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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Uganda: A War Ignored

Africa Policy E-Journal
September 7, 2003 (030907)

Uganda: A War Ignored
(Reposted from sources cited below)

According to the BBC, in a news report last week, Uganda is seeking military assistance from the U.S. in the war in northern Uganda against Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels. The LRA was classified by the U.S. as a terror group after the September 11, 2001 attacks. During his July 2003 of African countries, including less than a day in Uganda, President Bush pledged $150 million to help African countries fight terrorism.

Independent reports leave no doubt that the LRA, which has been fighting since 1988, systematically uses terror tactics against civilians in northern Uganda. The war,little reported although it forms part of one of Africa's most intense conflict zones from the Great Lakes region to the Sudan, has reportedly resulted in more than 800,000 displaced people over almost 18 years, while more than 20,000 children have been forcibly recruited into the LRA, as many as 8,000 over the last year. Last week, the LRA killed 25 people in an attack on a civilian bus.

Human rights and peace groups in Uganda, however, also doubt the wisdom or the potential for success of the Ugandan government's military operations against the rebels, even should it gain additional international military assistance. Among other groups, the Acholi Religious Leaders' Peace Initiative (ARLPI) has called on the government of neighboring Sudan to stop providing arms to the rebels, on the international community to take a more active role in pressing for peace, and on the Ugandan government to end human rights abuses by its own security personnel. The Acholi people are both the source of forced recruits for the rebels and the primary targets of rebel attacks,

This posting contains (1) a first-hand report from Gina Bramucci of AVSI, an Italian NGO that works in northern Uganda, and (2) a press release summarizing the latest Human Rights Watch report on the conflict.

Additional sources for ongoing coverage include:

Reuters Alertnet section on Uganda violence

Human Rights Watch, Uganda page, Uganda page

UN Integated Regional Information Network (IRIN) - Uganda page

+++++++++++++++++end summary/introduction+++++++++++++++++++++++

Dying at our roots: Seasons of war in northern Uganda

By Gina L. Bramucci, AVSI (Association of Volunteers in International Service, Italy)

[reposted with permission]

August 7, 2003

It's been 14 months now. Fourteen months of daily rebel attack, villages burned, buses ambushed, children abducted. The numbers continue to climb 800,000 displaced, 20,000 "night commuters," 8,500 abducted and we declare one more humanitarian crisis for the global tally.

But the world tired of the story of northern Uganda long ago. The past months may have been more violent than usual, but armed rebel conflict has continued for nearly 18 years here. Peace is an alien word, and it's easy to abandon hope from continents and oceans away. Still, on a mid-July day in Kitgum town, one of northern Uganda's main urban centers, civilians offered the world one small reason to take note.

Approximately 20,000 young people marched through the town on July 14, carrying messages directed at Uganda's political and religious leaders, and protesting a rebel insurgency that has put countless children on intimate terms with violence, hunger and death. They held signs that asked for a lasting peace and an end to fear: "We don't want to become killers." "We do not want to die." "We children cry day and night for peace."

Most children in northern Uganda have little knowledge of peace. They have spent their childhoods displaced from their homes and schools, sleeping in bus parks, on shop verandas or on the grounds of hospitals and Catholic missions. Parents, hoping to protect children from rebel abduction, send them each evening to population centers or any place of perceived safety.

The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has abducted more than 20,000 children since the late 1980s. Captives are forced to serve as porters, soldiers and, in the case of girls, sex slaves. Within the LRA ranks, around 90 percent of "soldiers" are estimated to be abducted children. They are often forced to murder family members and neighbors, and then placed on the frontlines against the government army. Human Rights Watch reports that the LRA has abducted 8,500 children since June 2002 alone.

Violence in Uganda's Acholiland, a region named for the ethnic group that dominates three northern districts, escalated when the government army launched an aggressive offensive against the LRA in March 2002. While the military continues to promise a near victory, rebel activity has increased steadily, spilling over into districts to the southeast that were previously untouched by the war.

The history of the conflict is long and complex. A series of rebel movements took hold in the late 1980s, after President Yoweri Museveni fought a guerrilla war to overthrow the short-lived presidency of Tito Okello, an Acholi.

Defeated and disenfranchised, armed Acholi soldiers retreated back to the north. Acholiland became the breeding ground for several resistance movements, the most prominent of which was the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena. Claiming to take orders from a holy spirit, Lakwena won the loyalty of former soldiers as well as highly educated Acholi. Their cause was defined as a war against evil, which they identified in the government army.

