"I saw it with my own eyes," said the Ugandan mission worker. "I was in the kitchen" opposite the warehouse, he said. "A soldier threw a hand grenade. Then some came and shot with machine guns." Other eyewitnesses at the Ombachi Mission said the soldiers then shot survivors hiding behind cornmeal bags, which are now covered with bloodstains.
That night the Catholic missionaries buried 47 bodies in three mass graves near the church.
It was the worst single incident recounted by more than a dozen eyewitnesses of a massacre by Ugandan Army soldiers who ran amok here last week, killing at least 86 civilians, mainly women and children, and wounding at least 70 others among about 10,000 refugees who had gathered here under Red Cross protection. The youngest person killed, a 3-month-old infant, died in his mother's arms.
An unauthorized three-day visit to the ghost town of Arua this week revealed a horror story unusual even for Uganda, which has suffered a decade of violence at a cost of least half a million lives. Eight years of carnage under Idi Amin ended with his overthrow by Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exile forces. The Tanzanian troops, however, have been withdrawn, removing the single check on the notoriously ill-disciplined Ugandan Army and creating a vacuum encouraging even further instability. The administration of President Milton Obote, who won disputed elections last December, has been plagued by antigovernment guerrilla attacks as new clashes involving ancient tribal rivalry and modern political animosities have developed.
west Nile, Amin's home province, has been particularly ravaged: by the struggles surrounding his overthrow and since last October by guerrilla clashes with Ugandan Army troops, The province has been out of bounds to reporters since then. Most of the 400,000 residents of the Arua district have fled, many into neighboring Zaire, to escape the seemingly endless tibal violence.
The massacre last week came in the wake of a reported rampage by Ugandan soldiers who were said to be enraged by lack of pay and food. About 3,000 of them abandoned positions to the north in the remote area near the Zaire and Sudan borders. Guerrillas formerly loyal to Amin captured the area after the soldiers fled.
Arua, where the Army halted the guerrilla advance, this week presented a bleak landscape -- huge vultures eating the remains of rotting bodies, which outnumbered the remaining population. Small groups of armed soldiers, often, menacing, roam the streets, sometimes carrying sacks of looted goods.
Most of the dead were killed at the Ombachi Mission on the outskirts of this provincial capital.
The eyewitnesses -- missionaries, international relief officials and refugees -- recounted how berserk soldiers fired at close range at helpless civilians on June 24 at the mission. Speaking just a few days later, many asked that their names be withheld for fear of retaliation.
The guerrillas captured the mission on June 22 but did not bother the refugees nor set up military emplacements, witnesses said. The rebels retreated the following day after they failed to capture Arua, but they still remain in the area, raising concern over renewed warfare.
On June 24, between 100 and 300 soldiers, ostensibly looking for guerrillas, climbed over the mission fences despite prominently displayed Red Cross flags, meaning the mission was under the protection of the Red Cross.
"The soldiers seemed to be completely out of their minds," a relief official said, suggesting that the reason probably was that they were angry over lack of pay and food.
Witnesses described soldiers standing two yards away who fired bursts from their automatic weapons at refugees cowering in the open warehouse. Twenty persons wee killed there, including eight children, they said.
David Vogelsanger, a Red Cross official, said the death toll as a Monday was 86 civilians in and around the mission, more than half women and children. More than 70 were wounded. All casualties are Africans.
"All the civilians were killed by soldiers," Vogelsanger said, adding that "if 86 civilians are known dead, you can be sure there are at least 100," since families often bury their own dead.
It was luck that many foreigners were not also killed, Vogelsanger said, as he told of the terrifying experience of more than 100 people, including missionaries and relief workers, who crammed into a sitting room at the mission to avoid the shooting.
Sitting in the same room four days later, the delegate of the International Committee for the Red Cross described how several soldiers came into the room shouting and proceeded to steal watches, cameras, a radio and a television set. Other witnesses including missionaries and relief workers corroborated his story.
A soldier pointed his AK47 at a European and threatened to kill him for being a spy. The man denied the accusation and said he worked for the Red Cross.
The soldier then demanded the identity card of a Ugandan, examined it, shot him in the head and then bludgeoned the dying man with the rifle butt as he sank to the floor, according to Vogelsanger. The identity card showed that the man was from southeastern Uganda and had nothing to do with the tribal conflict.
"The worst thing was the incident with the RPG [rocket-propelled grenade]," Vogelsanger said.
"A soldier pointed the RPG into the room. He was mad. Two others said, 'Shoot, shoot, shoot.'"
