By Human Rights Watch Press
Published November 8, 2014
The response of the government of Uganda to deadly ethnic violence and reprisals in the Rwenzori region of the western part of the East African country in July 2014 has been inadequate.
On November 5, 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the government to “arrange for a credible independent investigation to examine the circumstances of the initial attacks, the subsequent response – including the possible involvement of government forces in reprisal attacks and torture, and the adequacy of protection for civilians in the following days.”
Saying details of the violence, including the total death toll, remain unclear, HRW says its research and credible media reports indicate that the violence began on July 5, when some members of the Bakonzo ethnic group – possibly hundreds of people – organized in small units attacked police and army posts in several districts with guns, machetes, and bows and arrows. The attacks sparked reprisals by members of other ethnic groups, and possibly the security forces, as well as brutal counter-security operations against Bakonzo civilians over the following days.
Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “Horrific acts of violence took place in western Uganda four months ago, and members of all the ethnicities involved should have timely justice. The government should urgently support a serious, credible, and above all, independent investigation into the July violence in Rwenzori.”
From August to October, Human Rights Watch conducted research into the July attacks and the government forces’ response, interviewing 52 victims, witnesses, journalists, and religious and local civil society leaders, as well as local members of government and cultural leaders from the various local ethnic groups in the region. Human Rights Watch also visited hospitals, an informal center hosting applicants for a government-initiated amnesty, and victims displaced by the violence, as well as several attack sites.
The coordinated attacks on July 5 by members of the Bakonzo ethnic group, some wearing masks, were carried out in Kasese, Bundibugyo, and Ntoroko districts. In some areas, particularly Bundibugyo district, government forces did not adequately protect Bakonzo civilians from retaliatory attacks, including beating, mutilation, and killing, Human Rights Watch found. Police and the military in Kasese district responded to the initial attacks by rounding up, beating, and detaining unarmed civilians. Human Rights Watch received reports that some security officials were involved in reprisal killings and beatings and that numerous victims of the violence had been buried in mass graves.
“I entered the hall and saw blood and brain spilled on the floor,” said one man in Bundibugyo who is from the Bakonzo ethnic group. He, along with others, had been ordered to remove the bodies of victims of a reprisal attack. “Heads were shattered.”
Local media reports suggest that over 100 people were killed during the violence. On July 7, President Yoweri Museveni said that 65 Ugandans had been killed by “schemes of some confused and selfish bunch of people.” However, reprisals continued over the next three days. Witnesses and victims reported targeted attacks on Bakonzo civilians by other ethnic groups and security operatives in the area. On July 10, Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga told parliament that in all, at least 92 people had been killed.
Victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that the total is likely higher as people were buried in unmarked graves and some people remain unaccounted for. Several witnesses said at least 50 of the alleged Bakonzo attackers are believed to be among the dead, though many more were probably people fleeing the violence. In one area, some Bakonzo elders compiled a list of 83 people who are missing.
“I counted 53 bodies, which we loaded on a tractor,” said one man ordered to bury people in mass graves. “We picked up the bodies from inside the barracks. Some of the bodies had no heads and hands, others had bullet wounds on the head and chest.”
“The question remains, who is buried in these mass graves and who killed them?” said Burnett. “Without timely and independent investigations, those questions remain unanswered and victims have no justice.”
Bakonzo cultural leaders told Human Rights Watch that the attacks were not meant to target local ethnic groups, but were a protest against perceived historical marginalization by the central government. Some leaders of the Bakonzo, who are predominantly farmers, allege that the government favors the Basongora ethnic group, mostly cattle keepers largely from Kasese district, and the Bamba ethnic group predominantly from Bundibugyo district.
On July 28, a Bakonzo group claiming responsibility for the attacks wrote to President Museveni explaining their motivation, highlighting land conflicts, the refusal of the president to meet Bakonzo cultural elders, and high unemployment rates among Bakonzo people.