1981 Ombaci Massacre

On Wednesday June 24, 1981, Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) soldiers besieged Arua town in a bloodbath pursuit of rebels and former soldiers of the Uganda Army.

This followed the overthrow of Idi Amin Dada, the then President of Uganda. The overthrow of Amin’s government on April 11, 1979 left the people of Arua (Amin’s home district) in fear as the liberation war was threatening. Arua town became a war zone as Amin’s defeated soldiers came from the neighbouring Terego and Yumbe counties, and South Sudan to seek refuge at St. Joseph’s College Ombaci and the neighbouring Catholic mission, about 4km North East of Arua town.

Hundreds of civilians from surrounding villages as well as the town also ran to Ombaci but, little did they know that it would be their last.

The attack on the mission, according to victims, was against international covenants to which Uganda is a signatory to as the International Committee of Red Cross had raised its flag in the compound of the mission to receive fleeing nationals.

The Ombaci - Italian Catholic Mission was set up in the area in the early years, between 1920 and 1950. This later saw the establishment of St. Joseph's Technical College by the Comboni Missionaries. By the early 1970s, the technical school was transformed into the government aided St Joseph’s College Ombaci Secondary School.

Ombaci which has one of the tallest satellite antennas in the East Africa region was also a refugee settlement center for refugees from South Sudan under the care of Uganda Red Cross (URC).

However, in a bid to rid the area of the remnants of Amin’s soldiers and tribal mate, the area became the scene of a bloody massacre.

On the fateful day in 1981, forces of the newly installed government of Dr. Milton Obote II attacked the Catholic mission and killed about 100 innocent civilians for belonging to the same ethnic group with Amin.

Scores were killed in firing squads in both the Catholic mission and majorly in Ombaci Secondary School which happens to share a common fence with the mission.

The government soldiers shot people from room to room including some Red Cross officials.

A section of civilians, who attempted to enter the Italian quarters believing that the soldiers would have respect for the white missionary fathers and not venture into their living space were followed up and killed there.

The soldiers were all over armed with guns, long knives, logs as they shot, stabbed, cut and clobbered people mercilessly. No lives were sparred as both children and adults were killed.

According to the few survivors, other soldiers would shout ‘leta pesa!’ (give us money) but as the 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 words for where is my mother, where is my father, where is my sister!) And they would then knife people.

When the situation worsened, a Catholic father, Turukato attempted to throw money at the soldiers to distract and persuade them not to kill people, but they continued. Other people, who were hiding in wardrobes; were bombed with a few then tortured at both the Catholic mission and at the secondary school.

There was bloodshed everywhere and scores of dead bodies all around. Red Cross volunteers buried bodies in same grave like cassava tubers. Injured people were transferred to Angal Mission hospital in Nebbi district because staff at Arua regional hospital had deserted and operations were down.

The liberation army had staged a roadblock at Manibe trading centre, about half a kilometre from Ombaci College, where they tortured people including patients destined for treatment at Angal hospital. They ordered the trucks carrying the injured back-and-forth between Ombaci and Manibe, and some died in the process. For those, who managed to pass and drive up to Bondo (military barracks), they encountered another roadblock where soldiers climbed on the lorry and then tortured people. The soldiers allegedly removed the drips (for intravenous) from people; seven men died on the spot while a baby’s hands were seen ripped off on the grounds that the trucks were taking guerrillas for treatment.

Documentation The Uganda Human Rights Commission has made recent visits to the site where the massacre took place but is yet to come up with a comprehensive report.

However, a 2013 report by the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) indicates that the government soldiers at the time (UNLA) violated international law for which the government of Uganda is still responsible.

“The murders and looting clearly amount to crimes against humanity…” says the report which adds: “What makes The Ombaci Massacre such an egregious violation was the deliberate targeting of civilians, a religious mission and of clergy and International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC) personnel, who are explicitly protected in instances of non-international armed conflict such as this one under Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war.”

Late bishop Fredrick Drandua, who became the Bishop of Arua Catholic Diocese later after the massacre, recounted that for all the atrocities that took place at Ombaci, “there is need for all of us to rise above the bad days and forge ahead by doing good, forgiving and forgetting.”

The scars

36 years later, some victims of Ombaci massacre still have fragments of bullets in their body. To date, others cannot work, engage in headwork and carry luggage. The Catholic Mission grounds have four large mass graves where the victims of this massacre were buried.

The Ombaci Massacre Day Commemoration

On 24th June 2015, the communities in West Nile remembered The Ombaci Massacre victims in solidarity with the survivors in an annual commemoration of the OMBACI MASSACRE DAY under the theme: “Remembering the Victims to Promote Healing and Reconciliation.” The mass of the day was led by Rt. Rev. Sabino Ocan Odoki, the Arua Catholic Diocese Bishop.

As part of the events to commemorate the day, Refugee Law Project participated in an evening vigil on 23rd June, 2015 at Ombaci mission as a precursor for the day’s memorial service celebration.

During the vigil a video documentary (yet to be launched) titled “Remembering a Tragedy” was screened and survivors shared their experiences and memories. Critical in the vigil were calls for acknowledgement, reparation, healing and the need for reconciliation.”

On Wednesday June 24, 1981, Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) soldiers besieged Arua town in a bloodbath pursuit of rebels and former soldiers of the Uganda Army.