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Forgotten War

Inside the refugee camps of Uganda

Aaron Roesch

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Published: Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Updated: Saturday, September 6, 2008

Image: Forgotten War

Courtesy of

Image: Forgotten War

Courtesy of Aaron Roesch

In the world of development, Uganda is a bit of a star — a model for much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Through sexual education and effective condom distribution, the country managed to cut its rate of HIV/AIDS infections from 18 percent of the adult population to six percent. President Yoweri Museveni has readily accepted many of the World Bank- and International Monetary Fund-backed reforms, opening Uganda's markets to foreign investment and resulting in a 6.7 percent annual economic growth over the past several years.

Perhaps these successes — especially when contrasted with the trials of neighboring Rwanda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — explain why the protracted civil war in Uganda's north has become what U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland called the world's "largest neglected humanitarian emergency."

In November 2004, I worked in Uganda as an intern for the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, a nongovernmental human rights watchdog. I accompanied my boss to participate in an assessment of Internal Displaced Person (IDP) camps organized by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). We spent a week with representatives from other international and domestic nongovernmental organizations, various U.N. agencies and local government officials interviewing people in Uganda's Teso sub-region who lived in camps or had recently returned home.

Since 1987, Ugandans in Acholiland, which is composed of the country's northern districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader, have been the victims of Joseph Kony's guerrilla Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and their unbridled brutality. Kony — who wants to overthrow the Ugandan government and establish a theocratic system — has aimed his war mainly at the Acholi people.

While nearly everyone is affected in Acholiland, this is really a war among children; child abductees — coerced or brainwashed into attacking their own homes — comprise most of Kony's army. Meanwhile, children in counterinsurgency militias organized out of desperation and armed with bows and arrows work to protect their families in the absence of the Ugandan army. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 children have been kidnapped so far.

The three districts of Soroti, Kaberamaido and Katakwi where I worked became entangled in the conflict when the LRA pushed southward and attacked this portion of central-eastern Uganda. The LRA and the government had been in peace talks, but the LRA asked for more time to sign the treaty. President Museveni suspected this was only a ploy to regroup and rearm, so he denied the request and offered an ultimatum to the rebels to hand over their weapons within a week. The peace talks disintegrated, and the LRA renewed violence with fresh zeal.

For the 1.7 million displaced persons in Uganda, simply staying alive is a battle. According to the assessment I participated in, diarrhea, dysentery, skin diseases, malaria and eye infections are common in the camps. So are sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV/AIDS. The AIDS rate in IDP camps is twice that of the rest of the country. Malnutrition is rampant. In the few areas with schools, many children are unable to attend because the costs of clothing and school supplies are too high.

"The people in these camps are very poor," said Charles Uma, chairman of the Gulu Disaster Preparedness Committee. "I mean, the life is horrible. The people here are not living, they are existing. They are next to dead."

Pabba, the largest camp in Gulu district, houses 50,000 people, packed into row after row of tiny huts. Too few boreholes for drinking water and too little food assistance — all of which comes from foreign donors, not the government, and which only provides for three quarters of a sufficient diet — translate into abject poverty and shattered social relations. And although the government has forced many people into these camps for their own protection, they are not safe. Camps have become the new targets of LRA attacks. Often, the federal Uganda People's Defence Force fails to provide soldiers to ensure security.

"We chose this place because it is near a military detachment," said James, a camp leader in Kitgum. "There are some soldiers who come here at night. But they are too few. We have asked the commander to increase the security, but nothing has changed ... We don't feel safe."

James, like others I spoke with, would not allow his full name to be printed out of fear for his safety.

Though I spent a week in and around IDP camps, my memories of the experience are cloudy. The experience was overwhelming, to say the least, and I suppose that is why I committed so few details to memory. What I do remember vividly, however, was a persistent disbelief at how normal life seemed. Amid endemic disease, spoiled crops, burned homes, dilapidated schools and fear — fear that children would be snatched from their homes, that girls and women would be raped by local men, rebels or Ugandan soldiers if they go out at night, that anyone could have his nose and lips cut off for no reason at all — life trudges on.

I spoke with one boy, about 10 years old, whose family fled amid the violence. They recently returned to their home village, after spending nearly a year in an IDP camp where there was no school. When his family returned, their crops had been destroyed, their house looted and their animals stolen. He nonchalantly mentioned several of his friends had been abducted from their homes — some had returned, others were still missing. The boy lived in Teso, an area touched only recently and briefly by the war and slowly returning to normalcy. In the districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Pader, however, the violence continues. OCHA's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) has compiled numerous testimonies of children who were abducted by the LRA.

O.R., a 14-year-old from Kitgum who was abducted in February 2003, recounted his experiences for IRIN. He recalls one instance when rebels brought forward a boy who had attempted to escape. It was clear that he had already been severely beaten. The rebels then killed him. The rebels ordered the other children to chop him into pieces, the boys to eat his heart and liver and for the girls to cook and eat the rest of him. "We did as we were told," he said.

Another time, "A commander called me and said he had a special task for me to carry out," he said. "He was carrying a newborn baby. He placed the baby in a large wooden mortar, the one we were using for pounding grain. He gave me a heavy wooden pestle and ordered me to start pounding. I was afraid to do it, but I did as I was told. I knew I would be killed if I didn't. All the boys in the group had been forced to do something similar. I knew the baby's mother. She was one of the captives. She screamed when she saw what I was doing. The commanders beat her up so much and told her to shut up, but they did not kill her. They told me to continue pounding until they were satisfied the baby was dead."

Kony and his cohorts force children to commit atrocious acts so that they will be too ashamed to ever want to flee and return home. Since the LRA relies on abducted children for manpower, Kony seeks to mold a force via indoctrination and shame that is eternally loyal to him.

Another boy who spoke to IRIN, Michael — too exhausted to continue marching after weeks of carrying heavy loads without rest — was pummeled in the head with the butts of soldiers' guns. They did not want to waste bullets on him, and left him for dead. When UPDF soldiers found him several days later, he recalled, "Termites had started eating me alive. They had begun building an ant hill on my body."

The Acholi have suffered for nearly two decades in relative obscurity. Because Uganda's conflict is overshadowed by nearby clashes in Sudan, Rwanda and the DRC — and maybe because the world has donned blinders, seeing only the upside of Uganda's remarkable turnaround since the fall of Idi Amin — foreign governments, multilateral institutions and the international media don't seem to care much about the abuse of the Acholi. Accusations persist that the Museveni administration has not done everything in its power to end this protracted war. Corruption in the army, low morale and questionable military and diplomatic strategies suggest that the LRA should have been eliminated a long time ago.

President Museveni blames the interminable fighting in the north on Sudan and the difficulties of fighting rebels in the bush. The Sudanese government — which believes Museveni has supported the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army in the country's south — aids, shelters and arms the LRA. But the President's critics suggest that Museveni, out of tribal chauvinism or political egoism, has stoked the conflict for political expediency. Ongoing civil strife offers an excuse for the recent consolidation of presidential power and the erosion of civil liberties.

Meanwhile the Acholi people live with the knowledge that they must one day reconcile with their attackers.

"If they come back home and stay together as brothers and sisters, even now I am ready to receive them," said Donald Lagonya, a student in Kitgum. "Mistakes are human and the rebels should not think they will be hated."

It took the deaths of eight U.N. peacekeepers in the DRC at the hands of the LRA to prompt the U.N. security council to issue a resolution condemning militias in the Great Lakes region. But the LRA is only half the problem. The indifference of leaders — within and without Uganda — poses as great a threat to the prospect of peace.


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