For two decades in northern Uganda, a cult-like rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) waged war against the government and local Acholi people, launching horrific attacks on villages, towns and camps for the internally displaced.
At the height of the conflict, the United Nations called northern Uganda one of the world’s most neglected humanitarian crises. Some 2 million people – about 90 percent of Acholiland – were uprooted from their homes and tens of thousands were killed or mutilated.
The LRA kidnapped thousands of children for use as fighters, porters and “wives”. Many were forced to perform terrible atrocities – including killing their families and other children. The rebels were also notorious for slicing off people’s lips, ears and noses or padlocking people’s lips shut.
A Sudanese-brokered ceasefire in August 2006 brought relative peace to northern Uganda. But rebel leader Joseph Kony has repeatedly refused to sign a final peace deal, demanding guarantees that he will not be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which wants to try him for war crimes.
Kony’s rebels have camped out in remote regions of Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic since the peace process started.
During the worst of the conflict in northern Uganda many people fled their homes to live in camps. Others were herded into the camps by the Ugandan army during counter-insurgency operations. The makeshift settlements lacked food and clean water and were vulnerable to rebel attacks.
At one time, almost 1,000 people were dying every week from disease, poor living conditions and violence, according to a 2005 survey of internally displaced in Acholiland by Uganda’s health ministry, New York-based aid agency International Rescue Committee and several U.N. agencies.
Improved security since peace talks has allowed about half of the displaced to return to their villages while about a quarter have moved to transit sites near their homes, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre says. But many people, including the elderly, disabled and orphaned, are still stuck in the camps. Despite relative peace, the problems in the north continue to undermine the country’s gains since the bloodshed and economic chaos of the Idi Amin and Milton Obote years.
Northerners ruled Uganda from independence in 1962 until Yoweri Museveni, a rebel leader from the southwest, seized power in 1986. Some critics accused him of prolonging the conflict to subdue political opposition in the north – an allegation he denies.
Patrick Odong, 13, whose jaw was smashed by a bullet in 2002 as troops battled rebels in his village.
Museveni’s seizure of power prompted a number of popular uprisings in the north. The LRA emerged in 1992, comprising northern rebel groups and former Obote troops. At its helm was Kony, a former altar boy and self-proclaimed prophet.
Kony, an Acholi himself, turned resentment towards Museveni into an apocalyptic spiritual crusade that has sustained one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts. Analysts say that aside from rabid opposition to Museveni, the rebels have showed no clear political goals during their insurgency.
Kony has said he is fighting to defend the Biblical Ten Commandments, although his group has also articulated a range of northern grievances, from the looting of cattle by Museveni’s troops to demands for a greater share of political power. A report by World Vision International says Kony’s spiritualism blends elements of Christianity, Islam and traditional Acholi beliefs to psychologically enslave abducted children and instil fear in local villagers.
In 1994, Sudan began backing the LRA with weapons and training and let it set up camps on Sudanese soil. Sudan was getting back at Uganda for supporting its own southern rebels during its 20-year civil war. It also used the LRA as a proxy to fight against the rebels. Sudan’s civil war came to an end in 2005 with a fragile peace deal. Khartoum says it has ended all support to the LRA. In 2002, Museveni launched a military campaign, “Iron Fist”, aimed at wiping out the LRA for good. Kony’s rebels responded by abducting more children and attacking more civilians. Some 10,000 children were seized in about a year. The number of displaced people shot up.
It was then that the phenomenon of “night commuting” emerged. Every evening tens of thousands of children trudged into towns like Gulu to sleep on the streets, rather than risk being kidnapped from their beds by the rebels. No one knows how many children have been abducted overall but the figure is widely believed to exceed 20,000. In October 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Kony and other top LRA leaders, accusing them of multiple war crimes. Sudan agreed to let Ugandan troops pursue the rebels into its territory.
Within months, the LRA leaders sought refuge in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, rekindling historic tension between Kampala and Kinshasa. Operating from camps in Garamba National Park, in northeastern DRC, the LRA has attacked Congolese villages and towns, killed civilians and abducted children. Rebels have also attacked civilians across the border in Sudan.
A Uganda soldier sits on an amoured vehicle while escorting a U.N. convoy from Lira to Pader district, 2005.