The Holy Spirit forces marched toward Uganda's capital city, coming within 80 kilometers and incurring heavy losses before finally facing defeat. During this period, a breakaway faction headed by Lakwena's young cousin, Joseph Kony, was building momentum. His LRA rebels continue to fight today.

For years the Ugandan government and international observers alike have trivialized the LRA's long-running insurgency. Viewed as an incomprehensible and crazed band of rebels that poses no real threat to the government, the LRA becomes easy to dismiss.

Despite this, as recently as 2000 the LRA's political arm submitted a paper at a peace conference organized by Acholi leaders in Nairobi. The rebel movement's statement explained its original and primary objective as the defense and protection of civilians against the aggression of the Ugandan government army.

"Members of the LRA are ordinary peaceful law-abiding peasants," it read. "LRA [is] fighting to defend their lives, human rights and dignity[,] protect their people and land and assist others to liberate themselves."

Because it runs so contrary to LRA actions, most long-time observers in the region are at a loss when asked to react to such statements. Far from sowing peace, the LRA moves through the countryside looting and burning villages, killing and maiming civilians, planting landmines and abducting children.

Nonetheless, President Museveni, who billed "Operation Iron Fist" as a war on terrorism, has proclaimed his troops largely successful. He has requested increases in military spending and promised that if the army had new helicopters it would be able to finish the job.

The president's assessment is met with a mix of derision and sadness in Acholiland, where civil and religious leaders consider the LRA essentially "victorious." The few aid agencies and Catholic missionaries who have maintained a presence in the region point to the government's failure to protect civilians or to respond to humanitarian needs. Hospital admissions are at double capacity, the majority of schools have been closed or burned, and severe food shortages are looming.

On the political front, relations between Uganda and Sudan grew tense with renewed accusations that Sudan is supporting the LRA. Youth who escape captivity report large supplies of arms coming from elements within Sudan; and questions continue to circulate about whether Museveni is aiding Sudanese rebels. International mediators made significant progress in pushing for Sudanese peace talks in early 2003, but the inextricable link to northern Uganda is often considered a minor issue.

In the past, Acholi religious leaders actively met with LRA commanders in an effort to build trust and convince rebels to leave the bush. Such attempts at dialogue have been rendered impossible by the violence of the past 13 months. Members of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), while adamant that a lasting peace will depend entirely on a commitment to confidence-building and reconciliation, now admit their desperation.

"We are dying at the roots," says former Protestant bishop Macleord Ochola. "Unless the world sees, we have no future."

Pointing to U.N. intervention in other African conflicts, Acholi leaders now call for outside intervention, international pressure for protection of civilians, and consideration of the crisis at the United Nations.

Aid agencies have been vocal as well, calling attention to the Ugandan army's duty to protect civilians. Until some semblance of security is established in Acholiland, agencies seeking to deliver aid remain largely unable to access remote areas. This, combined with a second consecutive planting season lost due to insecurity, caused the U.N. World Food Program to declare 1.6 million people in need of "life-saving" food aid.

The European Union and the U.S. government have taken some notice of the upsurge of conflict and the desperate humanitarian situation. In early July, members of the European parliament offered a resolution demanding greater protection of civilians and a return to dialogue.

The United States is more reticent to openly criticize Museveni, but the U.S. Agency for International Development has been active on the humanitarian front and has launched a peace initiative that could give ballast to other peace efforts in the region.

Kitgum's July peace demonstration succeeded in capturing fleeting attention at a national level, but the lasting peace requested remains elusive. When night fell the children returned to sleep in hospitals and bus parks, competing for places sheltered from the threat of rain. They pulled thin blankets around their shoulders, and they wondered if the guns would rock them to sleep.

Human Rights Watch

Uganda: Sharp Decline in Human Rights

(Kampala, July 15, 2003) Abductions, torture, recruitment of child soldiers, and other abuses have sharply increased in the past year in northern Uganda due to renewed fighting between Ugandan government forces and rebels, a coalition of national and international organizations said in a report released today.

"The United Nations and members of the international community need to take a more active role to end this desperate state of affairs in northern Uganda. The government and LRA peace talks have ended and the war is continuing at a heightened pace, with worse impact than ever on the entire population of Acholiland."

Jemera Rone, counsel for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch The 73-page report, "Abducted and Abused: Renewed War in Northern Uganda," details how a slew of human rights abuses have resulted in a humanitarian crisis. Since June 2002, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has abducted nearly 8,400 children and thousands more adults, a sharp rise from 2001. The LRA has also escalated the seventeen-year war against northern Uganda's civilians by targeting religious leaders, aid providers, and those living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

"Child abduction, murder, and mutilation are the signatures of the LRA in this war," said Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian minister for external affairs. "This is a war that has been fought primarily against the children and people of northern Uganda." Axworthy is CEO and executive director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues in Vancouver, which issued the report together with the Peace and Human Rights Center in Kampala, Human Rights Focus in Gulu, and Human Rights Watch in New York, of which Axworthy is a board member.

