Focus on LRA attack on Barlonyo IDPs camp

All that remained of Barlonyo camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), north of Lira town, were huts burned to ashes. A few contained bodies still smouldering, others the charred remains of what were once granaries, clay pots, bicycles and jerry cans.

The few people still there on Monday were burying the dead. The other IDPs had grabbed their remaining possessions and headed out on foot for nearby urban centres. Here they would sleep rough, but face a lower risk of an another attack by rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Victoria Ogwar, 45, did not know quite where to go, but said she could not stay in Barlonyo. Carrying her remaining worldly possessions – an orange plastic basin, a few chunks of firewood and a cloth bag – she trudged along the bush path leading from the ashes of the camp to Ogur trading centre, 16 km away.

NO WARNING

"They really hit us," says Alfred Komakech, one of the local militiamen guarding the 4,800 IDPs in the camp on the night of the attack. His gaze swept over the black wreckage of the camp, target of the worst attack by the LRA in over 10 years, where at least 200 people were killed on Saturday evening.

It was the second attack on an IDP camp in Lira District in a month. On 5 February, the LRA killed about 50 people at Abia camp, about 10 km away. Like the Saturday incident, the Abia attack occurred at about 17:00 GMT. An investigation ordered by the government is under way.

Komakech, 20, told IRIN that the first warning of the attack came from a group of IDP children who had gone out to fetch water. They came running back, shouting that rebels were advancing from the adjacent forest.

"By then it was too late. They came running at us and started firing straight away – they had all these big guns. They bombed the barracks, and many of us [the militia] fled after we finished our ammunition," he said.

REBELS WELL ARMED

Komakech told IRIN at Barlonyo that the LRA had vastly superior firepower. "They had all these big RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and recoilless weapons – they were brand new," he said. "We did not stand a chance."

The Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) put the death toll at 84, thereby angering local leaders, who insisted they had counted 192 bodies right at the scene of the massacre. More bodies were later discovered in bushes nearby.

The army also disputed claims that the LRA had new weapons. Chris Magezi, the UPDF spokesman in Lira, 380 km north of the capital, Kampala, told IRIN: "How could they see whether the LRA guns were new? It was dark."

However, the main UPDF spokesman, Maj Shaban Bantariza, had earlier told IRIN in Kampala that
"the rebels had superior weapons. The militias have not yet had the training to use similar firepower. They were out-armed."

President Yoweri Museveni, who says the rebels are being armed by neighbouring Sudan, flew into Lira on Monday. He blamed the UPDF for letting the massacre happen, but downplayed the significance of the new weapons. "We shouldn’t put too much emphasis on big guns. The issue is not guns – it is about confidence and knowledge in fighting," he asserted.

"It is possible the Amuka [local militia] were not properly trained about weapons and their capabilities. These RPGs are useless in a bush war, because they only do damage in confined spaces," he told reporters.

IDPs BURNED ALIVE

Samuel Ogwal, 30, a camp shopkeeper, was resting with his wife and four children when the rebels stormed the camp. "I was just inside, then we heard some commotion and firing in the distance. I saw a group of guys in uniform. They were setting huts on fire, and people were screaming, burning inside the huts," he said. "Then I saw them running towards my shop. I just grabbed my youngest [child] and ran."

Ogwal could neither save his wife nor his parents. He returned on Sunday morning, only to find his parents shot dead and his wife brutally hacked with a machete. But his three sons, including an infant who sustained two bullet wounds, survived. "We were lucky," he told IRIN.

IDP belongings burning in a hut

Poorly defended by a newly trained local militia group, the camp had been a sitting duck, the IDPs said. Ogwal said the rebels did not even bother to fight the militia, just firebombing their barracks, then going straight for the civilians. "Before anyone knew what was going on, they were setting huts ablaze and shooting at people," he said.

The cult-like LRA has waged war in northern Uganda for 18 years. Led by a reclusive mystic, Joseph Kony, they say they want topple the Ugandan government. Yet they consistently target defenceless civilians. In 1995, they slaughtered 240 civilians in an attack on a village in Atiak, herding them into a corner and shooting them dead.

