Grieving parents in Uganda have begun to bury their children after an ISIS-linked extremist rebel group hacked and burned dozens to death in a school.
The brutal Friday attack left 42 people dead, many of them students, and prompted security forces to step up patrols along the frontier with volatile eastern Congo.
One of eight people wounded in the attack, in which 38 students were slain, died overnight, said Selevest Mapoze, mayor of the town of Mpondwe-Lhubiriha.
‘Most of the relatives have come to take their bodies’ from the morgue, he said.
In addition to the 38 students, the victims include a school guard and three civilians. At least two of them, members of the same family, were buried Sunday.
Grieving parents in Uganda have begun to bury their children after an ISIS-linked extremist rebel group hacked and burned dozens to death in a school. Pictured: Relatives place the coffin of Florence Masika, who was killed along with her son Zakayo Masereka in the attack on the Lhubiriha Secondary School, is buried in Nyabugando, Uganda Sunday, June 18
Relatives of Musa Kirelhuhandi (35), the gatekeeper at Lhubiriha Secondary School in Mpondwe killed along his son Elton Masereka (17) during the attack on the school, mourn during the funeral ceremony in Bwera on June 18. The brutal attack left 42 people dead
In addition to the 38 students, the victims include a school guard and three civilians. At least two of them, members of the same family, were buried Sunday. Pictured: A mourning relative is comforted during the funeral of Florence Masika and Zakayo Masereka in Mpondwe, Sunday
The attack is blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, which rarely claims responsibility for attacks. It has established ties with the Islamic State group.
The ADF has been accused of launching many attacks in recent years targeting civilians in remote parts of eastern Congo, including one in March in which 19 people were killed.
The ADF has long opposed the rule of Museveni, a US security ally who has held power in this East African country since 1986.
The group was established in the early 1990s by some Ugandan Muslims, who said they had been sidelined by Museveni’s policies.
At the time, the rebels staged deadly attacks in Ugandan villages as well as in the capital, including a 1998 attack in which 80 students were massacred in a town not far from Friday’s raid.
Friday’s attack followed the same playbook: violence against students.
The attackers targeted two dormitories at night, using extreme force when the boys resisted, according to Ugandan officials.
‘This terrorist group couldn’t enter, so they threw in a bomb, they threw in a petrol bomb,’ said Education Minister Janet Museveni, who also is Uganda’s first lady.
‘So, these children were burnt.’
Some students were burned beyond recognition; others were shot or hacked to death after militants armed with guns and machetes attacked Lhubiriha Secondary School, co-ed and privately owned, found just over a mile from the Congo border.
Ugandan authorities believe at least six students were abducted, taken as porters back inside Congo.
Fifteen others from the community, including five girls, were still missing, said Eriphaz Muhindi, chairman of Kasese district, which shares a long and forested border with DR Congo.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the attack in a statement, urging ‘the importance of collective efforts, including through enhanced regional partnerships, to tackle cross-border insecurity between (Congo) and Uganda and restore durable peace in the area.’
Mourners gather for the funeral of Florence Masika and Zakayo Masereka during their burial rituals in Mpondwe on June 18
The attack is blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, which rarely claims responsibility for attacks. It has established ties with the Islamic State group
Mourners gather for funeral of Florence Masika and Zakayo Masereka during their burial rituals in Mpondwe on June 18
The atmosphere in Mpondwe-Lhubiriha was tense but calm on Sunday as Ugandan security forces roamed the streets outside and near the school that was protect by a police cordon.
Families desperate for news waited all night in the cold outside a mortuary in nearby Bwera. Those able to identify loved ones embraced and wept as they took away the bodies in coffins.
‘We flocked (to) the hospital and found many bodies – of boys and girls, some cut with pangas (machetes), others hit with hammers on the head,’ Roti Masereka, a farmer, told AFP.
He left with the body of his brother – 35-year-old Mbusa Kirurihandi, a security guard at the school – and his 17-year-old son.
But a third son, aged 15, is missing, and the family is distraught.
‘Today we have buried two bodies, the father and his son. But we are still looking for the missing child,’ he said.
The government said Sunday it would assist with funeral arrangements and support the injured.
Seventeen victims were burned beyond recognition when the attackers set a dormitory ablaze, frustrating efforts to identify the dead and account for the missing.
Muhindi said they had been taken away for DNA testing, a process that could take some time. ‘This is a great pain to their families,’ he told AFP.
Elias Kule, an 18-year-old survivor, said the boys locked their dormitory door when they heard gunshots and saw armed men entering the school.
‘They wore military camouflage. Each had a hammer, a hoe, knives, pangas (machetes) and guns with magazines,’ he told AFP.
He said the attackers started firing through the windows and doors, hitting at least one student, before lobbing a ‘bomb’ into the dormitory that started a fire.
‘I ran out of oxygen, I covered my mouth and nose with a cloth… I got blood and smeared myself on the head and ears to claim I was dead,’ he said, waiting until the coast was clear to escape.
In a statement on Sunday, his first comment on the incident, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni described the attack as ‘criminal, desperate, terrorist and futile,’ vowing to deploy more troops on the Ugandan side of the border.
A pastor leads the funeral of Florence Masika and Zakayo Masereka during their burial rituals in Mpondwe on June 18
A pastor gives a sermon during the funeral of Florence Masika and Zakayo Masereka during their burial rituals in Mpondwe on June 18
A pastor speaks during the funeral of two of the victims of an attack at a school, in Mpondwe
Students have been attacked because schools are considered soft targets.
Pupils are sometimes recruited into rebels ranks or used to carry food and supplies for insurgents, and such raids provide media coverage coveted by extremists.
The raid appears to have taken Ugandan authorities by surprise: first responders arrived after the attackers had left.
Some villagers have temporarily moved away from the Mpondwe-Lhubiriha community, fearing more attacks, Mapoze said.
The border is porous, with multiple footpaths not monitored by authorities.
Many parts of eastern Congo are lawless, allowing groups like the ADF to operate because the central government in Kinshasa, the capital, has limited authority there.
But attacks by the ADF on the Ugandan side of the border are rare, thanks in part to the presence of an alpine brigade of Ugandan troops in the region.
Ugandan forces have been deployed to eastern Congo since 2021 under a military operation to hunt ADF militants down and stop them from attacking civilians across the border.
The deployment of Ugandan troops inside Congo followed attacks in which at least four civilians were killed when suicide bombers – believed to be members of the ADF – detonated their explosives at two locations in Kampala, the capital, in November 2021.
One attack happened near the Parliament building and the second near a busy police station.
Military pressure on the rebels deep inside Congolese territory had forced them to splinter into smaller groups such as the one that attacked the school, aiming to ‘force us to withdraw our Army to defend the Uganda villages and that would save them from the losses they are now suffering,’ according to President Museveni.
A woman mourns during the funeral of Florence Masika and Zakayo Masereka in Mpondwe on June 18
‘Especially now that the Congo government allowed us to operate on the Congo side also, we have no excuse in not hunting down the ADF terrorists into extinction,’ he said.
Attacks in Uganda are rare but in June 1998, 80 students were burnt to death in their dormitories in an ADF raid on Kichwamba Technical Institute near the DR Congo border.
More than 100 students were abducted.
The attack was the deadliest in Uganda since 2010, when 76 people were killed in twin bombings in Kampala by the Somalia-based group Al-Shabaab.