Ex-Soldier Accuses Uganda Army Of Gross Atrocities--Report

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If Masaba's stories were complete lies, why then wouldn't they want to charge him officially and detain him legally? And why would the government trace Masaba all the way to the Central Africa Republic, simply for deserting the army when soldiers desert on a daily basis?

[International: Uganda Atrocities]

 

There have been persistent allegations that Uganda’s national army has also engaged in massive human rights abuses during the 20 years war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, including mutilating civilians and blaming it on the LRA. The following is an investigative news article that appeared April 28 in Uganda’s The Independent newspaper, which is published by internationally-respected journalist Andrew Mwenda; Mwenda was arrested and for a while detained by Uganda security agents after the publication of this article. The Committee to Protect Journalist condemned Mwenda’s arrest.)

 


Who maimed, killed civilians in northern Uganda?


Two weeks ago, 24-year-old UPDF Lance Corporal Godfrey Masaba was the target of a botched raid by security operatives on the offices of The Independent.


More than 40 plain-clothed security operatives and policemen descended on the paper's compound acting on a tip that Masaba was in the office. But rather than nab Masaba, the security operatives bundled the paper's gatekeeper, Herbert Labeja, in the back of their Land Cruiser, giving Masaba a chance to escape.

On March 31st, the Advertising Manager of The Independent, Godrick Dambyo, and the paper's reporter, John Njoroge, were arrested and detained by plain-clothed security operatives at Uganda's border with Rwanda.


They were accused of trying to smuggle Masaba into Rwanda. Why does the state have such an interest in Masaba? The army spokesman, Paddy Ankunda says Masaba is a deserter. But there are many deserters in Uganda and the state does not hunt them with such zeal.


Now The Independent has Masaba's tale, a story that potentially explains why he is such a wanted man. As part of investigative series on state-sponsored torture in Uganda, The Independent has interviewed more than a dozen alleged torture victims, Masaba being one of them.


Masaba ran to exile in Central Africa Republic (CAR) in May of 2007. He was arrested there and detained without trial for two months. Then on August 20th 2007, that country's president, Francois Bozize, put Masaba on the presidential jet and personally flew with him to Uganda.


He handed him over to President Yoweri Museveni at Sheraton Hotel, a fact confirmed by interior minister, Ruhakana Rugunda. It is not known what deal Museveni gave Bozize to perform this role; but it suggests that there is something big about Masaba.


Masaba's story begins in June of 2003, with an order crackling out of his army commander's receiver. "Get your men ready," the order, according to Masaba, said. "We have intelligence that the LRA will be passing through Corner Kilak in about an hour's time." As Masaba tells it, the commander of his battalion didn't hesitate. He ordered his men to form the aquifer. Masaba, then 19, hid with his soldiers behind bushes and trees, gun cocked.


The men marching down the road were caught unaware. By the time the ceasefire signal was brought down to the line, Masaba says that hundreds of soldiers were killed. "It took 30 minutes for the ceasefire to get across. I brought down my gun and I went out and looked at them," Masaba recalls. "And I realized, these were the boys we used to eat with."


The men who walked themselves straight into a UPDF ambush were not the LRA at all, Masaba says. They were UPDF soldiers, members of the 77th Battalion. Just months earlier, the two battalions, both part of the same 401 Brigade, had been training together. As Masaba stepped over the men, finally seeing past the cover of darkness that had been shielding their faces, he looked into the frozen eyes of Private James, a soldier who had brought him food and medicine when he had malaria.


According to Masaba, the friendly fire incident, which he says occurred in June of 2003, was planned. The ill-fated 77 battalion, he says, was made up of former LRA soldiers who, after being incorporated into the UPDF, were sent to the Congo to flush out Allied Democratic Forces rebels.


After the massacre, rumor spread around Masaba's battalion that the LRA-turned-UPDF soldiers were demanding huge salary arrears which they had not been paid while in Congo. Rather than pay the arrears, the higher ups decided to kill the soldiers and eat their salaries. The commander of 401 brigade, who brought down the order, was taken to the Court Martial, but, Masaba says, nothing ever came of it.


The incident wasn't reported in the press and the army spokesperson, Paddy Ankunda, says he's not aware of it. But there's no doubt that Masaba – who says he was tortured in two separate CMI "safe houses", both of which he escaped from – has information the government doesn't want out.


"He's a deserter," says Ankunda. "He's a very dangerous man." Uganda's Minister of Internal Affairs, Ruhakana Rugunda confirmed that Masaba was an army deserter who escaped to the Central African Republic and was taken back to Uganda, but he claimed not to know enough about Masaba to explain why he is considered dangerous. But the CMI's raid on The Independent, and the fact that Masaba was brought back all the way from CAR suggests that the threat he poses has something more to do than mere desertion.


