Monday, November 24, 2008

Northern Uganda Conflict 101

Parts of Uganda have suffered tremendously over the past 20 years. Some areas in the North have been caught in the midst of conflicts between rebel groups and the government. Specifically the Acholi people have borne the brunt of much suffering. Rebels of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony have targeted the Acholi for a variety of reasons rather too complicated to delve into. Unfortunately, children have been major targets of kidnappings and recruitment into the rebel resistance.

Two weeks ago, there was a peace festival in Kampala. The festival was over two days; it showed documentaries about two major areas with persistent conflict, Juba and Acholi-land, and held spirited panel discussions on the issues. Only after the documentary, Uganda Rising, did I begin grasping the magnitude of the devastating impact the LRA has wrought. Estimates of almost 50, 000 children have been kidnapped, forced to fight in the army, subjected to sexual slavery and compelled to do horrible things like killing their family members to prove loyalty to the rebels. The bulk of the rebel force is now made of such kids whose innocence has been stolen away. They do not know any other way of life. It is hard to fully understand the poisoned framework of these children’s reality. The have grown up in constant migratory rebel camps in very harsh weather conditions in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan. The primary mode of survival has been by the gun; they use it to raid villages for a means of survival, for protection and now for self-preservation.

In the mid 1990’s the government of Uganda in a proclaimed attempt to protect the Acholi, who have been subject to constant attack by the LRA rebels, forcibly removed the Acholi form their villages and ancestral land to Internal Displaced People (IDP) camps. In all, about 1.5 million people were moved. Unfortunately, though the proclaimed goal appeared noble, the reality was starkly different. The IDP camps comprised of huts in very close quarters; there was no provision of farmland or a means for income generation. Worst of all, security at the camps was non-existent, or at best very lax. These same people who were moved for security concerns were abandoned in concentrated camps where the rebels still easily attacked, maiming people and kidnapping even more children. An entire generation of Acholi is passing without knowing any peace, many are displaced from the ancestral lands, many have no skills and can not even farm, many have never worked, many have been completely reliant of foreign aid all their lives. Grown men lounge all day in IDP camps, they cannot provide for their families; they cannot protect them. Women suffer from abuses from their frustrated husbands, rebels and even government soldiers. Children are helpless; they are again being forced into local militias to protect their IDP camps. 

Stories abound of the brutality these people have endured, lost limbs, machete scars, stub remnants of what used to be lips, noses and ears, and the unseen emotional scars.  There are also stories bravery and the drive for survival in the face of daunting odds. There are kids who walk tens of kilometers daily to attend school. There are those who keep living with the scars even after losing most of all of their family members. There are the night commuters who, before sundown walk several kilometers from IDP camps to the nearest big city to sleep in shelters, verandas and street corners to escape the violence at the camps. There are women who are caring for their young children though they are products of a rape encounters. The stories of survival are loud but have not yet drowned out those of human brutality.

Today, the situation appears better. IDP camps still exist, though they were recently disbanded by the government. The LRA rebels are currently involved in peace talks with the Ugandan government. There is reported better security in Northern Uganda with the rebels currently in Southern Sudan, just north of the Ugandan border. Amnesty agreements have resulted in many rebels abandoning the LRA for reintegration into society.

One story of reconciliation resounds. The Acholi people have as part of their cultural traditions a reconciliation ceremony. Rivals from different clans or families, or outcasts traditionally underwent this public ceremony to make peace. This ceremony is used today to reintegrate former rebel militants into the community.

Quote of the day.

When a rebel is rescued, the government says an Acholi child has come home; when one is killed, they say we have killed a terrorist. 

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