Warning. Obote, while in exile, had warned senior UNLA officers in December 1985 that if the NRA seized power, it would commit massacres in northern Uganda.
The first counterinsurgency operations by the NRA, now the new national army, came late in February 1986. NRA units rounded up civilians and suspected remnants of the recently defunct UNLA in Tororo District.
In Busoga, also in February 1986, the NRA started rounding up civilians and other suspects ostensibly in search of guerrillas belonging to a new group called the Force Obote Back Again (FOBA), which, it is said, was started by the former Minister of Internal Affairs and a close aide to Obote, Dr John Luwuliza Kirunda.
Major (Dr) Odur, of Mbuya Military Hospital in Kampala, was arrested in November 1986 allegedly for belonging to FOBA.
The idea that an educated and politically experienced person like Dr Kirunda would start a rebel group with the suggestion that “force” should be used to restore Obote to power, easily exposed a clumsy propaganda effort by the NRA and proved that FOBA was a fictitious creation by the government.
In July 1986, remnants of the UNLA started forming spontaneous resistance groups and units in Acholi to fight back the NRA over its counterinsurgency operations.
Reasons for struggle
In a statement in June 2006 spelling out its reasons for taking up arms against the Museveni government, the Lord’s Resistance Movement (LRM), the political wing of Joseph Kony’s LRA, gave a background to the atrocities committed by the NRA in Acholi in 1986.
“Many defeated UNLA soldiers were tricked and lured to hand over their guns and surrender to the NRA with a false promise of amnesty while, in fact, there were well-coordinated plans to arrest and kill all of them. When the pattern of killings and disappearances became clear, shock waves and fear spread among the soldiers, who had no alternative but to save their own skins by running away….
“When the UPDA [Uganda People’s Democratic Army] led by Lt Gen Bazillio Okello was finally destroyed, the NRA continued with atrocities, which they carried out with arrogance and a sense of revenge. The marauding NRA soldiers killed our fathers and mothers, raped our sisters in the open, and sodomised our brothers while we looked on,” the statement read.
“As if these were not enough, our homes were torched and razed, livestock and produce looted. This has been one of the most miserable periods in our history and many people were greatly terrified.”
On August 22, 1986, about 2,000 UPDA guerrillas attacked a detachment of the NRA’s 35th Battalion, commanded by Major George William Matovu and his deputy, Capt. Joseph Mutebi, at Akiroc, 42 miles from Kitgum Town.
The NRA detachment was manned by 120 soldiers and 28 UPDA rebels and 25 NRA soldiers were killed.
In a report on Uganda in 1989, the London-based human rights monitor, Amnesty International, appeared to support the LRA’s claim, stating that “by August 1986… armed conflict had resumed in the north. A major reason for this was the behaviour of the NRA.”
With the NRA also engaged in aggressive counterinsurgency operations in Teso, the former Minister of State for Defence in the second UPC government, Peter Otai, formed a resistance force called the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) in May 1987.
William Awemu was named the head of the civilian administration of the UPA, while Captain Francis (“Hitler”) Eregu was the overall military commander.
Sunlight Okiror --- the famous late 1970s weightlifter and “power man” renowned for his crowd-pulling stunts, holding with ropes tied to cars in reverse gear --- was named the commander of the UPA’s headquarters brigade.
In January 1987, Fred Rwigyema, the then overall NRA commander in Acholi, launched a major counterinsurgency operation.
The village folk in the Corner Kilak area in Acholi were ordered to assemble their men, whom he was to address on January 17.
After the men assembled, NRA soldiers herded them off to nearby bushes. They allegedly spent the whole day and the next, Sunday January 18, without food or water.
The next day, according to survivors and witnesses, gunfire erupted from the direction of the bushes where the men of Corner Kilak were being held.
Later, Rwigyema explained to journalists what had happened: “We killed about 350 and these are the bodies we have counted.
There are many more bodies lying in the field. These are the ones we have counted so far. The number of the dead could be more than 600)… We were surprised to see the rebels coming at us without taking cover. We kept massacring them but they kept coming and we killed so many.” (The Standard newspaper, Nairobi, January 21, 1987)
Rwigyema had just commanded a massacre of unarmed civilians.
President Museveni flew into Corner Kilak by helicopter on January 18, 1987 and later said: “The rebels attacked us at a place called Corner Kilak 20 miles South of Kitgum. They came in while singing and shouting; our people [NRA soldiers] massacred those chaps. They approached us frontally. This gave us a very good chance because they exposed themselves; so on Sunday, we surrounded them and massacred them. We massacred them very badly.” (The Standard, January 21, 1987)
It was the first time Ugandans had ever heard a head of state openly, in public, use a graphic term like “massacre”.
It was, unquestionably, the campaign that former president Milton Obote had warned senior UNLA officers in December 1985 would be unleashed on northern Uganda should the NRA seize power.
On November 22, 1988, the chairman of the Uganda Peace Society and veteran DP politician, Tiberio Atwoma Okeny, wrote a letter to Museveni on the desperate situation in Acholi:
“Reports of incredible atrocities have been, by and large, corroborated by the government-owned [newspaper], The New Vision of 7th September, 1st and 16th November 1988… Mr President, the severity and magnitude of the scorched-earth policy has reached proportions, which [have] poisoned the minds of the people who are facing the onslaught, that it is the beginning of the implementation of the often publicly uttered statements by high-ranking NRM officials to exterminate a people.”
The NRA had launched an unprecedented reign of terror in northern and eastern Uganda, the likes of which had never been seen.