The government didn't always see a free Masaba as dangerous. He was a UPDF soldier for five years, and according to his own testimony, he was chosen to be part of a top-secret "Special Force Unit" called 181 comprised of the most trustworthy soldiers from 401 Brigade. Masaba claims no one expected that he would eventually defect, tell secrets about the UPDF to a neighboring head of state and escape from a torture chamber he was sent to by President Museveni.


After the ambush on 77, Masaba says that he and other chosen Unit 181 soldiers were briefed on their mission by Brigadier Nathan Mugisha, then army commander and current chief of police Kale Kayihura, and the commander of the special force unit who Masaba only ever knew as Mushabe. They were to stop shaving immediately, because in a few months, dressed in combat trousers and civilian T-shirts, they would be attacking villages in the north, posing as LRA soldiers, they were told.


"Kayihura said that after the mission we'd all get to go to Kampala, and we'd have good deployments," Masaba says. "They promised many things." On phone, Kayihura says he doesn't know who Masaba is and he called his tale about Unit 181, "the craziest thing" he's ever heard." Rugunda called both Masaba's stories, regarding the friendly fire ambush and the UPDF atrocities in the north, "outrageous."


Have there been friendly fires within UPDF before? The Independent has minutes of a meeting of senior army officers chaired by then Army Commander, Maj. Gen. James Kazini. During the discussion of problems in the army's training schools, it is mentioned that there have been friendly fires between different army units.


Masaba claims the goal of Unit 181was to gather intelligence on the individuals and communities believed to be supporting the LRA rebels in the north and to make Kony's men look so vicious that remaining sympathizers would turn off the taps.


The visits, as Masaba describes them, would typically go like this: The one Acholi-speaker of the group would say, “My commander came here today and you gave us food, now we need more.” A woman would reply in a shaky voice that she didn't know what they were talking about, that she had nothing to give. And, with that, unflinchingly, Mushabe would order his soldiers to "work on her."


One or two would hold her down while another cut off her lips, her ear or her breast. Masaba, seen as too scrawny to restrain someone who was being mutilated, was given another task. After supporters who admitted to supplying the LRA were told they were free to go, he would shoot them in their backs.


It wasn't the guilt of these acts that led Masaba to talk. "I had to follow the orders," he says. What spurred his betrayal was his anger over not getting a prestigious, well-paying deployment. Unlike other former special force unit forces who had been promoted to ESO, ISO and CMI, Masaba says that, after spending almost a year in the north, he was denied any office, refused a gun, and offered a measly salary of Shs 190,000.


Then, in February 2007, Masaba ran into Moses, the Acholi-speaking Unit 181 soldier. While Moses had been a junior soldier to Masaba before the special mission in the North, he was suddenly four ranks ahead of him, a Class II Warrant Officer. "I was so angry that I told Moses I was going to release information to the media channels," Masaba says. Months after the run-in, Masaba received a terse call from a friend in the army. "He said, 'They're hunting for you.'"


In May of 2007, Masaba crossed the border into Sudan on the back of a cargo truck. From there, he hitched a motorcycle for the 12-hour drive to Obo, where the country's UN High Commission for Refugees office is headquartered. After being interviewed by police who could only speak French, Masaba, who was believed to be a spy, was handcuffed and flown to Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic (CAR).


"It is then that Francis Bozize, the minister of defense and son of President Bozize came and took me to State House to meet his father," Masaba recalls. "He was in the company interior minister Michelle Ssali, education minister Charles Dubani and former president Gen. Kolingiba." The group asked Masaba what had brought him to CAR. He said he was a refugee. President Bozize promised he would personally investigate to find out whether Masaba was a spy sent by Uganda.


Then suddenly on August 20th, Masaba was escorted into a waiting plane with CAR's President Francois Bozize and his wife. He thought he was being taken to Europe as a refugee. Instead he found himself descending on Entebbe, where Kayihura, Museveni and Chief of Defense Forces Aronda Nyakairima, were all waiting for him. (Kayihura says he was at the airport to greet Bozize, but was there only to carry out his official duties regarding the visiting President's security.)


Bozize's surprise two-day state visit in August of 2007 made headlines, but the reason for the visit was nebulous: "Reporters were not told in precise terms what President Bozize and Museveni discussed although there were suggestions that security issues could have been on the table," the Daily Monitor reported on August 24.


The real reason for the visit, according to Masaba, was that Bozize, upon hearing about Masaba from his gendarmes and, suspecting a Ugandan spy was in the country, called up Museveni and arranged a meeting.


While Masaba doesn't know what was discussed between the two heads of state, he doesn't think Bozize was aware he was sending a young man to be tortured. "The wife of the President (Bozize) gave me 50,000 shillings as they left," he says, of Bozize’s wife.


Masaba, as his story goes, was then driven, in a seven-vehicle convoy, to the Sheraton Hotel, where he would be grilled by Museveni, Minister of Ethics and Integrity Nsaba Buturo, Kale Kayihura, and Rugunda.