DEVASTATING IMPACT ON NORTH AND EAST

Relief workers say the conflict has had a devastating impact on northern and eastern Uganda, displacing about 1.4 million people - nearly 75 percent of the area's population. The rebels have also abducted about 30,000 children since the mid-1990s. These children have either been forced to fight for the rebels or provide sexual favours.

"Fear of abduction and attacks prevent most people in the camps from cultivating the land. Economic activities have largely come to a halt and most displaced persons depend on aid for their survival," said the UN's Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a statement.

Roman Catholic Father Sebhat Ayele, who visited Barlonyo shortly after the attack, told IRIN that the LRA had numbered about 300. Dressed like members of the UPDF and armed with assault rifles and artillery, they stormed Barlonyo at about 17:00 GMT. Using a recoilless gun, they fired into a barracks housing the 35-strong militia guard unit before moving into the camp.

Other survivors said at Lira Referral Hospital that most of the IDPs who died were burned alive. The rebels set fire to their thatched huts after ordering them into their houses at gunpoint. Others, who were trying to flee, were shot, bludgeoned or hacked to death by rebels wielding clubs, machetes and AK-47s.

ATTACK INTERNATIONALLY CONDEMNED

Saturday's attack, which is due to be probed by the International Criminal Court, has drawn a barrage of condemnation. "This senseless atrocity underscores the need for increased security in northern Uganda and protection of vulnerable civilians," UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland said in a statement. "There is urgent need for a workable solution to this 18-year tragedy."

"Attacks on civilians cannot be justified in any circumstances," Amnesty International (AI) said in another statement. "The LRA should immediately cease all attacks on civilians, end all forcible abductions and release all those held as captives, especially children."

AI urged the Ugandan authorities "to show their commitment to the basic principle of protection of civilian populations by taking effective measures to boost security at all existing IDP camps in northern Uganda".

"In the 18-year conflict between the LRA and the government of Uganda, civilians remain the prime target of attacks, killings, maimings, abductions, and destruction of property. These attacks should be addressed as a matter of urgency. Over 1.2 million people are living in testing conditions in IDP camps across northern Uganda," AI said.

Victoria (front) and other IDPs fleeing Barlonyo

Residents in camps outside Lira town told IRIN that conditions were appalling, made so by lack of adequate food, water, sanitation and medicine. Scores of children had died, they said. "I see children dying of cholera every day, and some have died because there is no water - they are drying up. I have personally buried 17 in the last week," said Joseph Omara, a church leader in Omoro IDP camp. Omoro, 60 km east of Lira, houses about 10,000 people.

Omara said many other IDPs had been killed by rebels as they ventured outside the camps. "People leave the camps to collect food, and that's where they [the LRA] strike. On Friday [13 February], they killed a boy called Alio. He was just outside the camp, going to get water," he told IRIN.

Relief workers say access to the IDPs has been made difficult by the fluid security situation in the region. "The provision of aid poses several challenges, among which are access to victims and their security in places of residence," said OCHA in a statement.

The LRA intensified its operations against Lira District last November with a series of brutal attacks on villages, IDP camps and trading centres. But these attacks led to fewer casualties than the Saturday massacre.

Observers say Lira was targeted because the rebels ran out of food after the army forced most of them out of the Teso region. Lira is a corridor between Teso and the country's far north. But observers say the UPDF has not demonstrated enough commitment to mopping up the rebels after they left Teso, leaving the much smaller local militias to pursue them.

The mayor of Lira town, Peter Owiny, told IRIN that the IDP population had stretched the town's facilities to the limit. "The population of Lira was officially 90,000, but it is now up to 350,000 people." The local hospital, where at least 60 injured IDPs were writhing in pain, he added, could hardly cope with the situation.

Religious leaders in the region have urged the government and the rebel leader, Joseph Kony, to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. But Museveni has ruled out negotiations, saying the rebels are terrorists who will be defeated militarily.

At Lira hospital on Tuesday, Museveni, clad in military uniform and surrounded by UPDF soldiers, repeated his position before driving off to Barlonyo. "We have got a big struggle, but we shall win. We have won previous battles," he told reporters.

ALSO SEE: IRIN Web Special on Life in northern Uganda