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24th March 2004 No 46
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KM Secretariat Editorial: Time to give peace a chance
Whilst the UPDF advances full throttle into pursuing the rebels in Sudan and claiming numerous military victories, there has been little sign of commitment from either the Government of Uganda or the LRA to a peaceful settlement to the conflict. The military campaign appears to have taken priority over any initiatives for dialogue, which not that long ago had the real potential of bringing the war to a peaceful end. It was only a year ago that members of the Presidential Peace Team came extremely close to meeting LRA commanders to negotiate a ceasefire, and hopes were raised amongst all of the war-affected population in Northern Uganda that peace would finally be achieved.
Unfortunately, since then there has been an escalation of violence, resulting in casualties at the hands of both the UPDF and the LRA. However, the tragic events of the last year should not let the Government of Uganda and the LRA forget that a peaceful settlement was once a possibility, and that it still can be. An active commitment to dialogue – as was demonstrated with the setting up of the now defunct Presidential Peace Team last year – should not be forgotten; it is this commitment that raises hope of a peaceful end to the conflict amongst the war-affected population, not claims of military victory by either side.
The military campaign may bring rebel casualties, but in doing so it also threatens the lives of the war-affected population of Northern Uganda, including the forcefully recruited LRA child soldiers. It is time for the Government of Uganda and the LRA to put a brake on the violence and give peace a chance.
Sheila Sisulu, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), visited Uganda’s war-torn northern region this week. She toured a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), chatted with local leaders, heard harrowing tales from former abductees of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and met the 'night commuters' - children who trek into swollen urban centres each night to avoid the risk of being attacked by LRA fighters out in the villages. In an interview, she talked to IRIN about her visit.
QUESTION: How would you sum up your feelings about what you’ve seen in northern Uganda?
ANSWER: It is beyond comprehension. I find it unbelievable, quite frankly, that there could be a crisis of this magnitude that has gone on now for so long and the world is almost completely unaware.
Q: What shocked you most about it?
A: The atrocities in this war - like the massacres reported last month - are one thing, but it’s so much worse than that. I can’t believe there are children born and growing up in encampments, living in permanent fear, and those even less fortunate ending up in LRA captivity and possibly giving birth to other children in those conditions, and then the world has just let this go on.
Q: So do you think the problem is that people have just become inured to the suffering in the north?
A: The conflict has become a routine. Like the night commuters - kids streaming into town on a daily basis to avoid being killed or abducted. Even calling them night commuters makes it sound normal. It obscures that fact that their actual daily existence is something horrific. If this was happening in some other places in the world, I get the feeling we would have stopped it by now.
Q: Could this be down to lack of high profile media coverage?
A: The problem for the media is that we have a crisis, much of which does not offer the opportunity for footage. In such cases, it isn’t recognised as a crisis. Battlefields and killings are good footage. Tens of thousands of children streaming into town to sleep on the verandas maybe doesn’t give such good footage. We need to look at this crisis as something which deeply affects families and communities, because it has created such an abnormal society.
Q: On your trip you talked a lot about education. Could education perhaps play a role in repairing such an abnormal society?
A: Absolutely. Education is a vital tool for survival in the 21st century. In the north, despite the difficulties and the trauma of war, education is giving these children the capacity to know there is a different world, not marked by death and suffering. It gives them something to aspire to - another perspective on what life can be. With education, they can be empowered to wish for the peace that they’ve never had. The success of education here says a lot for their communities. It shows an absence of bitterness.
Q: You had a meeting with the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative, who are the main lobby group in the north campaigning for a peaceful end to the war. What were their concerns as expressed to you?
A: Above everything else they want peace, but they also want an improvement in the quality of life of people in the north - better health care, infrastructure.
Q: What did they ask of you as a representative of the United Nations? Did they ask you to mediate in the conflict?
A: They didn’t specify, but they wanted the international community to put pressure on both sides to work towards peace. Of course, they are already trying to mediate, and what they want is support in this from the international community. The actual mediation process has to be done by Ugandans - it can only be supported, not supplanted. They also said they felt an International Criminal Court (ICC) probe could endanger the peace process.
Q: Might an ICC probe endanger the peace process? Couldn’t your experience as a South African who fought the injustices of the apartheid regime be brought to bear here? Perhaps something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as you had in South Africa, to heal northern Uganda’s wounds?
