Violent lessons from Barlonyo
We must be ready to build peace, writes Brian Williams
ON MARCH 22, 2018, a day after Human Rights Day was celebrated in South Africa, I visited Barlonyo, in northern Uganda, the site of one of the worst massacres of a civil war in that part of the country.
My visit came six days after the 50th anniversary of the My
Lai massacre in Vietnam when US soldiers under command of Lieutenant William Calley murdered 350 unarmed civilians.
At Barlonyo on February 21, 2004 a gang of armed bandits, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), decided to kill 301 unarmed civilians living in a protected camp for internally displaced people .
The camp was first infiltrated by a group of 15 bandits dressed in civvies, who mingled with soldiers and civilians, scouting to identify defensive weaknesses. As the sun set, Ugandan soldiers inside the camp were the first to be killed.
The “Trojans” donned soldiers’ uniforms, and unsuspecting civilians were lured to their deaths. The killing began quietly at first with infiltrators using pangas.
Peter Adupa, a guide and historian at the Barlonyo memorial site, said: “Outside the surrounded camp, 700 armed bandits amassed… at some point gunfire erupted.”
Injured screams pierced the night. The earth bled as killers sliced pregnant bellies and babies.
Women were repeatedly raped then killed.
People were forced into huts and set alight. Unspeakable horror descended on Barlonyo to maximise the lesson of terror and the Ugandan government’s impotence.
Evidence reveals the objective of the massacre was to prove that the government could not “protect civilians under its jurisdiction”.
It was triggered by a three-day Ugandan army operation which destroyed LRA camps and killed hundreds of bandits on February
18, 2004 at Corner Abichel, northeast of Patongo; on February 19, at Owony Odwee near Omot, and on February 20, at Keji Keji.
Benson Lugwar, a former child soldier was in one of those LRA camps. He described his experience: “war planes dropped bombs, many were killed… I was wondering how I survived… I escaped narrowly”.
At the time, Benson was personally assigned to Dominic Ongwen, the LRA leader.
Ongwen directed the attack on Balonyo, orchestrated from a command post 5km away. He is facing criminal charges at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, Netherlands.
Benson is one of many young people and former child soldiers who received peace and conflict transformation training from me in northern Uganda.
He has already begun the process of positively changing the lives of others. Benson has a soft, gentle face and is a slightly built young man.
I imagine as a child soldier he must have been very small, having been forcibly recruited at nine years old. Benson is determined to become a peace champion.
Barlonyo is indelibly etched into the history of modern Uganda.
At the memorial site, a blanket of lush green grass carpets the mass grave.
Flat stones painted white and cemented on the ground in a semi-circle adorn the grave.
It was Lent when I visited and I offered prayers from my rosary, in the shade of a fertile mango tree that stands as a guardian over the ringfenced earth.
Eyes closed, I stood in silence to absorb quiet energies, sounds of tranquillity and resurrected spirituality at the site.
Birds were gliding overhead and people strolled down the dusty streets adjacent to the grave site.
This normality belied the global significance of Barlonyo.
How different the tortured air was on the day the protection camp for internally displaced people was drenched with human blood.
But today, that poisoned air has dissipated and, in a crystallised moment of solitude, I realised that only fractured souls could perform such violent acts against unarmed people.
The Barlonyo slaughter turned out to be the death knell for the LRA, whose leaders were subsequently hunted by a coalition of African Special Forces assisted by other countries and the UN.
The tension between justice and peace plays itself out within the context of Barlonyo.
Many LRA bandits, including killers, who renounced violence, were given amnesty by the government and started to reintegrate back into society.
In a Daily Monitor article published on August 27, 2014 Anthony Wesaka reported: “Members of over 1 115 Barlonyo families of 302 killed… are demanding from government… compensation of 2 trillion Ugandan shillings.”
Wesaka said: “Aggrieved families hold government liable… no response from the Uganda Peoples Defence Force for over 24 hours to rescue them from rebel attacks.”
Dr Jino Mwaka, a Catholic priest, is the Rector of the University of the Sacred Heart.
The Catholic response to the killings, violence, child soldier phenomenon and ongoing trauma was to start a Peace University in line with the vision of Archbishop John Baptist Odama in Gulu, northern Uganda.
This was born out of recognising that the trauma of the civil war continued to infect relationships and an integrated approach was needed to bring about lasting peace and sustainable development.
Civil society organisations emerged to contribute to the spread of peace and development.
One such international organisation working in northern Uganda is the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative, founded by the Hollywood actor, Forest Whitaker, in 2012.
At Barlonyo, the government erected schools and improved conditions but many underdeveloped areas remain.
The site needs a museum to explain the significance of the massacre and the need to prevent wars and violence.
Adupa explained that a selfreliance principle is applied in Barlonyo.
The approach was to mobilise for peace and development and to do things for themselves and not to wait for the government.
According to the global peace index, as measured over the past 10 years, South Africa is a more violent society than Uganda.
In South Africa old and new elites have combined; structural violence and inequalities have become rooted. Increasingly, justice is accessible via the courts only for those who are rich and powerful.
We must consider human rights within a universal context and act in solidarity when these rights are trampled.
The lessons from Barlonyo for South Africans are that tragedies should not define us, but rather inspire us to an approach that embodies the principles of peace, human liberation and reconstructive activism.
We must take direct responsibility to build peace.
The government must consider amnesty for local warlords and non-state armed groups (gangs) as part of a macro strategy to break the stranglehold of endemic community violence.
New thinking and holistic development is needed to regenerate the country and rescue vulnerable communities from violence and hopelessness.
Williams is visiting professor in peace, mediation, reconciliation and labour relations at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Gulu, Uganda and the chief executive at Williams Labour Law and Mediation.
Anne, no last name given, stands in the remains of her house in 2004, in the Barlonyo camp 26km north of Lira in northern Uganda after a massacre by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, in which at least 200 people were killed.