Rugunda says he is aware Masaba came to Uganda from CAR, but he denies being at the interrogation meeting. Masaba says he was presented with the statements that he had signed in CAR, which detailed the ambush of 77 and the special force unit in the north. Masaba says Museveni grilled him about the documents for hours, but he continually told the President that he had signed the papers, which were written in French, even though he didn't know what they said.


Finally, Museveni asked Masaba for the name of the rebel front he was associated with, telling his Ministers and UPDF commanders, "This boy is not acting alone." From there, Masaba was taken to a "safe house" in Muyenga. Hoping to extract the names of the soldiers the government was sure he must be working with, CMI guards tortured Masaba for the next month.


His torturers would make him stand on his tip-toes and hold himself up with a rope tied to the ceiling; when his arms got tired and he lowered his heels, he would step down on a board of nails. He was beaten, and clear, sour-tasting liquid that made him itch frantically, would be poured on his skin.


In one instance, men who Masaba only knows as Corporal Collins and Staff Sergeant Mugisha forced him to lie on the floor and burned a polyethylene bag on top of him, letting the bits of plastic fall on his arms and chest, where pebble-sized scars are still visible. "They said, 'Give us the names of the people who helped you leave this country, and we'll let you go free,'" Masaba remembers.


The Chief of Military Intelligence, Col. Leo Kyanda, refused to talk to the Independent about this story, referring instead to the army spokesman. Ankunda, off the top of his head, said he wasn't aware of a Collins or a Mugisha in CMI.


In the Muyenga "safe house," Masaba was detained alone in a self-contained room. "I would hear people groaning and screaming, but I never saw another prisoner," he says. During the month, men came and went through the door of Masaba's room – sometimes they would attempt to get information, other times the men in ties and suit jackets would just peek their heads to get a look at the legendary young defector.


After a few weeks, however, the stream of visitors slowed to a trickle. Masaba, sure that, since they had just dropped off dinner, his captors would leave him be for the night, plotted his escape. He wet a bathroom ceiling until one of the thin tiles was weak enough to give in. Three hours later, Masaba was outside the house and over the compound's wall. According to information he's received from friends in the UPDF, the guards of the safe house are still in jail for not preventing his escape.


But Masaba only lasted two weeks as a free man. His photo "supplied everywhere," he was picked up in Lwakhakha, near the border of eastern Uganda. That evening, he was taken to State House to face Museveni once again. "I didn't know you were a cowardly man," the President allegedly told him.


With security operatives now fully aware of his wily ways, Masaba was handcuffed the entire time, and this time his room wasn't self-contained, nor was it as comfortable. There were blood stains on his sheets and brownish-red splatters could be seen through the yellow paint cover-up on the walls.


He knew that he wasn't the only one in the house, a bungalow in Ntinda. When the guards brought him food, Masaba could see that they were carrying an extra plate for the prisoner next door. One day, Masaba's fellow inmate knocked on the wall between the two wardrobes in the rooms, and after that it became a routine: the strangers knocked at each other in the morning, at lunch, and during dinner.


The two finally met sometime around the time of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting hosted by Uganda in November 2007. Masaba could hear that there were only two guards left in the house, and they were complaining. "How can two people manage this place?" Masaba heard one say.


Later, he heard the one guard tell his colleague he had enough, and he was going out for the evening. A few hours after that, the last remaining guard, lonely and drunk on waragi, invited Masaba and the other prisoner to watch TV with him. "He even took off our handcuffs," says Masaba. With a quick look at his fellow inmate – who Masaba would later find out was a Rwandan policeman who had been illegally detained for, he had counted, 100 days – Masaba jumped on the guard and started beating him.


The Rwandan policeman joined in, and they handcuffed the guard with one of the pairs sitting on the coffee table and they destroyed his phone. "He was begging us not to kill him, he said he only had one kid," Masaba says. The two inmates interrogated their captor, a JATT military man. He told them that he had been guarding "safe houses" for nine years and he said that him and the other guards were to kill Masaba and the Rwandan "any time, any day."


The 24-year-old Masaba, who has now fled the country, could be lying as Rugunda, Ankunda and Kayihura attest.


But why would security operatives attempt to nab Masaba when he was about to leave the Independent office, alone? After all, it wasn't until the gun-toting men realized that it was the Independent's gatekeeper they had bundled up in the back of their Land Cruiser that the police and undercover army men made themselves known and began to search the Independent office.


If Masaba's stories were complete lies, why then wouldn't they want to charge him officially and detain him legally? And why would the government trace Masaba all the way to the Central Africa Republic, simply for deserting the army when soldiers desert on a daily basis?


The Independent will continue to follow up on this story in investigative series on state- inspired tortures.



 

(Originally published April 28 in Uganda’s The Independent newspaper www.independent.co.ug/)



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