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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
Additional sources for ongoing coverage include:
Reuters Alertnet section on Uganda violence
Human Rights Watch, Uganda page
AllAfrica.com, Uganda page
UN Integated Regional Information Network (IRIN) - Uganda page
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
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
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
"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
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
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
- 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
"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
- 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 http://www.hrw.org/africa/uganda.php]
Abducted and Abused: Renewed War in Northern Uganda HRW Report,
Stolen Children: Abduction and Recruitment in Northern Uganda HRW
Report, March 2003
Date distributed (ymd): 030907
Region: East Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+
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