Exactly 36 years ago this week, on 24th June 1981, the most concealed genocide in Uganda’s history was under way in the West Nile region. One particular incident would stand out but only because it was the one well documented horror.
Indeed the Comboni priests whose Church and school were attacked that day by Milton Obote’s fascist UNLA army backed by Tanzanian forces, would ensure that the carnage and blood spilt that day was brought to international attention.
That slaughter would come to be known as ‘The Ombachi Massacre’.
After the 1979 Tanzania war against President Amin, a somber atmosphere hang over Uganda’s West Nile region, a vast area bordering both DR Congo and South Sudan.
Terrorized communities sought refuge at the St Joseph’s college Ombaci, a school under the ambit of the Comboni Catholic missionaries, for safety from MiIton Obote’s rogue UNLA army.
It was however widely known that the region was being persecuted because they shared the same ethnicity with President Amin.
Refugees fleeing the area reported entire villages and trading centers being under attack and hundreds of thousand of people killed or seeking safety across the borders.
Indisciplined and drunk UNLA fighters raided the Church school. Scores of civilians were tortured and killed by random fire at both the Catholic mission and the adjacent secondary school.
A statement by the US-based Justice & Reconciliation Project said: “The massacre was by all accounts extremely chaotic, with groups of soldiers entering from all sides of the school and mission, and roving from room to room shooting and looting. This highlights the challenges survivors continue to face. We therefore made a number of recommendations, chiefly a call for compensation of survivors, as well as support for livelihoods, education, and reconciliation.”
Today, the Catholic mission grounds still have the three large mass graves where the victims of the horrific massacre were buried.
Veronica Eyotaru, now 60 years old, a survivor of the senseless killing meted out on innocent students and fleeing civilians that day, narrated how she suffered at the hands of the merciless UNLA fighters. This is her harrowing story (edited for clarity)
“Following the 1979 war, people in Arua [Amin’s home district] remained fearful, unsettled, and constantly threatened by Milton Obote and his Acholi army.
In the year 1981, two years after Amin had left, things became particularly worse. Civilians from surrounding villages as well as the nearby Arua town took refuge at St. Joseph’s College Ombaci and the neighbouring Catholic mission [approximately four kilometres from Arua town]. The Uganda Red Cross camped there to help the internally displaced people, giving them humanitarian aid.
On the morning of Wednesday, June 24, 1981, I left the college and wanted to run into exile in Sudan with my sister, Ezuru Anna but there was heavy bombing and the soldiers were using heavy guns; bullets were raining all over Arua. We decided to return to hide at Ombaci where others were hiding. Before we got there, we saw UNLA soldiers aboard military trucks reversing.
The moment we entered Ombaci College, they started shooting people from room to room.
There was a Red Cross leader called David who was shot in the leg in that confusion. I took cover in one of the dormitories but when I realized that 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 other people who had taken refuge in a garage in the Italian quarters. Soon the soldiers were all over us armed with guns, long knives, logs. They began shooting, stabbing, cutting and clobbering people left right and center.
They would enter rooms and kill every living person be it a child or an adult and only the lucky ones survived . They would shout in Kiswahili “sasa fungua RPG, fungua machine gun” [Swahili meaning “now open fire with the RPG (rocket propelled grenade), open fire with the machine gun!”] and they would fire endlessly on people.
Again they would shout “leta pesa!” [literally translated as “Bring money”]. But as people rose up to give their money, they were shot instantly. They kept shouting: “mama tie kani, baba tie kani, la mera tie kani!” (Acholi language for “where is my mother, where is my father, where is my sister!”) and they would then slaughter people with knives.
Other people were hiding in a wardrobe. They were bombed.
A catholic father, Turukato was throwing soldiers money to distract and persuade them not to kill people, but they continued.
I was shot in the leg; I did not know that I had another bullet lodged in the back of my head. While in the same room with my sister, the mother of a small boy called Leku from [nearby] Olivu village was shot dead instead of my sister, but the bullet grazed my sister’s breasts. By then she was 5 months pregnant. She dived on her belly but luckily the foetus wasn’t affected.
I saw a soldier striding towards us with a gun pointed at us. At that point, I surrendered my life as I watched him approach, I whispered to myself: ‘’I am dead!’ He fired but the bullet hit the man next to me who had a small kid. Another stray bullet grazed beneath my eye.
I tumbled down and five other people fell on me. I told a fat woman to ‘’get off me’’, only to discover later that she was already dead.
There was blood all over on the floor and too many dead bodies. Red Cross volunteers buried bodies in the same grave like cassava tubers. They started transferring injured people to Angal Mission hospital in Nebbi district because all the staff at Arua regional hospital had fled for their lives.
The UNLA fighters had staged a roadblock at Manibe trading centre, about a kilometre from Ombaci College, where they tortured people including patients destined for treatment at Angal hospital. They ordered the trucks carrying the injured to go back-and-forth between Ombaci and Manibe, and some died in the process.
After several attempts, we managed to pass and drive up to Bondo [Military barracks] and encountered another roadblock where soldiers climbed on the lorry and tortured people. They removed the [intravenous] drips from injured people; seven men died on the spot while a baby’s hands were ripped off. I don’t know if he survived. They tortured us on the way thoroughly because some soldiers said that the trucks were taking guerrilla fighters for treatment.
We reached Angal hospital [about 120 kilometres away] at 11pm, having left Arua at 11am. There were not enough rooms, nurses or doctors.
A Catholic nun and medical sister called Paula helped us a lot; she was the matron. There was also an Italian doctor called Carlo Spadnoli, married to a woman from Yumbe, who helped us immensely.
I remained admitted at Angal mission hospital for a whole year and was almost the last person [out of those injured during the Ombachi Massacre’] to leave the hospital. The UNLA soldiers never came to Angal hospital.
Since my sister’s injury was minor, she instead fled to Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo].
I returned home to Arua, but my leg was twisted because it had been placed up on traction for a year. Although I survived death that time, the effects have lived with me and 38 years later, I still have some fragments from those bullets in my body. To date I cannot kneel properly; the leg still pains especially in cold weather. I cannot engage in hard work at the garden, and because of the injury to my head, I cannot carry luggage.
I live a miserable life; there is no compensation to us the victims, nothing! No one is even talking about our plight, we have been left to suffer and die on our own.”