REUTERS/ Joseph Akena
South Sudan’s vice president, Riek Machar, himself a former rebel in Sudan’s north-south war, began mediating between the LRA and Museveni after meeting Kony in the bush near the Congolese border in May 2006. The LRA declared a unilateral ceasefire in early August and by the end of the month there was a truce in place.
Rebels agreed to gather in two assembly points in southern Sudan while negotiations continued. However, most rebels drifted away from the assembly points and both sides accused each other of breaking their word. A key obstacle in the negotiations is the fact the ICC global war crimes court wants senior rebels handed over for trial. The LRA has vowed never to sign a final peace deal unless Kampala persuades the ICC to drop the case – something analysts say is unlikely.
Talks between the rebels and the government have frequently stalled since 2006. In January 2008, it was confirmed that the LRA’s deputy commander Vincent Otti was dead following rumours he had been killed in late 2007. Numerous LRA deserters have said Kony shot his number two after accusing him of spying for the government. The news raised fears of a wobble in the peace process because Otti, regarded as the brains behind the group in contrast to the volatile Kony, had been a prime mover behind the LRA joining peace talks.
A possible breakthrough came in February 2008, when the Ugandan government and LRA signed a deal stipulating that Kampala would set up special war crimes courts to handle the gravest crimes, while traditional justice known as mato oput would be used for others.
This homegrown solution has the support of the Acholis, who have borne the brunt of the conflict. But Kony has repeatedly failed to show up to sign a final peace deal. With patience wearing thin, Uganda, DRC and southern Sudan began a major offensive against LRA camps in Garamba in December 2008. A U.S. official said Washington had provided equipment and helped plan the operation.
Semi-autonomous southern Sudan said its troops wouldn’t cross into Congo, but it would block any fleeing LRA rebels. The LRA responded by looting local villages, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands. Ugandan troops withdrew in March 2009, and the LRA continue to terrorise parts of Central African Republic, DRC and southern Sudan.
A Karamojong warrior at an army disarmament operation, 2007.
Karamoja, a semi-arid region in Uganda’s northeast along the border with Kenya, has been affected by banditry and inter-clan warfare for decades. But the drought-prone area has experienced escalating levels of violence in recent years due to an influx of arms and competition over resources. The Karamojong people are a semi-nomadic pastoral tribe who depend on cattle for their livelihood.
Their way of life has been disrupted by disputes over shrinking water supplies and a flood of cheap semi-automatic weapons trafficked from conflicts in the Horn of Africa. The influx of guns has made frequent cattle raids more deadly. The government has attempted to tackle the widespread possession of small arms through a series of disarmament programmes.
In 2006, after persistent raids, revenge killings and warrior ambushes, it began using a more aggressive approach, in which the army has surrounded villages with tanks and helicopter gunships and forcibly searched for weapons. Dozens of civilians have been killed, and cases of torture reported during the forced disarmament campaign. Houses have been burned down and hundreds of civilians have fled the violence. Traditional nomadic movement patterns have also been disrupted. The number of reported incidents fell in 2008, says Human Rights Watch, but violations continue.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) says the government’s disarmament approach does not offer a sustainable solution to Karamoja’s insecurity because of the region’s economic and political marginalisation and limited ways to make a living. Karamoja is one of Uganda’s most impoverished regions, and lacks government services and institutions, including civilian policing. The neglect can be traced back to colonial times, when British administrators largely left Uganda’s northern tribes out of the process of modernisation.
Adding to the woes of poverty and violence, the population has been badly affected by successive years of drought. In May 2009 – during the hunger season – the entire population was experiencing food shortages, said the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. The region suffered a severe famine in the early 1980s, and still has the highest malnutrition rates in the country. Its livestock has been decimated by disease since 2007.
According to World Health Organisation figures, the region has very high child and maternal mortality rates compared with the national average. Rights groups are also concerned about forced evictions. In one case cited by the United Nations, a group of women and children were kicked out of their homes on the grounds that they were providing intelligence information to warriors.
Meanwhile, the government has tried to get hundreds of Karamojong who have migrated to the capital Kampala to return to the northeast. Aid agencies are worried that returns have not been voluntary in some cases, and that the government has failed to provide adequate support.
via Reuters AlertNet – Uganda violence.