"Hear the Cries of Northern Uganda" - Article for Catholic Worker Newspaper
"Hear the Cries of Northern Uganda"
written 20 April 2005
The people of northern Uganda have no place to rest their head. “Since 1986, we have only had restless nights,” an old woman at Ader camp told me. “We are starving to death. Our children have been abducted, our daughters raped and our entire villages destroyed. We have no future. By the time you return, we will probably all be dead.”
The woman is right. Over the last 18 years, the people of northern Uganda have died and are continuing to die amidst silence from the international community. Since 1986, the north of Uganda has been ravaged by a civil war that has left tens of thousands dead, more than 25,000 children abducted and more than 1.6 million people now living in internally-displaced peoples (IDP) camps of the most squalor conditions.
Through the School for International Training, an academic global exchange program committed to building cross-cultural competencies, I find myself walking through IDP camps witnessing a crisis that can only be described as “hell on earth.” As part of an independent study project on the relationship between the war and the repressive political climate, I traveled north. What I found was sickening.
Throughout the northern regions of Uganda, more than 1.6 million people have been pushed into camps by the violence of the Lord’s Resistance Army against the Ugandan government. The government has proclaimed commitment to providing security in the camps, but violent raids by the LRA are still common in many camps. Beyond the daily reality of violence, the conditions in these camps are putrid and violently inhuman.
There are appalling statistics about starvation and infant mortality rates, but it is the images that speak louder than numbers – viciously malnourished children lying naked on the dirt with flies all over their bodies, tents made of plastic bags taped together housing more than ten people, elderly wasting away in their own feces, 12-year old girls forced into prostitution for as little as 500 shillings (30 cents), a people living in constant destabilizing fear.
In some of the camps I visited, there is no NGO, government or international presence to provide food and relief to these people on the brink of death. In some cases, the government has not even recognized that camps – with thousands and thousands of people – exist. It took nearly two decades for the government to declare the northern region a disaster area, thus qualifying it for international emergency relief. As one man told me, “We are forgotten. The government has successfully hidden this war. We will die and no one will ever know what happened here.”
To understand the horror of the situation, it is critical to understand the historical background in which the war arose. First, the harsh colonial rule of the British exploited and perpetuated a north-south divide in the early 20th century, after insensitively carving out the nation of Uganda – a lumping of over fifty tribes with numerous languages and cultures. The colonial masters left a dark legacy that continues to the present, mixed with forces of neo-colonialism in our modern internationalized economic order.
Uganda’s post-independence political history has been scorched by a culture of rebellion where the political norm has become utilizing violent means to gain political power. This culture has only further pervaded fear and divided Ugandans along lines of ethnicity, tribe, class and region. In this hostile political climate, the lack of adequate institutions for groups to address grievances has laid the seeds for violent rebellions.
The current war in northern Uganda began in 1986 when the current president Youweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army marched on Kampala staging a coup d’etat. The existing regime and army, dominated by northerners, fled north to the Sudanese border where they organized into the Uganda People’s Defense Army. Over the next five years, the UPDA negotiated with the government, but left a vacuum quickly filled by the Holy Spirit Movement, an apocalyptic religious army. The HSM also faltered to government military might, but was replaced by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebel group of today.
Little is known about the LRA, except for its leader Joseph Kony, a former UPDA commander who also supposedly believes himself to be divine. The government, and consequently the international community, has painted Kony as a crazed religious zealot driven by the Ten Commandments who kills for the sake of killing. Yet, the writings and recordings of Kony seem to suggest a less-than-crazed man who is driven by a hatred of and desire to overthrow the current Museveni government. It is clear that this uncertainty about the LRA has only further marginalized the group and hindered effective peace efforts.
The most complex and gruesome part of the war has been the child abductions carried out by the LRA since 1994. Since that time, the LRA has abducted, brainwashed and manipulated more than 25,000 children, ranging from ages seven to seventeen. In some cases, the children are forced to kill their own family or burn down homes with as many as twenty people at the beginning of their abduction. Entering into the bush, the children witness and sometimes have to participate in the killing and cutting up of failed escapees. In one account, the children were forced to throw around a severed head, which was then placed on a stick to remind the children of the consequences of attempting escape.
Instilled with fear and brainwashed to equate fighting with survival, these little children become the most vicious killers. People in IDP camps proclaim that they fear the abducted children the most because they kill with little remorse or discrimination. The accounts of the gruesome and horrific ways in which such children have killed and abducted are immensely disturbing, and raise thorny, complex questions about human nature.
Visiting the Rachele Rehabilitation Center, one of five centers for rehabilitating and reintegrating escaped abductees, I was able to speak with one 17-year old boy who spent a little more than one year in the “bush.” The story this boy, like all the escaped abductees, told was sickening, but even more disturbing was watching the pain as this boy recalled the dark memories. He kept looking to the floor, his hand shaking and his neck twitching. Watching this, I could only think about how the situation in northern Uganda really is hell on earth.
The suffering and destruction of the children of northern Uganda is probably the hardest element of the war to face. It is also one of the hardest to understand. How has it been possible for such evil to exist and continue for over a decade? Of course, the politico-economic context provides some answer to that query, but at some level, the horror forces us to face the nature of evil in our world and in our own hearts.
In recent years, especially with the LRA being branded a “terrorist group” by the United States post-9/11, the Ugandan government has attempted to claim that the LRA arose in a vacuum as a killing force with the sole aim of abusing innocent people. This way of thinking that those of us in the United States know so well these days allows the government to abrogate its responsibility for the origin of the LRA, the continuance of the war and the failure to protect its citizens. Through its control over the media, the government in Uganda has been able to spread such a narrow-minded view of the war throughout the international arena.
