Like Tattered Grass Beneath Warring Elephants: The Destruction of the Acholi in Uganda

The Acholi people in northern Uganda weathered unimaginable suffering for decades, yet their story has rarely been told. This report will shine a light on their past and present plight.

The Acholi’s harrowing ordeal began under Idi Amin’s dictatorship in the seventies. Historian Mark Curtis says that after Amin instigated a coup, Britain, the United States, and Israel quietly backed Amin and his campaign against the socialist-leaning President Milton Obote in 1971. The insurrectionists brutally purged the Acholi and Langi tribes from Uganda’s army of officers. These “traitorous” northern tribesmen were associated with Obote’s overthrown regime and had to be replaced with trustworthy soldiers, civil servants, and intelligence agents recruited from Amin’s own people in the West Nile region. The British Foreign Office, without ever raising a finger in protest, reported that Amin loyalists massacred hundreds of Acholi troops with impunity.

Amin soon terrorised the Acholi people to consolidate his grip on power and discourage any opposition. Members of the dreaded State Research Bureau (SRB), Amin’s Israeli and Soviet-trained secret police, carried out this gruesome task. The SRB falsely accused men and women like Apollo Lawoko, who miraculously survived his traumatic stay in a detention centre, of being Acholi traitors plotting to usurp Amin’s government.

Lawoko told the African Crime and Conflict Journal that he witnessed SRB torturers club and beat 150 to 200 Acholi and Langi to death for months in 1977: “The blood would flow back into our cell as our fellow prisoners were killed.” Acholi businessman George Lukweya added that he spent nearly two weeks in prison without food or water as he watched the SRB bludgeon inmates with hammers. Scholars estimate that Amin was responsible for the murder of 300,000-500,000 Ugandans before a 1979 Tanzanian invasion finally forced him into exile and brought an end to his reign of terror.

However, lasting peace eluded Uganda when the Bush War erupted in 1981. Yoweri Museveni’s minuscule NRA (National Resistance Army) rebel group began a guerrilla campaign against UNLA (Uganda National Liberation Army) state forces under President Obote, who returned to office in a rigged election. Both Museveni’s and Obote’s disastrous tactics during the Bush War served as blueprints for the mass displacement and incarceration of the Acholi people throughout the late nineties and early noughties.

Museveni, faced with devastating UNLA counterinsurgency operations, ordered the forceful evacuation and displacement of civilian populations in the Luwero Triangle region. The NRA, according to historian Onek Adyanga, used innocent people as expendable human shields to withstand UNLA assaults. Moreover, rebels did not have enough food, medicine, and lodgings to feed or protect their civilian hostages. As a result, countless people died of starvation and disease in filthy transit camps. NRA veterans like Rubaramira Ruranga admitted years later that these unnecessary evacuations caused untold misery: “It was very sad for me to see people die of hunger. To date, I still remember those days and I shudder in shock.”

Meanwhile, President Obote, in the wake of a major offensive against the NRA, herded approximately 120,000 people from Luwero into 36 “protected” camps in multiple districts. Refugee expert Jeff Crisp observed that UNLA battalions had total control of the camps and forbade the displaced from moving around as they pleased. UNLA soldiers even decreed that anyone found leaving the camps without permission would be treated as guerrillas or NRA allies. Yet, UNLA soldiers exempted themselves from such rigorous discipline and became renowned for their drunken, criminal, and lascivious behaviour. Unruly and inebriated soldiers routinely failed to protect displaced inhabitants from barbaric rebel attacks.

Abysmal living conditions in these borderline concentration camps, replete with frequent outbreaks of malaria, measles, and whooping cough epidemics, bore a striking resemblance to what millions of Acholi in northern Uganda endured over a decade later—albeit on a far greater and terrifying scale.

Museveni and the NRA eventually emerged victorious in the civil war. Demoralised and disgruntled UNLA generals toppled Obote in 1985, only for the NRA to defeat them, in turn, a year later. Yet, President Museveni, rather than restoring democracy, stability, and prosperity, instituted a repressive one-party state bent on exacting vengeance on the remnants of the UNLA—the vast majority of whom were Acholi. In fact, the Bush War never ended in 1986. The NRA merely dragged the conflict from central Uganda into the northern Acholi territories.

