FEBRUARY 20, 2010: Survivors Recount Barlonyo Massacre

Survivors Recount Barlonyo Killings

SOURCE: New Vision

Kampala — TODAY marks six years after the Lord's Resistance Army rebels massacred hundreds of civillians at Barlonyo IDP camp, Lira District. Ali Mao spoke to some of the survivors of the infamous bloodbath

We are going to leave Barlonyo to be a field where flies can feast and no living soul will be left. This shall be a lesson to the people of Lango for stubbornly supporting the Government of President Yoweri Museveni, a rebel commander told his troops.

"I have received an order from the high command of the LRA. You (LRA) should kill every living thing, kill the old people, the adults, government soldiers and abduct all the young children," James, a 10-year-old former abductee who participated in the massacre, recalled LRA commander Okot Odhiambo's orders.

Odhiambo led a group of armed Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels on February 21, 2004 to massacre over 200 people at Barlonyo IDP camp in Lira District.

It was 5:00pm when the rebels were first spotted making their way towards the camp. An elderly man identified as Joseph was watching over his cattle in the neighbouring field when he saw them.

"I immediately ran back to the camp to inform the people about the presence of the rebels, but I was shot in the arm during the process. By the time I reached, it was too late. The rebels had already attacked the detachment," Joseph narrated.

The rebels came from three directions in a horn shape. They immediately blew a whistle and started firing towards the military detachments in the camp where over 30 soldiers and their families were living.

"Odhiambo ordered his troops to split into three lines. The outward lines were instructed to surround the camp and the middle line had the task of attacking the Amuka militia detachment first," James narrated.

He added: "After Odhiambo blew the whistle, we started firing and setting detachments and other huts on fire. Out of the 340 LRA soldiers, 100 had guns, bombs, J2s, AK-47s in plenty and the other 240 fighters had clubs and sticks, ululating and moral boosting us."

Immediately, the military detachments were overwhelmed by the attackers, their makeshift huts (andakis) were set on fire and those found inside were killed immediately.

The attack came a day after the Local Defence Unit soldiers had received their pay and several had gone to the Saturday market in the nearby Onekaden to buy food and other supplies. Many of the Amuka militia, who had not yet received their salaries, had gone to search for water or food from camp residents.

One of the Amuka militia, who was present during the attack, told The New Vision that the rebels sealed off all the paths to the camp. "When I saw that I could not put up a spirited fight against them (rebels), I decided to flee. I called out to people to run for their lives. My wife was also killed."

How They Attacked the Camp

The camp residents were unaware of the disaster soon to unfold as the LRA drew closer. Some of the residents were bathing, others were cooking and some were drinking and playing cards.

"Some LRA disguised themselves in UPDF uniforms. After a short while, civilians were told by the advancing LRA to get into their huts," Susan, one of the Barlonyo survivors, said.

"People were wailing everywhere. The attackers kept moving through the camp, and as they were approaching my house, I saw my neighbour running. I also decided to escape towards the dense bushes. I don't think the attackers saw me, though we could not see anybody because of the smoke," she explained.

She added: "One of my co-wives also ran another way, but the other co-wife stayed in the house and was killed as she was trying to escape. They (rebels) smashed her head and that of her three-year-old daughter with a club."

Indeed, it was mostly those who made the panicked decision to flee that survived. Most people were burnt inside their huts after following the instruction to enter their homes. Those who tried to escape were shot, mutilated with pangas (machetes) and beaten to death with sticks or pierced with bayonets.

Some children ran and hid in trees, watching the chaos unfold beneath them. One boy was too overwhelmed to hang onto the mango tree branches. After watching fellow children being butchered under the tree, the boy who was uncontrollably trembling lost his grip, jumped down and started to flee. But luck was no longer on his side as he was shot and killed instantly.

Some of residents were only saved by their houses which had iron roofs and steel doors. One woman who had such a house said about seven to 10 people had taken refuge in it and bolted the door. "The rebels came, kicked at the door, told us to open it but the more they pleaded, the more we found energy to hold the door hard until they gave up."

Some survivors recalled acts of humanity in this morass of killing. There were those who risked and lost their lives by fleeing to the camp ahead of the LRA to warn civilians of the imminent attack. There were also few soldiers among the LRA who helped people to hide or took steps to help people survive abduction.

The main goal of the attack at Barlonyo was to collect food and abduct new recruits.

The Rebels Retreated to Okwang Sub-county

After two and half hours, the rebels retreated from their conquest.

"After we had finished burning, shooting and stabbing people, Odhiambo blew his whistle and we all gathered under a tree. We tied red headbands on our heads so that we could easily be identifed. We abducted many people from Barlonyo that night," James said.

He added: "The rebels took us to where Odhiambo was seated. All three groups arrived at River Moroto. Odhiambo started talking to us, saying the Langi were at first good people but had now sided with the Government by sending their children to be recruited as home guards."

"About 30 civilians were picked randomly and put aside. Three of us were selected to kill the abductees as the rest witnessed. I became afraid, but they told me that I would be killed if I refused to do as I was told. I killed 15 people with pangas. We later moved to Okwang where Odhiambo ordered three of us to kill 15 more people. I killed five. Among them was my uncle and a clan mate. Twenty people abducted from Barlonyo were killed at the river bank of Moroto."

The UPDF Arrives

The LRA had left by 8:00pm, but between 9:00-10:00pm, three UPDF vehicles arrived in armoured personnel carriers (Mamba) and carried some of the injured to hospital in Lira.

As the morning broke, the news reached Lira town. Non-governmental organisations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC), local politicians and Members of Parliament, relatives and friends of the people living in Barlonyo, journalists and senior ranking UPDF soldiers arrived at the scene.

Government response

On February 24, President Yoweri Museveni visited Barlonyo to console the survivors. Then on March 27, he ordered for a decent burial of the victims and presided over the official mass burial ceremony. Museveni's visit was welcomed by the survivors, who referred to him as their father. The President promised to provide the survivors with infrastructure like a health centre, a technical school, a secondary school and a bridge in honour of those massacred. But none of these promises has been fulfilled yet.

Barlonyo on the SIXTH Anniversary

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the people massacred at Barlonyo. People, including politicians, religious leaders, survivors among others, gather to commemorate the fallen relatives and friends.

The majority of the survivors forgave the LRA when their delegation from the failed peace talks visited Barlonyo in 2009 and apologised.

One woman, abandoned by her husband after being disfigured by the LRA, said: "I forgave them (LRA) a long time ago. Even if they returned today, I would not harm them. I will instead welcome them to my home, give them water for bathing and even serve them food if I can afford."

Since 2005, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted five of the most senior LRA commanders of war crimes, attention has been directed towards the perpetuators.