It is indisputable that the LRA is to blame, but it is also indisputable to any clear observer of the war’s history that the government of Uganda also shares that blame. Since its arrival to power, the Museveni regime has politically and subsequently economically marginalized the north. The government has failed to possess commitment or will to end the conflict, and some even blame the government for benefiting from the political capital presented by the war.
President Museveni has continually pushed for a military solution when it is clear that negotiations are the way to end the war. President Museveni’s blind desire for a military victory has developed massive mistrust among northerners, while he has neglected to provide will for peace talks. The vulnerable victims have suffered amidst this war politicking.
When I was interviewing people in the camps, they repeatedly told me, “Our priority is peace.” They do not care how or from whom it comes; these people yearn for peace and security. There are eighteen and seventeen-year old boys and girls who have grown up in IDP camps and never known a day of peace. The longevity of the conflict has left most people hopeless. One man told me, “We are a hopeless people. As it stands, we have no future. In many ways, we are already dead.”
The war has been complicated over time as it has become internationalized as a proxy war between Uganda and Sudan. In 1994, the government in Khartoum started funding the LRA after the Ugandan government provided support to the rebel SPLA in southern Sudan. The arms flow from the Sudanese government to LRA sustained and exacerbated the conflict. In response, the Ugandan government further militarized the north by arming more than 20,000 individuals in local militias. The deluge of arms into this region has created a hostile environment, making a sustainable peace more distant.
This proxy war invited the less-than-generous involvement of the West, especially the United States, which provided military support to the Ugandan government and SPLA against what it perceived as Arab-Sudan axis fostering a wave of Islamic fundamentalism. To this day, the U.S. government’s military aid to Uganda has perpetuated the military approach.
Even further, the United States and Britain have invested enormous sums of aid into the Ugandan society and have praised it as a “success story” in Africa. When the United Nations has sought to speak out against the atrocities in north Uganda, the U.S. has blocked such negative discussion related to the so-called “pearl of Africa.” In this, the United States remains passively complicit in the war.
The people suffering in the north have completely lost faith in the government, so they are appealing to the international community for help. “This government does not care about us. Our only hope is to the international community to come in and end this war.” One young man told me, “When you go back to your country, tell the people that they are our last hope. If the international community does not act, we will all die.”
Unfortunately, he is probably right. According to most objective observers of the LRA and war, it is clear that only negotiations, built on an elongated ceasefire and security mechanisms to rebuild trust will bring the LRA “out of the bush.” A recent report by the International Crisis Group titled “Shock Therapy for Northern Uganda’s Peace Process” gives more specific details on how the peace process can work.
Yet, government and military officials continue to proclaim their faith in the military approach. This government will only commit to negotiations if there is serious pressure from the international community, most especially the United States. One political analyst told me, “The United States is the only country Museveni cannot ignore. If the U.S. wants this war to end, it will end.”
The internationalization and globalization of the modern world definitely challenges us to broaden our understanding of values such as active love, solidarity, justice and the common good. How to practice solidarity and community in such a large, complex world? Today, it is undeniable that one’s actions in the United States can affect women in Iraq or children in Nepal. Such is the case in Uganda. If the American people demanded the U.S. government utilize their clout in Uganda to save lives and end a war, it would happen. And it should happen.
This summer, I will be working with the recently-formed Africa Faith and Justice Network to launch a campaign to expose the silence and complicity of the U.S. government in this subtle genocide, while pushing the U.S. government to act for the peaceful resolution of the war. The U.S. government can pressure the Ugandan government to commit to substantial peace talks. With enough support and commitment, this campaign can have a massive impact on the lives of Ugandans living on the brink of death in camps. It can set a new standard of how we utilize international networks and a globalized world to promote justice and humanity.
However, the war will not end simply when hostilities cease for the 18 years of conflict have created their deadly circumstances. The biggest problem is that HIV/AIDS has run rampant throughout the north, especially in the IDP camps. One man told me, “Almost everyone in these camps is infected. In five or ten years, people are going to be dying of disease in mass numbers.” Beyond HIV/AIDS, troubling questions of land distribution, economic institutions, medical access, education and psycho-social problems do and will abound. There will be need for massive amounts of development and relief aid.
The darkest and most complex question in a post-conflict Uganda is that of justice. Some international agents are prematurely attempting to bring in the International Criminal Court to litigate against Kony and his commanders. This is having negative implications on the prospects for peace talks, and it also raises the difficult query of achieving justice when some men have raped, abducted and brutally mutilated hundreds and even thousands of innocent individuals. Further, how do you impose justice on abducted children who have committed heinous crimes against humanity?
Interestingly, most of the people in northern Uganda are rejecting the foreign-imposed Western models for justice. The first ground for such rejection is simple – the people want peace and the ICC is hurting hopes for peace. The second ground is more interesting. In Acholi culture, there are traditional models of forgiveness and reintegration for even the worst of crimes. Even after 18 years of brutality, mass death and suffering, the Acholi people are willing to forgive at least for the sake of reintegration and peace.
In northern Uganda, perhaps the worst and the best of humanity are at play, but the worst is winning out every day in a complex, deadly situation. The war is a vicious example of how the darkest elements of the human heart can arise out of swamps of marginalization, repression and poverty. Yet, the answer to such darkness is not to simply alienate it or stomp it out; the challenge is to understand it and transform it into something good. True peace can only come from such loving transformation, not from brutal annihilation.
The people of northern Uganda are crying out for your and my attention, for the world’s attention. For too long, this war has been hidden and ignored, resulting in mass, hopeless suffering. It is time for the world to listen to the cries of northern Uganda, to move beyond simplified understandings of the war and to commit to true action for a peaceful future. I ask you to join the Africa Faith and Justice Network as we demand an end to this war. The stakes could not be higher and the cause more worthy.