The seventeen-year conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government intensified in March 2002, when the government army, the Ugandan People's Defence Forces (UPDF), launched a military offensive, "Operation Iron Fist," against LRA bases in southern Sudan. The offensive failed to accomplish its aim of destroying the LRA, which evaded the UPDF and in June 2002 returned to northern Uganda. The renewed conflict is taking its highest toll ever:

  • Since June 2002, the LRA abducted 8,400 children, the highest rate of abductions ever in seventeen years of war.
  • Fear of LRA abduction has driven approximately 20,000 children to escape nightly into Gulu and other towns. These children sleep on verandas, on church grounds and at local hospitals, returning home each morning, becoming locally known as "night commuters."
  • An estimated 800,000 northern Ugandans are internally displaced due to LRA attacks and government orders-approximately 70 percent of the entire population of the three war-affected districts in northern Uganda.
  • Respective Mortality Rate (for three months in 2003) for children under five in two IDP camps near Gulu was 5.67/1,000, where 4/1,000 is considered an emergency. This rate was the highest recorded in five years, yet it was not caused by any outbreak of disease, leading the agency conducting the survey to raise the possibility that the children had simply "died of hunger."
  • Although overall HIV prevalence in Uganda has reportedly declined substantially in recent years, there is lingering high prevalence in the north: Gulu reportedly has the second highest rate of HIV prevalence after Kampala, attributed among other things to the higher rate of HIV among combatants. Among expectant mothers tested at one of two hospitals in Gulu, the rates of HIV prevalence were 11-12 percent, where 5 percent is the national rate.

The report draws on interviews with recently abducted children who escaped from the LRA. It gives voice to internally displaced persons living in the IDP camps that have been attacked by the LRA, and the aid workers attempting to reach these victims despite frequent LRA ambushes on relief convoys.

While the Ugandan government is obligated to intervene to stop these violations, its own forces have committed gross abuses, including torture, rape, underage recruitment, and arbitrary detention. The government has also increased the suffering of northern Uganda's population through the forced displacement of civilians into IDP camps, which have little or no protection. But UPDF soldiers and other government forces accused by civilians of serious crimes such as murder, torture, or rape often escape trial or sanction, creating the public perception of impunity.

"Not only has the Ugandan government failed to protect its citizens adequately," said Samuel B. Tindifa, director of the Human Rights and Peace Centre. "They have also actively violated their rights, detained them for long periods without showing cause, and recruited children into the army and home guards."

The UPDF in northern Uganda arrests civilians on suspicion of rebel collaboration with little or no evidence, often holding them for rough interrogation or torture before turning them over to the police for prosecution. The prosecutors then charge the suspects with treason or terrorism, which allows the government to hold them for up to 360 days without bail and without having to present any evidence.

"The United Nations and members of the international community need to take a more active role to end this desperate state of affairs in northern Uganda," said Jemera Rone, counsel for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The government and LRA peace talks have ended and the war is continuing at a heightened pace, with worse impact than ever on the entire population of Acholiland."

The organizations urged the U.N. Secretary-General to appoint a special representative for northern Uganda to secure the release of abducted children by conducting "shuttle diplomacy" between the LRA and the Ugandan government. They also called upon the Sudanese government to end its support of the LRA and upon donor countries to monitor military assistance to Uganda to ensure that the government observes human rights standards.

The four organizations called on the LRA to end its attacks on civilians, to stop abducting children and adults, and to release the abductees. The organizations also urged the government of Uganda to:

  • End impunity for human rights violations by government security and armed forces;
  • Review all cases of treason and terrorism suspects to ensure that sufficient evidence exists to justify detention;
  • Cease using treason or terrorism charges as a holding charge for those arbitrarily detained in areas in which rebels are active;
  • Take effective measures to protect civilians; and
  • Permit those living in internally displaced persons camps to move wherever they wish, except for extreme circumstances of insecurity.

Related Material [see]

Abducted and Abused: Renewed War in Northern Uganda HRW Report, July 2003

Stolen Children: Abduction and Recruitment in Northern Uganda HRW Report, March 2003

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Date distributed (ymd): 030907
Region: East Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+

The Africa Policy E-Journal is a free information service provided by Africa Action, including both original commentary and reposted documents. Africa Action provides this information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

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