Children The World Forgot

January 31 2006 | by

Africa's Longest War

As the Lord's Resistance Army pursues Africa's longest running civil war, the hope of safety and security remains a distant dream for Uganda's night dwellers

By Augustine Sam

FOR A COUNTRY that gained international prominence for a ground-breaking campaign against HIV/Aids and was often praised for fostering one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, the phenomenon of 'night dwellers' is an inexplicable irony in Uganda. Mired in a 20-year-old conflict that, reports say, has killed more than half a million people, displaced almost two million, and resulted in the abduction of 25,000 children, this phenomenon opens a hideous chapter in a civil conflict that the UN described as 'the world's worst forgotten crisis'. At dusk everyday, in many northern Ugandan towns and villages, terrified people commute to 'sleep rough' on the streets and shop verandas overnight, to escape the threat of rebel looting, attacks, rape, killings and child abduction.
For many humanitarian agencies in the region this is not news. The conflict is like an unending nightmare. It is engineered by the Lord's Resistance Army, a quasi-religious movement that has wreaked havoc in northern Uganda for about 20 years, in its orchestrated effort to topple the government of President Yoweri Museveni. Today, 'over 80 percent of LRA fighters are abducted children held against their will, terrorised and forced to fight,' said Emma Naylor, the Country Programme Manager of Oxfam in Uganda. Oxfam, perhaps the most active humanitarian organisation in the region, has repeatedly called on the Government of Uganda and the international community to live up to their responsibility and protect hundreds of thousands of people suffering as a result of the horrific conflict.

Elusive peace

The Government of Uganda has often claimed that the end of the conflict was in sight, yet, safety and security remain distant dreams. Not long ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for the five top leaders of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army. But Oxfam's Emma Naylor said, 'Our biggest fear is that arrest warrants will be an excuse for military forces to go in all guns blazing, and these children will be killed or injured in a hail of bullets. We need to find ways to help these children come home and be accepted back into their communities. For two decades it has been impossible to apprehend the rebel leaders. The communities that we work with are already asking how the arrest warrants will be served. There is a lot of confusion and it is fast turning to fear.'
This fear was amplified by the reported killings of two aid workers in northern Uganda last October, which created a sense of insecurity and caused many aid agencies to restrict their relief operations, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without help and living in anxiety. 'This war has already lasted 20 years and an entire generation has never known peace,' decried Naylor. 'We are desperate for an end to this conflict. Many people dream of the day when the rebel leaders will have to stand trial for the crimes they have committed. But we are really worried that this dream won't become a reality.'

North-South divide

The origin of this conflict, for which many Ugandan kids are paying a huge price, lies in the complex religious traditions of the Acholi people who inhabit Uganda's northernmost districts, and in the deeply rooted ethnic mistrust between the Acholi and the ethnic groups of southern Uganda. Like in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, during the period of British colonial administration, the British employed mostly southerners in the civil service while northerners, especially the Acholi, were primarily recruited into the armed forces. This created a division between northern and southern Uganda that persisted through independence in 1962.
The south was more developed and contained the bulk of Uganda's educated elite, while the north, including Gulu and Kitgum, the homeland of the Acholi, remained poor, with the people relying on cattle and military service for subsistence. The socio-economic division between north and south has been exacerbated by frequent bouts of violence for which Acholi soldiers were said to be both victims and perpetrators. Under Mr Milton Obote's first presidency, military men belonging to the Acholi tribe were implicated in many of the government's questionable deeds. So, when the notorious Idi Amin seized power in the 1970s, his henchmen slaughtered many Acholi soldiers.
However, Milton Obote eventually returned to power after Amin's 1979 overthrow, and the Acholi soldiers in his army were again implicated in the deaths of thousands of civilians during the civil war against Yoweri Museveni's guerrilla National Resistance Army, which drew its support mostly from people in Uganda's southern and western regions. At the peak of the confusion, an Acholi army officer, Tito Okello ousted Milton Obote in a coup, but the Acholi control of the government lasted for a brief period.
On January 26, 1986, Museveni's National Resistance Army took Kampala, forcing Okello's Acholi soldiers to retreat north. Some crossed the border and took refuge with the Acholi people of southern Sudan, but many retreated only as far as Gulu and Kitgum, where they could rely on the support of the civilian population. Nonetheless, Museveni soon succeeded in taking the major northern towns, and when the National Resistance Army was firmly in control of the country, it changed its name to Uganda People's Defence Force.

