Massacres, civil war and land grabs

Documentary filmmaker Marcus Relton thought President Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda was supposed to have moved on. Then he met two refugees from northern Uganda’s Acholi tribe

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At the height of Uganda’s civil war more than 1,000 Acholi were dying a week in concentration camps – more deaths than Darfur, or Iraq in 2005. President Museveni’s regime had forced them there at gunpoint during a 20-year civil war

Disease, malnutrition and mistreatment had hit the 1.8 million Acholi internally displaced from the countryside since Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army had seized power, in the capital Kampala, in January 1986. Sweeping north and slaughtering Acholi civilians sparked three rebellions, the last being Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

Humanitarian crises in Darfur, western Sudan and Iraq, two years after George W Bush’s invasion, hit the headlines but northern Uganda escaped scrutiny, bar occasional stories about spirit-medium Kony’s rebels. But the same year, the International Criminal Court indicted LRA leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Soldiers evicting Acholi farmers, their goats and possessions from Apaa Trading Centre, February 2012, depicted in a still from Out From Under Us. Acholi MPs soon secured their return. Main photo: MP Gilbert Olanya speaks out in Apaa, 2013.

“The Acholi will say to you we thought we’d had the worst experience under [former president] Idi Amin,” said former UN ambassador and 2011 opposition presidential candidate Olara Otunnu, an Acholi. “Amin targeted the leaders, the business people, the intellectuals and he wiped them out. But Idi Amin did not go systematically to the villages and target the entire society, which is what has happened under Yoweri Museveni.”

Forced to leave Uganda under Amin, Otunnu had been a United Nations Under-Secretary-General for eight years by the time he started publicising the death rates in the camps housing the entire rural population of Acholi, accusing the regime of genocidal policies.

“Genocide is when you plan and you organise to destroy a community, a society. And you use various methods to really radically destroy the pillars that make that society viable, to destroy the education, the economy, public health, to physically eliminate people, to destroy the culture, destroy the history, the family structure,” Otunnu said.

“It is Western, democratic countries who have stood solidly behind Museveni even as he went on to commit the genocide.”

“That’s exactly what Museveni has done in Northern Uganda. And the centrepiece of his stratagem was the concentration camps, to which people were herded and, for the most part, stayed for more than 20 years. There are mass graves all over northern Uganda… massacres committed by Museveni’s forces, people being buried alive, people being burnt alive. You know the rape of women and men, systematically, is a strategy of war, to humiliate, to destroy.

“It is Western, democratic countries who have stood solidly behind Museveni, protecting him, sponsoring him, supporting him, even as he has gone on to have one of the most corrupt regimes in the whole world, even as he went on to commit the genocide in Northern Uganda… Museveni’s survival has been due not to the support of the people of Uganda but to external support.”

Cambridge University academic and Displacing Human Rights author Adam Branch thinks genocide accusations need too high a burden of proof – and of intent.

“The camps, the forced displacement and internment of the population in camps constitute war crimes and, probably, crimes against humanity,” he said. “The Ugandan government and those donors and aid agencies who supported the camp strategy, they all need to be held accountable legally.

“One can focus on war crimes, crimes against humanity, focus on the things that have happened, land grabbing that is going on, the loss of the cattle, forcing people into camps for over a decade. All of these things need to be brought out, need to have justice done for them.

“Interpreted as genocide, that’s going to prevent the kinds of national reconciliation that’s needed. Southerners are going to say you guys aren’t the only ones subject to genocide, we were the ones subjected to genocide. Look what happened to us. Look what happened in the Luwero Triangle.”

Museveni seized power in January 1986, having launched a bush war in February 1981. He claimed the November 1980 elections that restored President Milton Obote had been rigged. Obote had been deposed by military dictator Idi Amin in a 1971 coup. He was re-elected after opposition and Tanzanian forces ousted Amin in 1979.

Museveni is from the Ankole tribe, in south-west Uganda, closely related to the Rwandan Tutsi, but his National Resistance Army fought its war in the Luwero Triangle. This is in central Uganda, north of capital Kampala, where the largest tribe, the Baganda, is based. Atrocities by Obote’s army, where Acholi troops had been a mainstay since British colonial times, helped Museveni’s NRA cadres drive hatred towards the Acholi. The NRA used this to unite the different tribes among their forces against a common foe.