A: I supported the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It was about South Africans finding our own way to resolve our difficulties and move forward. We are talking about victims and perpetrators sharing a country with nowhere else to go. It would require a scorched earth policy if a justice system were to start hunting for war criminals. We’d still be locked in the same blame games.
Q: Can’t similar concerns be raised about northern Uganda, then?
A: Insofar as it is an application of those principles to a different situation, it isn’t my place to comment. But I will just mention that this conflict is not about foreign armies. This is about Ugandans fighting Ugandans. I personally do not believe that a military solution can be achieved by itself from what I’ve seen. In the end, neither the LRA nor their victims have anywhere else to go - they can’t retreat. At some stage there has to be a process of reconciliation.
Q: And an ICC probe would jeopardise that reconciliation?
A: Ugandans have to determine for themselves whether or not to have an ICC probe. But I have certainly heard some say it could obscure the path to a broader peace. If you want a negotiated settlement, you can’t revert to trials, because then you negotiate in bad faith.
Q: What was the outcome of your discussions with government ministers back in [the capital] Kampala?
A: We agreed that a better use of WFP resources would be to channel some of our emergency relief into education. If the US $10 million we spend every month was used in school feeding, it could have a tremendous impact on government efforts to provide education.
Located about 20 km north of Gulu town, Pabbo internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp is one of the oldest such settlements in northern Uganda. It is also the largest, currently hosting 60,000 IDPs.
"It is 18 years since this camp was created," Uganda's Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness Christine Aporu said, as she gazed over the densely packed expanse of mud and grass huts of which the camp consists.
"Many of the children who grew up here have never known anything but camp life," Aporu, who had accompanied top World Food Programme (WFP) officials, including its deputy executive director, Sheila Sisulu, on a visit to the camp last week, added.
The WFP country director in Uganda, Ken Davies, described Pabbo as "a monster camp" that is "so congested, everyone agrees something has to be done about it".
The camp sprang up in 1986 at about the same time as the northern Uganda-based insurgency against President Yoweri Museveni’s newly installed National Resistance Movement government. At the time, many of the inhabitants of the new camp feared reprisals against the Acholis, who had dominated the past government.
The reprisals never came; instead, life in Pabbo camp has since been about avoiding the mindless wrath of a real foe: the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The rebels, who claim to be fighting to bring down Museveni's government have repeatedly targeted civilians living in the very region the LRA claims to be liberating. Observers say the LRA leader, Joseph Kony, a self-proclaimed prophet, behaves like an ogre who wants to impose himself on Uganda as a sort of spiritual, messianic king.
Like other IDPs camps, Pabbo has never been able to guarantee safety from LRA attacks. On the contrary, residents have reported a string of sporadic attacks on their camp, resulting in killings, maimings, and abductions of children - especially when anyone has to move outside its perimeters to collect food or firewood.
The camp made headlines briefly last month after a fire broke out, destroying several thousand huts. The fire served to highlight the problem of congestion in some of the camps in the region. Following the fire, the government said it would split the camps into smaller, more spaced out settlements. But UN agencies point out that this announcement coincides with moves in other districts to amalgamate such camps into larger units to make them less easy for the LRA to attack.
Residents of Pabbo camp told IRIN that thanks partly to aid from the WFP, the food situation in the camp had improved, but life was still tough. Besides the need for food, water and health care, one of the biggest challenges was how to cope with boredom, they said.
"I’ve been in this place for six years now and I have done nothing," Elijah Okwang, 30, said. "There’s nothing to do. I am a farmer, but we cannot even have a garden in here because there’s no space, while out there it's not safe. I just wish I could have a garden so I could grow food."
Owing to a mixture of luck and resourcefulness, however, some people in the camp have managed to live better than others. Pabbo has a colourful, if rather quiet, market with trade links to the nearby Gulu town.
Two years ago, Oscar Acelam, 29, had never really thought of being a bicycle mechanic. Like the majority of villagers in the region, he used to be a subsistence farmer. But with the escalation of LRA violence against civilians in Gulu District following Ugandan army operations which forced a number of LRA fighters out of their bases in southern Sudan back into Uganda, Acelam found himself having to flee his home. He now repairs bicycles for camp residents and passing traders.
"I sold all my food and belongings for 30,000 shillings [US $15] and came here," he told IRIN. "I noticed there were quite a few bikes here and I knew how to fix my own, so I thought I’d try to make it a business."