Religious folly

Acholi ex-soldiers were asked to turn in their weapons, and many did so. Some, however, never relinquished their weapons. Paulinus Nyeko, chairman of Gulu Human Rights Focus, was once quoted as saying that since Uganda's history for twenty-five years had been one of ethnic purges and reprisals, many Acholi feared that it was only a matter of time before Museveni's soldiers sought revenge on them for atrocities committed during past regimes. And the frequent harassment, looting, rape and cattle-theft by soldiers of the National Resistance Army (now Uganda People's Defence Force) did little to quell these fears or increase Acholi faith in the new Museveni government.
By August 1987, many of the Acholi ex-soldiers in Sudan had joined up with other opponents of the Museveni administration, and formed a rebel alliance. The rebels made frequent incursions into Uganda to fight government forces. Self-styled Acholi prophetess Alice Lakwena led one of the rebel units, the Holy Spirit Mobile Force. She claimed to be possessed by the Holy Spirit, and garnered enormous Acholi support with her promises to defeat Museveni's government and purge the Acholi people of witches and sinners.
In late 1987, Alice Lakwena led thousands of Acholi soldiers against government troops; her soldiers were anointed with shea butter oil, which Lakwena assured them would cause bullets to bounce harmlessly off their chests. Aided by the civilian population, Lakwena's Holy Spirit Mobile Force soldiers got to within sixty miles of Kampala, where they encountered a large government force. Lakwena's soldiers, armed largely with rifles and stones, proved to be no match for modern heavy artillery, and thousands of her followers were killed. Lakwena herself fled to Kenya.
In the wake of Lakwena's defeat, the Acholi rebel movement disintegrated and many Acholi rebels surrendered. But a few remained in the bush, under the leadership of Joseph Kony, a young relative of Lakwena's. Kony claimed to be the inheritor of Lakwena's spiritual tradition, and his small group of rebels, based in Sudan, eventually came to call itself the Lord's Resistance Army. Like Alice Lakwena, Kony promised both to overthrow the Kampala government and to purify the Acholi people from within. And despite government attempts to stamp it out, the Lord's Resistance Army persists, never strong enough to seriously destabilize the government, but never weak enough to die out completely.
This event coincided with the civil conflict in Sudan, whose government spokesmen had repeatedly accused the Ugandan government of providing military support for the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army, and several years ago, in apparent retaliation, the Sudanese government began to aid the Lord's Resistance Army. This aid turned the Lord's Resistance Army into more of a threat than ever, as the rebels were now armed with land mines and machine guns in place of rifles and machetes.
Since then, the Lord's Resistance Army, which claims to be fighting for Uganda to base its government on the Ten Commandments, has turned Gulu and Kitgum into permanent battle zones, filled with burnt schools, ransacked homes, abandoned fields, and a huge population of internally displaced people. On October 10, 1996, rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army kidnapped 139 girls from St. Mary's College, a Catholic boarding school in the northern Ugandan town of Aboke. Since then thousands of Acholi children have been abducted and forced to be child soldiers and the girls turned into sex slaves.
Unending nightmare

These days, an estimated 40,000 Ugandan children walk quietly through the darkness every night, fleeing their homes on the look-out for a relatively safe place to sleep in an urban area or in the centre of a larger Internally Displaced Persons camps - only to return back home in the morning and repeat the trip all over again as night falls. OXFAM director, Barbara Stocking was quoted last November as saying, 'every day an average of 3 children are kidnapped and forced to fight. This must be the world's worst case of mass child abuse.'

Night Commuters

Since 1997 more than 27,000 children have been kidnapped and forced to fight or become sex slaves, so that many families find it safer to send their children to town by themselves rather than wait for a rebel raid

By Ellen Teague

PIUS HAS JUST walked three kilometres with his two younger brothers in order to go to bed. He lives with his parents in the village of Ariaga, but every night joins the streams of children known as 'night commuters' walking to the town of Gulu in northern Uganda to sleep in safety. Pius leaves home at six o'clock. An hour and a half later he has reached the safety of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church, where about 2,000 boys and girls sleep. He repeats his 90-minute walk to get back home in the morning before going to school. 'I have been coming here for a year with my brothers,' he says. 'We would prefer to stay at home, but, because of the war, we cannot,' he adds. 'I have friends who have been taken by the rebels.' Pius is a slightly-built thirteen year old who also takes the responsibility for bringing his younger brothers - aged nine and ten - to safety each night.
At dusk the roads leading into Gulu are choked with the night commuters, and it is estimated that between 12-15,000 children come in every night. They have bedding on their heads or under their arms. Some are already wearing their school uniforms and have satchels on their backs, ready to go straight to school in the morning. They sleep in makeshift shelters, in churches, warehouses and the local hospital, the bus park and, for those unlucky enough not to get into a locked shelter, on the street. When the sun rises they begin the long journey home, often barefoot and on an empty stomach. 

Escaping abduction

The reason behind this nightly trek is that Gulu and other Northern Ugandan towns are in the heart of territory inhabited by the Lord's Resistance Army, a notorious rebel group which abducts children to work as unpaid labour, including carrying heavy weapons, satisfying sexual needs and, if necessary, killing people. Their atrocities are well documented and fear of the Lord's Resistance Army runs deep. Parents send their children into town for their own security while they stay at home to protect their property.
Since 1986, the Lord's Resistance Army, led by the self-styled mystic Joseph Kony, has sought to overthrow Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. The Acholi people of the north have been the main victims of the 19-year conflict, with more than 80 percent of them internally displaced and living in camps with little food and poor sanitation. Harrowing testimonies of rape, abuse and child kidnapping have emerged from the region over the years, yet Museveni's government has failed to provide adequate protection for the area's inhabitants. Up to 1.6 million people have had to leave their homes, and over 25,000 children have been taken by the Lord's Resistance Army over the past 10 years, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The UN estimates that over 40,000 children make the nightly commute to safety in Gulu and other towns in Northern Uganda. Almost two decades of war have wreaked havoc on people's lives, and UN Special Advisor Jan Egeland has called it 'the world's most neglected humanitarian crisis'.
The people in the north find themselves in a dilemma. Ever since the United States government put the Lord's Resistance Army on its list of terrorist organisations in late 2001, the government has referred to the Lord's Resistance Army and the people who attempt to negotiate with them as 'terrorists'. This puts Church personnel and others who attempt to dialogue with the Lord's Resistance Army in a difficult position. Also, around 85 percent of the rebels are formerly abducted children, whom many feel are themselves victims of the conflict.

