.

It remains impossible to know the extent to which the history of Luwero could have contributed to the level of violence with which the operation in Burcoro was carried out. However, many community members believe strongly in the link between the brutality employed in Burcoro and what occurred in Luwero. As summarized by a male respondent: I believe that this operation took place because of a desire for revenge by the soldiers. When they were here they kept telling us that the Acholis killed a lot of people in Luwero Triangle and that the same thing that happened in Luwero is what they were going to do here. 

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