Even with a business, life is far from rosy. "Few people have any money to pay for repairs. I get 100 shillings for a job, but most days I don’t get anyone coming here. But I like the work when it comes along."
By far the biggest grievance of Pabbo residents is the lack of water. Boreholes are scarce and competition for water is putting a huge strain on resources. Water pumps are easy to spot because paths to them are marked by seemingly endless rows of plastic containers.
Susan Aber, 45, who operates a water pump, explained the arithmetic of water sharing. "There are six boreholes in this camp between 60,000 people – that’s one for each 10,000. Each family gets only two jerry cans full per day, and sometimes you have to wait 24 hours to get yours," she said.
"Before anything else, we desperately need more water - people are dying from the lack of it," Aber stressed.
Aporu said the government, in addition to providing more space in the camp, was looking into drilling more boreholes.
It is seven in the morning, and 20 children at small, Dutch-run orphanage just outside the town of Lira in Uganda are saying their prayers before sitting down to a silent meal of steaming porridge.
Among them is 13-year-old Innocent Odongo. Three weeks ago he was living on the street. Alone, hungry, and in mourning for the family he had just lost.
But today he is in good hands. Innocent is surrounded by children who know what it is like to lose a family. Beside him, 10-year-old Violet is busy feeding her baby brother, Ivan. Their parents were also killed in a recent massacre by the Lord's Resistance Army, a crazed militia which specialises in kidnapping and brainwashing children.
It was during a violent protest against the latest Lord's Resistance Army massacre, at the end of February, that I bumped into Innocent. Or rather he grabbed my hand and poured his heart out - telling me how he'd watched his father being murdered.
"They killed him, they cut him and they killed him. I saw it. They burnt my mother in the house, along with my brother. I lost my home and my family. I can't do anything. I can't go back to my village, there's war there. If I go back I will die."
Close to tears he added: "I was forced to sleep outside. And I come here today without having eaten, with nothing in my stomach."
That was three weeks ago, and now Innocent is being well looked after at the orphanage. He's also attending a nearby school.
A warm motherly figure, Grace Aye, is his matron. "Innocent is very happy," she says, "and he's going to go to school, he's an intelligent boy and I love him so much."
The orphanage is situated in the countryside. I asked her if she feels safe.
"This area is safe," she tells me.
Well it is for the moment, but much of northern Uganda remains a war zone. A few miles down the road from the orphanage, I found dozens of families camped out in the open - they'd just fled from yet another LRA atrocity. Through an interpreter I spoke to a woman who told me that she'd lost her husband, had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat and no change of clothes.
An official turned up at the makeshift camp. He was holding a list of the names of people who were killed recently.
"Ten people were massacred, including one woman," he said. "The killings are going on not far away from here. These ones took place about 22km from Lira on 8th March."
And what's so extraordinary about this conflict is that the killers themselves - by and large - are children.
In the town of Lira, about 100 girls and boys sit in the shade - singing earnestly about peace. All of them were abducted by the LRA. A recent offensive by the Ugandan army enabled these youngsters to escape. Their stories beggar belief. One 14-year-old boy called Wilson told me how he was abducted by the LRA and taken into the bush.
"I had to carry things, like a porter. Then I was made to kill a man who tried to escape. They brought him back and I was told to beat him to death," he says.
"So, along with others, I helped to beat him. But while I was beating him, others were also beating us. I knew that if I didn't beat the man that I would be killed myself. It took two hours to kill him."
Back at the orphanage, Innocent sits down on a step, and starts tackling his homework. He, at least, has been spared the ordeal of abduction. But his nightmares are not over yet - nor are Uganda's. He tells me: "I feel so very bad when I think of my family. I will not go back to my village until this war ends. We have suffered too much."
Samuel Opong can hardly believe his luck. The 15-year-old was abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels last year, forcibly trained to fight and, soon afterwards, forced to fight. In three fierce battles with the Ugandan army last December, he was hit by bullets in the left leg and arm.
The rebels had forced him and other recent recruits to attack an army unit near the Sudan border. "I lost so much blood I started fainting, so they left me," he told IRIN at Gulu Support the Children Organisation (Gusco) counselling centre for former LRA abductees. "I woke up from the cold next morning and then [government] soldiers found me."
Walking with difficulty and aided by makeshift wooden crutches, another former abductee, Patrick, said he could hardly believe he was still alive. "When we were abducted, they welcomed us and said the LRA was now our new home. But then they started saying we will all be killed in battle and only the children born to the commanders will remain."