Giving sanctuary

At the Holy Rosary Catholic Church Joseph is a young man who is thankful he can find safety there every night, despite his lengthy walk to reach it. He knows firsthand the dangers faced by children in the north. 'In October 1999 I was abducted with two friends when we were on the way to school,' he recalls. 'They took us to the Aswa River and some were killed there'. He reports that, 'one of my friends was killed in front of my eyes when he tried to escape'. Joseph was chosen to be a commander's escort, which meant he had to carry his chair and gun. He escaped a year later when the Lord's Resistance Army was ambushed by government forces. He has no illusions about his situation. 'Of course I am always afraid,' he says, 'and if they get me for a second time they will definitely kill me'.
Although Gulu has in the past been targeted by the Lord's Resistance Army, there seems to be safety in numbers, and the children of the district spend the night huddled together in their temporary shelters. But why do their parents choose to send their children out at night, instead of moving the whole family into the relative safety of a displacement camp? Indeed, many have been driven out of their homes. The population around Gulu comprises peasant farmers who grow their own produce in this extremely fertile land. The colourful, vibrant market in the centre of Gulu, where piles of tomatoes, onions, greens and pulses compete for buyers, is evidence of the quality of the soil. If the farmers move into overcrowded camps, they lose not only their homes, but their livelihoods. Becoming refugees is a very final, desperate resort. Many prefer to send their children into town for the nights, where they at least have a chance of survival.

Peace initiative

The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative is a forum which has been active in trying to find a peaceful solution in the North. Philip Okin, programme coordinator of Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, says the military option has no future in Uganda. 'We have to build a culture of peace in the community' he says. 'We want to be a bridge between the government and the Lord's Resistance Army, but unfortunately because the government insists it can defeat the Lord's Resistance Army we have not been able to achieve much.' Okin echoes what many Ugandans say - the government and the army are not interested in ending the war since too many people are benefiting from it. Okin says the government's attempt to dismiss the Lord's Resistance Army as a 'Northern problem' is short-sighted. He fears the presence of numerous government-sanctioned militias and the evident wealth (thanks to the war) accumulated by some people, could lead to a 'Somalia situation with warlords'.
Late last year, the Anglican Bishop of northern Uganda, Nelson Onono-Onweng, called on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to enlighten the world about the plight of the people living in displaced people's camps. Also, Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, the Catholic leader closely involved with the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, said that the upsurge of attacks on civilians by the Lord's Resistance Army was raising new fears about increasing violence in the brutal conflict. He urged Ugandan military commanders and government security officials to stop making what he called 'provocative statements'. He complained that, 'whenever our officials make statements like 'we have defeated these people,' the Lord's Resistance Army responds by carrying out attacks and the people are the ones suffering'. When the Lord's Resistance Army leaders announced in December that they were ready for peace talks, Archbishop Odama urged them to confirm their intentions by leaving their camps in the bush and heading for a neutral site to begin negotiations. He also called upon the Ugandan government to respond favourably to the rebels' initiative. He observed that in the past both sides have accused the others of deliberately sabotaging the peace process. 'It's necessary that both make an effort now to promote peace,' he said.

UN involvement

Last November, the UN Security Council was urged to do more to protect civilians in northern Uganda by a coalition of 50 humanitarian agencies operating there, including Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic network of aid agencies. In a statement issued to coincide with a high level UN Security Council delegation visiting the country, they said the violence and upheavals caused by the war are claiming at least 1,000 lives every week.
There was dismay when the delegation reported on November 9, after meeting President Yoweri Museveni and government officials, that 'strong progress has been made' regarding the situation. Oxfam immediately accused the UN Security Council of being 'ignorant and apathetic about the suffering'. It pointed out that around two million people are plagued by insecurity, mortality levels well above emergency thresholds, and that there had been recent murders of aid workers.
Speaking in November, a Church worker in Gulu reported that, 'the Lord's Resistance Army have increased their ambushes in the last month following the issue of arrest warrants for their five top leaders by the International Criminal Court'. He said that, 'in any ambush they may kill about 5 to 10 people - and I usually read of about one or two ambushes a week - but the high death rate is down to the consequences of the total disintegration of normal rural life and health care'. He said the fear engendered by Lord's Resistance Army ambushes, 'causes people to start running to the towns leaving everything behind; the children are not fed, the immunisation programmes break down, malaria increases, and even diseases that could be dealt with in rural Africa are not addressed'.  



Updated on October 06 2016