Vi­o­lent lessons from Bar­lonyo

We must be ready to build peace, writes Brian Williams

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

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.

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