A gruesome terrorist attack on a boarding school housing secondary (high school) students left at least 42 dead in Kasese district, southwest Uganda, this weekend, 37 of them students, and many of them “burnt beyond recognition.”
The Ugandan government immediately blamed the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamic State affiliate, for the attack, which occurred on Friday night local time. Eyewitnesses said they heard shouts of “Allahu akbar!” as the terrorists hacked girl students to death and burned the boys alive. Neither the ADF nor the greater Islamic State organization has taken responsibility for the attack, however, and some senior officials have begun speculating publicly that outside forces attempting to seize ownership of the school used the jihadists to create a situation where the current owners, an NGO reportedly under Canadian control, would lose legitimacy as administrators.
Kasese is located on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the ADF is believed to be headquartered. The governments of the DRC and Uganda launched a joint military operation, “Operation Shujaa,” in late 2021 and extended it last year specifically targeting the ADF, which seeks to overthrow both governments and establish a jihadist “caliphate.” The operation allowed 1,700 Ugandan forces to enter DRC in concert with local soldiers and target ADF hideouts. The DRC government also approved the presence of an American “anti-terrorism” contingent in the country in 2021, shortly after the United States designated the ADF a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
The incident, according to local news reports, began late on Friday at the Lhubiriha Secondary School in Mpondwe when an unknown number of attackers swarmed the male and female dormitories. Eyewitnesses said the girls opened the door to the terrorists and were subsequently hacked to death with machetes. The boys did not, so the terrorists burned them alive inside the building.
“The boys’ dormitory had been locked; so, these terrorists couldn’t enter, so they threw in a [petrol] bomb,” Janet Museveni, the first lady and education minister of Uganda, said in a statement this weekend. “The girls on the other hand opened the door and tried to run out and this evil group got them and killed them with pangas [machetes]. They did not shoot. With the girls, they killed them with pangas. The 17 children who were burnt in the dormitory are not easily recognisable.”
Eyewitnesses near the school told the BBC in a report published Sunday that the children were “singing gospel songs” shortly before the terrorists attacked, as they do every night before bed. Uganda’s population is overwhelmingly Christian.
“The boys’ dormitory had been locked – they had either refused to open it to the rebels or they were locked inside by them. The militants poured fuel on the building and set it alight,” the BBC documented, according to locals. “They were talking in Swahili – the lingua franca in the region – and afterwards began shouting ‘Allahu Akbar.'”
Speaking to Uganda’s NTV broadcaster, one of the survivors, Julius Isingoma, explained that he hid in a corner while his dormitory burned down and managed to avoid deadly smoke inhalation by staying close to the ground. When the fire concluded, the terrorists toured the remains of the dormitory, ensuring all the boys were dead. Isingoma said he smeared his classmates’ blood on himself and played dead, attributing his survival to the move.
“They came from outside to see what has fallen down, they said, ‘ok,’ they touched everyone,” Isingoma narrated, “I got the blood smeared [on] my head and [more] blood to end it in my ears, they go to the arm to put it in this side.”
Isingoma described a croaking sensation in his chest “like a frog” as the jihadis, satisfied that he was dead, moved away. He told NTV he now hopes to join the Ugandan military to avenge the attack.
As of Monday, Ugandan military officials have documented 37 students and five non-students dead, four students injured, and 16 missing, presumed abducted. The school was housing 63 students at the time of the attack, meaning most are dead. Lt. Joe Walusimbi, the Kasese Resident District Commissioner, told reporters on Sunday that 17 of the students presumed dead had yet to be identified because their bodies had been “burnt beyond recognition” and DNA tests were still pending. Local reports did not clarify if some of the missing might be among the dead found in the burned boys’ dormitory.
Walusimbi said that police had arrested three individuals in relation to the attack, but did not specify if those taken into custody were suspects in participating in the attack or accomplices, or merely persons of interest.
“We have arrested three people and investigations are still ongoing. I cannot tell you whether they are Ugandans or not. We shall tell you after investigation but up to now, our UPDF forces are still hunting for these rebels,” Uganda’s Monitor newspaper quoted the official as saying.
President Yoweri Museveni addressed the situation on Saturday, blaming the ADF and claiming that the reason for targeting the school was the success of Operation Shujaa, which had left the group too divided to stage attacks on hard targets. The objective of attacking the school, he claimed, was to force Uganda to take forces out of the DRC to protect schools and other civilian sites rather than attack the ADF’s strongholds across the border.
“This new atrocity by the elements of the ADF is criminal, desperate, terrorist and futile. Since ‘Operation Shujja’ started, the Congo army and our army, have put a lot of pressure on ADF who had turned that area into their territory for almost 20 years,” Museveni said according to a statement published by the Ugandan Observer. “We have inflicted so much damage on these criminals.”
“It is safer for them to splinter into small groups which, they hope, may not be seen by our eyes. That is how their desperate, futile, criminal and terrorist schemes, come in,” he continued. “They start imagining that if they flee Congo, re-enter Uganda, kill people that are not armed (soft targets), that action, would force us to recall our army from Congo to defend the Uganda villages and that would save them from the losses they are now suffering.”
Museveni called the terrorists “cowards” for not attacking a military detachment less than two miles from the school, “army to army,” and added some concern as to how no authorities in the region appeared to know about the attack or respond to it in a timely manner.
“Was an alarm sounded and by whom? How did the nearby security people respond? Why didn’t our people on the Congo side have intelligence on this splinter group, etc.?” the president asked.
School officials have told local media that police and military forces arrived nearly two hours after the attack began, about an hour after it ended – despite maintaining a base less than a mile away.
“I thank the security who then responded. However, by the time they came I think all the dormitories were burnt and the rebels and had already gone,” Mary Musoki, the school matron, told the Monitor.
While President Museveni directly blamed the ADF and described the attack as a response to military activity in DRC, his wife, Education Minister Janet Museveni, speculated that the attack could have been part of a plot to seize ownership of the school.
Today, our nation mourns the devastating terrorist attack on Mpondwe Lhubiliriha Secondary School in Kasese District near the DRC border, claiming the lives of 37 children, with another five hospitalized. Initially, 25 deaths were reported, but the count tragically increased.… pic.twitter.com/F4qXVPXxf1
— Janet K Museveni (@JanetMuseveni) June 17, 2023
“There is an impression that perhaps the terrorist group may have been used by the people who were fighting to take over the school to do what they have done,” Janet Museveni said at a press conference on Saturday. “There have been groups in Kasese who wanted to take it over, but because the school was built by a non-governmental organisation (NGO), there has been that conflict.”
“This school is a private school. Apparently it was built by an Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), led by somebody called Peter Hunter, a Canadian [who] works both in DRC and Uganda,” Janet Museveni explained. “Recently, apparently, his group sent in auditors to his school to audit the finances that they send in to the school.”
“The auditors spent some two days at that school auditing the books of the school, and they finished on Thursday and left … and the children were killed on Friday. That is not to say that we relate these auditors being there [to the attacks], but those are the facts we have,” she added.
Museveni did not explain the eyewitness reports of the terrorists shouting “Allahu akbar” in the context of a potential ownership dispute.
The ADF has not formally taken responsibility for the attack, however, which, as all Islamic State groups tend to, it usually enthusiastically does after a mass murder. The ADF has engaged in regular attacks on churches and other Christian institutions throughout the year.