At that moment Vogelsanger shouted to an officer he recognized on the veranda. The officer ran into the room, jumped on a table and ordered the men to stop, the Red Cross official said.
For the most part, however, the officers had no control over their men. In one case, 2nd Lt. Alex Aguma fired a machine gun at Egil Hagen, a Norwegian in the Red Cross, who narrowly escaped injury or death.
Vogelsanger said he gave Aguma's name to Brig. Oyite Ojok, who toured the area last weekend, apologizing and promising that the guilty would be punished. The lieutenant had still not been apprehended by Tuesday when Ojok left the area for Kampala. Few think the undisciplined soldiers will be punished.
It is rare for a Red Cross official to speak so openly, but Vogelsanger explained: "It was a violation of the Red Cross. We put a mission under Red Cross protection and this was not respected."
All 14 foreign relief officials have now left West Nile.
Despite his apology, Ojok denied in an interview that his troops had rampaged and he said he thought that the casualties at the mission were guerrillas.
The overwhelming evidence from more eyewitnesses, however, is that the Ugandan soldiers ran amok.
"It is complete nonsense to say the guerrillas set up positions in the compound," one resident of the mission said. A couple may have come in and fired a few rounds, he added, but they respected that the mission was being used as refugee camp.
A temporary mission hospital treated a few injured guerrillas but far more Ugandan Army soldiers over recent weeks, Vogelsanger said. "Any wounded person got treatment here, no matter which side," as is Red Cross policy.
One guerrillas officer died at the hospital and another, a Lt. Col. Galla (first name unknown) who commanded a paratroop battalion under Amin, fled before the attack on the mission just hours after he had a serious operation for leg, shoulder and elbow wounds. A guerrilla was seen accompanying Galla, administering a drip transfusion.
A young girl was shot dead in the Ombachi church a few feet from the altar.
One mission worker survived because he had 20 shillings (25 cents) to give to soldiers demanding money. Three other workers with him who had nothing to give were killed.
Joseph Ezalibo, 43, recuperating from a leg wound at Angal Mission hospital 50 miles to the south, was one of the survivors of the killings in the warehouse, but he saw his wife, three children and two relatives killed.
The soldiers, he said, accused the refugees of protecting the guerrillas because they are members of the same tribe. The guerrillas are members of the local Logbara and Kakwa tribes; the Army is dominated by the rival Acholis.
"They fired until they got tired and then they got busy looting," Ezalibo said. The only reason some survived, he said, was because they were covered by dead bodies.
Four young women in his extended family were taken to the barracks and "treated as women" -- Ezalibo's way of saying they were raped.
Dr. carlo Spagnolli, head of the Angal hospital, said many of the patients have "terrible wounds. All were close to the soldiers when they were shot by high-velocity bullets," he said.
Spagnolli has carried out about 30 major operations on the victims, including the amputation of all the fingers on one hand of a two-month-old baby boy.
The wounded had a harrowing eight-hour journey to the Angal hospital, the only one still operating in West Nile, which as a population of almost 1 million. At one military checkpoint, soldiers held up the medical convoy for three hours and at one point, attempted to overturn a vehicle carrying French medical personnel.
It is not known how many soldiers and guerrillas died in the battle for Arua but civilian casualties around the mission are believed to be far higher. a
As reporters entered Arua Sunday, the remains of two suspected guerrillas were being fed upon by vultures, flies and insects in front of the town mosque. wOne body was apparently mutilated, the leg neatly severed at the knee.
The city, already burned and looted by victorious Ugandan and Tanzanian soldiers in the October war, was deserted. A Lions Club sign is at the entrance to the city but the club certainly could not find a quorum.
Soldiers looted the recently closed hospital, smashing scarce medicine, and also attacked the Idiofe Mission, headquarters of the Roman Catholic bishop of Arua.
Five miles to the southwest near the Zairian border, Falea Naftali, the acting district commissioner of Arua, told how he had to flee for his life. Both the soldiers and the guerrillas threatened to kill him, he said.
"The soldiers came and robbed everything," the government official said.
Further south at the Church of Uganda mission at Kuluvu, the Rev. Paul Ndimatamo said soldiers had come to the religious facility and looted blankets, clothes and fuel, using the excuse that guerrillas might be there. They found none.
"The real danger," he said, "is not the guerrillas, but the Ugandan Army."
"It's a strange kind of war," another missionary along the Zairian border said. "The soldiers and rebels hardly ever fight. It is the civilians who suffer."