Samuel and Patrick, like several other children recently escaped from LRA captivity whom IRIN interviewed last week, tell of a chilling new prophesy from the LRA leader, Joseph Kony. They were told that all Acholis (Kony's tribe) were destined to be killed in battle - so recruits need not fear the battles.
Veronica Atim, a counsellor at the World Vision centre in Gulu, told IRIN: "It seems they are now being told that they are destined to die to make them more fearless on the battlefield: they’ll fight because they believe there’s no hope of survival anyway. It is really sick."
Josephine Lalam, 22, who spent eight years in Kony’s camp in Sudan and gave birth to two children in captivity before escaping last week, told IRIN that Kony had said that all abductees must die because they were not true Acholis. The only true Acholi, Kony reportedly said, were those born to the wives of the commanders - most of whom are ironically abductees. "The other Acholis are meant to die. He [Kony] said he had a message from God that they must be killed to make way for the new children of the LRA."
"It is because they [the Acholis] are stubborn," she said. "They won’t join him to fight the NRA [President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army, now renamed the Uganda People's Defence Forces], so they must die."
The LRA have waged war in northern Uganda for 18 years, but have often seemed more like a bizarre cult than a guerrilla movement because of their seemingly mindless atrocities against civilians and lack of political agenda.
Tens of thousands of civilians are thought to have been killed by the rebels in the north in night-time raids on villages and refugee camps. The United Nations estimates that 1.5 million people have been displaced by the fear of LRA attacks.
Almost all the LRA’s fighters are children abducted from their homes in the war-ravished region and forcibly recruited. Boys are taken as soldiers, most girls taken as "wives" for the rebel commanders. Kony claims to have magic powers derived from the Holy Spirit and manipulates beliefs in witchcraft to instil fear in his followers.
But in this latest twist to the tale, abductees are being told that only children born in LRA captivity will survive the battle between the rebels and the government. The abductees would be killed, they are told.
Esther Opira, a nurse who has been working for five years at Gusco, told IRIN: "Recently we got this message coming up. The kids say Kony is telling them he is a saviour of the Acholis, but now it looks like only the LRA_s own children are to be saved. The abductees are told: you will soon die. They are really scared."
Betti Acam, 10, is visibly traumatised. Every day she spent in captivity she was told she would soon be killed. She speaks in a faint whisper and never looks anyone in the eye when she does so. "Some of them take a long time to even be able to interact," said Veronica Atim, Betti’s counsellor at the World Vision centre in Gulu. "They still have that fear. You can see it on them."
At least 8,500 children were abducted by the LRA last year alone, according to estimates by relief agencies. Many of these children have never been seen again.
The Director General of the Internal Security Organisation, Col. Elly Kayanja, has said he is not at war with the army. "Our work is well spread out and so is theirs. There is no conflict", he told Sunday Monitor in an interview.
Kayanja was responding to accusations by the army that ISO is interfering with the work of the UPDF in the north. There has been a long-running rivalry between the two security bodies as well as efforts to bridge their differences.
However, a letter by the office of Counter Intelligence in Gulu sent to the Director of Counter Intelligence at the CMI headquarters in Kampala suggests that the relationship may be deteriorating rather than improving.
According to the letter, dated November 2, 2003, a lack of co-ordination between the two sister security bodies is undermining its efforts against the Lords Resistance Army rebels in northern Uganda. The letter shades light on the disagreements, the underhand tactics, and how the two security organisations have come close to turning their guns on each other up north.
Take the example of Wilberforce Kinyera. Kinyera, a 23-year-old LRA soldier, had reportedly defected to the UPDF on August 20, 2003 and had provided valuable information about the rebels' areas of operations. He had also led the UPDF to an LRA ammunition cache south of River Agago from where several arms were recovered.
The letter says that when ISO learnt of it, they secretly contacted Kinyera without the knowledge of the fourth division or any of the district security officers. He was later found dead. Without giving details of how Kinyera died, the letter blames ISO for his death and adds: "they (ISO) started framing baseless accusations for them [sic] to appear innocent".
Similarly on November 5, 2003, ISO Director General Col. Elly Kayanja reportedly invited four LRA defectors for a meeting in Gulu without the knowledge of the army. The four had previously been working exclusively with the fourth division to track the LRA, when Kayanja reportedly lured them to his camp.
