When Killers Are Rewarded

In July 2012, the Gender Justice Department at JRP organised the Greater North Grassroots Women’s Conference for women survivors of armed conflict. The aim of the conference was to identify concrete advocacy issues that affect women in order to formulate solutions and make policy recommendations. The discussions at the conference were largely geared towards reparations for the women victims who suffered during armed conflicts. The conference allowed JRP’s Olive Ederu to talk to Veronica Eyotaru, a survivor of the infamous Ombaci Massacre, about her experience and thoughts on reparations in Uganda.

By Olive Ederu

Veronica Eyotaru at Comboni Catholic Mission Animation Center, Gulu during the Greater North Grassroots Women’s Conference,July, 2012.

As I approach Veronica, she smiles warmly and we exchange pleasantries. When I ask her about the “Ombaci Massacre”, however, she seems  to be taken aback – her face falls and her mood darkens a little. To her the adage ‘’time heals’’ does not make any sense as time has never healed her physical and emotional wounds. As she looks back to the day when she narrowly  survived the infamous massacre in Ombaci Catholic Mission in Arua District in the West Nile region, she wonders if she and other survivors will ever be acknowledged or remembered.

In the recent past the Government of Uganda with donor support established a project for the repatriation, rehabilitation, resettlement and reintegration of reporters in Uganda costing about USD 4.2 million. The aim of the project was to assist the approximately 15, 300 ex-combatants in their reintegration into civilian life and to strengthen the capacity of the Amnesty Commission. Within the resettlement package, ex-combatants were offered counseling and referral services, cash, economic and educational opportunities as well as other support programs.

Despite the project boasting of having assisted in the distribution of 14, 816 resettlement packages to former rebels and their collaborators, the project has faced criticism because at its conception no thought was given to the victims that bore the real effects of the conflict. While the project was being implemented, some victims felt totally forgotten and that they deserved such above services even more.

Veronica shared her experience, frustration and recommendations.


The Massacre

The year was 1981, Idi Amin had been overthrown and his remnant soldiers had  regrouped and gone to the “bush” as guerrillas to begin fighting the ruling government from the West Nile region. Since the guerrillas did not have enough weaponry, except for  a few guns, bows, arrows and spears, they were overpowered by the Government soldiers who met them at Bondo (about 30km from Arua Town) and were driven northwards through Arua Town. Tensions were very high and the whole town smelt of war as many people escaped to the neighbouring Congo and Sudan.

Arua Town had become a war zone. Hundreds of civilians from surrounding villages as well as the town took refuge at Ombaci Catholic Mission about four kilometres from Arua Town in the belief that it would be a safe haven. Then the Government soldiers arrived! The day was Wednesday, June, the 24th, 1981, the time was 10:00 am. I had also taken refuge at the Mission with my sister Ezuru Anna for two days. It was quite a calm day compared to the previous ones, but something in me sensed trouble. So my sister and I decided to leave the mission to pick a few things from home which was two kilometres from the Mission and cross over to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). As we reached home, the Government soldiers had taken firm control of the town and were shooting towards our village so we chose not to cross over into to Congo and ran back to the Mission instead.

I took cover in one of the dormitories of Ombaci College within the Mission, but when I realised it was not safe, I entered the Italian quarters believing that the soldiers would have respect for the white missionary fathers and not venture into their living space. How wrong I was. I proceeded to join about 30 people who had also taken refuge in a garage in the Italian quarters.

Soon the soldiers were all over the Mission armed with guns, long knives, logs and small hoes as the violence intensified. They began shooting, stabbing, cutting and clobbering people left right and center. They would enter every room and clear (kill) every living person be it a child or an adult and only the lucky ones survived. “Sasa fungua RPG, fungua machine gun!” (loosely translated to mean “Now open RPG, open machine gun!”) they would shout and then they would fire endlessly on people.“Leta pesa!” (“Give us your money!”) they would order people, but as the people rose up to hand over their money, they were shot instantly. They were shooting as if they were spraying nursery beds with water.

At this time, I was still in the garage peeping through the vent and my whole body shook violently as I waited for death because I knew the soldiers were coming for us. I sat next to a man who held his grandson tightly and when I saw a soldier striding towards us I then knew my end had surely come. Aiming his gun at us he shot at the man twice and he fell on me. One of the bullets hit me on my right cheek and I blacked out.

I was later rescued by Red Cross workers when I screamed out of pain as bodies were being loaded on a truck (about 2000 people had been killed). I came to my senses in Angal Hospital which was when I realised I had been shot thrice: on my right cheek, the back of my head and my left thigh. I spent nine months at the Hospital where I was operated on my cheek and my left thigh to remove the bullets. 31 years down the road I still have some fragments from those bullets in my body.

The scars

Although I survived death that time, the effects have lived with me until now and I still suffer the aftermath of that incident. I cannot walk for over half a kilometre.  I cannot engage in hard work and because of the injury to my head I cannot carry luggage. I also have to hire labour which is quite expensive. When I hear the sound of loud bangs, I usually faint and I get sudden fits which I attribute to that single day’s experience.

The frustration

When I saw that the Government, through the Amnesty Commission, was supporting and aiding ex-combatants in West Nile in a bid to cause them to put down their arms I was greatly angered. These are the very people who perpetrated the violence directly or indirectly. I wondered how the killer could be supported at the expense of the survivors or the killed.

Such is the frustration of victims of massacres like Ombaci, as far as reparation is concerned. To them, the various schemes of Government’s support to ex-combatants or rebels amount to impunity, since the real persons who suffered innocently have remained largely unacknowledged.

Considering the views of many of the victims we have encountered, the Gender Justice Team at JRP makes the following recommendations:

  • Government’s focus should now be directed to establishing projects for the sole benefit of survivors of armed conflicts.
  • Survivors of the various armed conflicts should be readily identified and their suffering/losses documented to facilitate their reparation.
  • The Government should have a dialogue with the survivors to ascertain their specific reparation needs.
  • The survivors of armed conflicts should be remembered and acknowledged.
  • The establishment of victim or survivor groups should be encouraged.
  • Memorial prayers should be held at massacre sites to preserve such memories for the younger generations.
  • The Government should have a dialogue with the survivors to ascertain their specific reparation needs.
  • The survivors of armed conflicts should be remembered and acknowledged.
  • The establishment of victim or survivor groups should be encouraged.
  • Memorial prayers should be held at massacre sites to preserve such memories for the younger generations.▪