Grieving families buried their dead in western Uganda on Sunday while others searched desperately for missing loved ones after militants killed dozens of students in a “brutal” school attack.
Officials say at least 41 people, mostly students, were massacred Friday in the worst attack of its kind in Uganda since 2010.
President Yoweri Museveni, in his first statement since the attack, vowed to hunt the militants “into extinction”.
Victims were hacked, shot and burned in the late-night raid on Lhubiriha Secondary School in Mpondwe, which lies less than two kilometres from the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Ugandan authorities have blamed the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a militia based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and are pursuing the attackers who fled back toward the border with six abductees.
“Their action – the desperate, cowardly, terrorist action – will not save them,” said Museveni.
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 the DRC.
Classified as an Islamic terrorist organisation by the United States Bureau of Counterterrorism, the rebel ADF group established ties with the Islamic State in 2018.
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.
‘They wore military camouflage’
Officials said 37 students were killed – 17 in the torched men’s dormitory, and 20 female students who ran but were hacked to death.
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.
Four non-students, including the security guard Kirurihandi, were also killed.
Friday’s incident has horrified the international community. The African Union, France and the United States offered their condolences and condemned the bloodshed.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “Those responsible for this appalling act must be brought to justice.”
Questions have been raised about how the attackers managed to evade detection in a border region with a heavy military presence.
Major General Dick Vefat told AFP that intelligence suggested the presence of the ADF in the area at least two days before the attack, and an investigation would be needed to establish what went wrong.
Uganda and the DRC launched a joint offensive in 2021 to drive the ADF out of their Congolese strongholds, but the measures have failed to blunt the group’s violence.
Originally insurgents in Uganda, the ADF gained a foothold in eastern DRC in the 1990s and have since been accused of killing thousands of civilians.
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 DRC 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.