When the NRA drove north, it soon started slaughtering Acholi civilians, many “in revenge” for Luwero atrocities. Obote’s former troops had fled to Southern Sudan and handed in their weapons, only to be attacked. By August, they decided, if they had to fight, they would fight in Uganda. Their Uganda People’s Democratic Army was the first of three rebellions over a 20-year civil war. A second rebellion, led by spirit medium Alice Lakwena, the Holy Spirit Forces, formed in November 1986. By 1988 another spirit medium, Joseph Kony had formed the third rebellion, the Lord’s Resistance Army, that would continue until the civil war ended, after 2006 peace talks.

By 2005 the International Criminal Court had indicted Kony and his commanders. Branch sees the International Criminal Court as favouring the Ugandan government, instead of deciding who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“The ICC has played a very harmful role,” said Branch.” It provided an opportunity for the government to reject peace talks. And I think it ended up legitimating the government’s violence.”

“Museveni said we want to give big chunks of land to investors and came up with fraudulent schemes to grab land.”

From 2006 the 1.8 million rural members of the two-million-strong Acholi could leave the camps. They should have been able to recover from war, deprivation and incarceration but Museveni’s regime had other plans.

Otunnu sees the camps and what followed as a long-term regime policy of genocide against the Acholi.

“As far as Museveni is concerned, he wanted this land. And when he was forced to dismantle the camps and to have people go back to their land after essentially two decades away… a new narrative developed. This time Museveni said we want to give big chunks of land to investors and came up with pretty much fraudulent schemes to grab land,” he said.

In 2006 the Ugandan government announced plans to give 150 square miles of the Acholi’s communally-owned land by the Albert Nile, believed to be rich in oil, to the Madhvani Group of Companies, supposedly to produce sugar cane. Alternative land offers were rejected.

In 2008 I met two Acholi women made refugees by the 1986 massacres of friends and family, who settled in the UK. I was surprised to hear what happened in northern Uganda. Museveni’s forces had a reasonably positive press. The regime had projected an image of clearing up after Amin, fighting HIV and Aids, and developing Uganda. I vowed to try to make a documentary.

In 2002, while the Acholi were in camps, Uganda’s Parliament leased a hunting area where Acholi had been allowed to settle to a white South African, for trophy hunting. The Acholi suspect valuable minerals are here too. From 2011 Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers attacked Acholi farmers, who traced their land back three generations, and burned their huts to pressure them off the land. In 2012, security forces evicted a whole community from Apaa, in Amuru, the same district as the sugar project.

The community was bundled into army trucks with their possessions and goats and dumped at the county council headquarters, on the site of one of the biggest former concentration camps. Acholi MPs, led by local MP Gilbert Olanya, returned the community to their homes and got injunctions to stop more evictions. Gilbert’s family had gone into hiding when NRA forces swept into Acholiland in 1986. His brother was executed, by the road, just for being Acholi. He and his family had to survive the camps, then move south.

But in April 2015 the authorities again tried to enforce the game-reserve plans in Apaa. Mass mobilisations and a naked protest, led by two women whose sons had been killed during the 2012 eviction, forced visiting ministers to call off the plans again.

Five months later, Apaa farmers were lured to a meeting, then attacked by troops and police with live bullets, tear gas, bombs and sticks. Five villagers were killed. A student and farmer, both 26, had to have their hands amputated when they were shot. We followed them in the months and years after, as well as Gilbert, Otunnu, religious leaders and traditional chiefs handling the aftermath. The interior minister died mysteriously, shortly afterwards; the general who invited the community to meet died mysteriously too a year later.

In Apaa, soldiers dressed as civilians attacked Acholi farmers with spears, machetes and poison arrows

A new land minister drove the sugar project forward with troops, police and tear gas, as more naked protesters and MPs tried to stop her. Lockdown, intimidation and outsiders posing as farmers giving away land followed.

In Apaa, soldiers dressed as civilians attacked Acholi farmers with spears, machetes and poison arrows. Four months later, the government annexed Apaa Trading Centre to Adjumani district, despite Uganda’s Parliament not having finished its inquiry.

Nine months later the Apaa community occupied a United Nations compound in Gulu, protesting continued attacks. Three months ago Uganda’s prime minister gave Apaa residents until May to leave the area. The Apaa community led a coffin protest to the Acholi Paramount Chief’s palace in Gulu, as Museveni was due to visit. The MPs lobbied. Museveni distanced himself from his prime minister and set up a judicial inquiry.

This independent film, the product of many years work, has been funded by foundations to challenge the distorted narrative on this. We are seeking completion funding and if anyone could pledge to our crowdfunding page Out From Under Us, please do, Our film can help empower vulnerable communities battling the odds, make it harder for the powerful to abuse the powerless and inspire others by showing what you can achieve with organisation and determination.

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