"Kayanja promised these LRA commanders a lot of money, which made them conspire to steal arms from their squad armoury which were given by fourth division for operations," says the letter. They reportedly buried the arms, including two RPG bombs without fuses, three 60mm mortar bombs and 125 rounds of G2 ammunition and later informed Col. Kayanja that they had discovered an ammunition cache. Kayanja reportedly deployed his boys without notifying the fourth division or the commander of Bravo Battalion, the designated area commander.
"This uncoordinated operation definitely put the lives of these officers at risk," says the letter.
The letter says that the four LRA informants were paid Shs 1 million, although they had originally been promised Shs 3 million.
"This trend is dangerous," points out the letter and adds that the practice of dishing out money to operatives has commercialised intelligence operations so much that LRA informers now demand large pay-offs, in exchange for information.
The letter reveals that on November 10, the four rebel informants were again individually contracted by ISO to carry out similar arms searches in Kitgum and Pajule, without informing the area commanders.
Sources also told The Monitor that the ISO chief has sometimes promised defectors money in exchange for information leading to the capture of arms, only to renege on his promise. This, sources say, has been one of the key areas of conflict between the army and ISO.
But Kayanja says it is all lies. "I have never promised money to LRA defectors," he said in an interview Friday. "How can I even do that, when it's not my work"?
The letter from the Counter Intelligence Office in Gulu further reveals that on November 14, Kayanja reportedly whisked four other defectors to Gulu's Mega FM for a live radio talk show without notifying the Fourth Division commander. A day later, the four defectors appeared in the newspapers, which the letter argues, put their lives in danger. Adds the letter, "Worst of all, they decided to keep these defectors covertly in Gulu Sunset Lodge without interrogating them".
The letter also criticised ISO's ongoing covert operations in West Nile where it's recovering firearms from rebel remnants. But even here, ISO is reportedly not playing by the rulebook. "They conduct their operations without the knowledge of either the Division or the 409 Brigade authorities that are responsible for the area," says the letter.
The letter also spills the beans on another "uncoordinated operation" by ISO agents, this one on May 5 last year in Medigo, in Yumbe. It reveals that the 409 Brigade came come close to shooting ISO operatives, mistaking them for enemies. The brigade's leadership reportedly filed a complaint to the Director of Intelligence; Msg DTG 071125C May 03 FM 409 Bde I.O.
"The differences between the two state organisations should be addressed to avoid pulling ropes between them," says the letter.
Kayanja told Sunday Monitor that the accusations in the letter were "not true". He said the two organisations "all serve one nation, one government and one president".
Army spokesman, Major Shaban Bantariza said he had not read the letter yet, but admitted that there had been long-running battles between the two organisations, which he described as "mere disagreements".
"What you are talking about is not new," said Bantariza. "Disagreements are in every organisations, because it's human nature that all people can never agree". Said he: "What people should focus on is whether there are efforts to resolve those differences, and there is".
One of these efforts was the appointment of Brig Kale Kaihura to establish the truth in the allegations and counter allegations between ISO and UPDF. Kaihura handed over his report to the Army Commander, who has reportedly taken action on the report.
The Army commander could not be reached for comment. An aide referred Sunday Monitor back to the army spokesman. But Bantariza said he did not know what sort of action had been taken or whether any officers had been implicated in Kaihura's report.
"Definitely, the army commander must have done something, because those chaps (ISO-UPDF) are now working together," he said.
1. Affirmative Actions: International Experiences and Lessons from Fiji
Friday 26th March, 2004
at 6.30 pm, USP Marine Studies Lecture Theatre
A Lecture delivered by Professor
Jomo K. Sundaram, Applied Economics Department, Faculty of Economics and Administration,
University of Malaya, Malaysia
2. Futures for Southern Africa
A Follow-up conference from
the 2003 Symposium in Namibia
Institute of Commonwealth
1 – 3 April 2004
The registration fee for the conference will be £20 payable to CIIR. If you wish to negotiate a lower fee on the grounds of being a student, unemployed or low waged, please do ask Helen Barratt at CIIR.
For other logistical details, or to request an application form or further information on the contents and agenda of the conference, please contact Helen Barratt at: Helen@ciir.org, or contact CIIR at Unit 3 Canonbury Yard, 190A New North Rd, London N1 7BJ or fax to + 44 (0)20 7359 0017.
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