Museveni’s armed forces initiated “Operation Pacifying North” in the late eighties and committed heinous atrocities against Acholi civilians and former UNLA combatants. Political scientist Philipp Schulz revealed that the NRA used rape and sexual violence as weapons of war to humiliate Acholi men and women, often in front of entire communities. Survivors, especially men, still suffer numerous physical and psychological impediments because they are too ashamed and afraid to seek out medical treatment: “They would have laughed at you, called you a homosexual or even reported you to the government.” Widespread homophobia ensures that male rape survivors are unlikely to receive the care they so urgently need.

Olara Otunnu, former Undersecretary-General at the UN, claimed that clinics screened government troops for HIV/AIDS, and those who tested positive were deliberately deployed to northern Uganda to inflict “mass destruction” on the Acholi population. Victorinio, a former town leader based in Gulu, also alleged in the documentary A Brilliant Genocide that many soldiers were infected with HIV.

Additionally, anthropologist Sverker Finnström argues that state troops decimated Acholi livelihoods by stealing or killing their precious cattle in droves. Michael Anywar vividly remembered when troops “would come and defecate in our cows’ mouths. They’d slit their throats and kill them for fun!” These monstrous cruelties gave birth to Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—a rebel movement that abducted thousands of children to replenish its dwindling ranks. LRA members instilled a climate of fear in northern Uganda and threatened to maim, disfigure, or murder Acholi who collaborated with the government.

Museveni, despite having many opportunities to broker a swift and peaceful resolution to the LRA insurgency throughout the nineties, decided instead to impose near-permanent warfare in northern Uganda. Scholars like Adam Branch, Helen Epstein, and Rebecca Tapscott suggest that he intentionally prolonged the LRA conflict to justify demands for more humanitarian and military aid from international donors. Ostensibly in response to LRA raids, Museveni ordered the forceful displacement of millions of Acholi into overcrowded “protected villages” between 1996 and 2006. Water engineer Otto Amiza, among many other visitors, compared them to concentration camps.

IDP camps eroded Acholi customs, religious practices, and traditional values. People experienced what Chris Dolan calls “social torture” daily. Protracted internment dehumanised the Acholi and reduced them to a state of constant dependency. Suicide rates skyrocketed as women sold their bodies in exchange for food or money, while men, deprived of the tools and means to make a decent living, turned to alcohol in despair. Children born in the camps barely completed primary or secondary schooling: “…you would have only one school for the 30,000…education was terribly bad.” To make matters worse, World Vision Uganda reported in 2006 that around 1,000 children died every week in the camps. Unsurprisingly, Acholi Bishop Macleod Ochola II accused the Ugandan government of waging a genocidal policy designed to exterminate his people and expose a depopulated Acholiland to corporate exploitation.

What can be done to make amends to the Acholi? Today, most IDP camps have been decommissioned, but their horrible legacy continues to scar the youth of northern Uganda. A researcher at the London School of Economics interviewed a young woman named Juliet who grew up in the camps without formal education. She was 12 when she began primary school and dropped out three years later. Juliet, fortunately, did not become a victim of child marriage, but many of her friends and cohorts were not so lucky.

What the Acholi want and need, above all else, is affordable education. Sociologist David Westfall proved that there are hidden costs to Uganda’s supposedly free Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE) systems. Parents do not earn enough money to afford meals, uniforms, and textbooks. The Ministry of Education must do all in its power to provide schooling that is truly free and accessible. In addition, if older Acholi hope to make up for lost time and learn skills to thrive once again, the Ministry has to implement a vast program of weekly or nightly adult education courses in northern Uganda.

Furthermore, thousands of Acholi still have no choice but to live in dilapidated IDP camps because rapacious foreign investors and oil companies purchased their land. A 2012 Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) report clearly states that the survival of Acholi communities depends “on their ability to farm their land and sell their harvest.” The Acholi must look to activists and environmentalists elsewhere in Uganda for inspiration, like the Mbibo Zikadde Women’s Group, and muster the courage and resources to challenge the often illegal takeovers of Acholi territory.

Reclaiming ancestral land and gaining a better education are the building blocks for a brighter future in which the dignity and pride of the Acholi people will be restored.




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