21 January 2006

Night commuting in darkest Africa

By Marguerite Finn

It has been called Africa's forgotten war. It receives little media attention but the horrific war in Northern Uganda continues regardless.

Uganda is a beautiful country. It lies along the Equator between the great East African Rift Valleys and has a population of about 20 million. Forty different languages are currently in use in the country – although English became the official language after Independence in 1962. The south has good rainfall and rich soils around its many lakes, while the drier northern savannah teems with big game.

Map of conflict in Uganda
Sadly, the acquisition of independence exacerbated the partition of the country into two economic zones with much of the south remaining a cash-crop-growing area while the north became a labour reserve. This socio-economic split ensured that the administrative and commercial sector was concentrated in the south, while the northerners controlled the army. Consequently, the emergence of a Ugandan nationalism was impeded and these regional divisions spawned the resentment and mistrust responsible for much of the political instability and violence there today.

Since 1986 an anti-Government rebel movement, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has been waging a brutal war in Northern Uganda. It uses terror in a number of appalling ways, notably the forced abduction of children who are put into the front line of the LRA forces. Many of the children are between 10 and 14 years of age and nubile girls are given as "wifelets" to senior commanders (who prefer them as they are less likely to be HIV+). An estimated 20,000 children have been abducted from their homes since the war began nearly twenty years ago.

Furthermore, over 90% of the population is confined (on Government orders) to internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps. This is deemed necessary for their personal security and there is a ban on anyone moving out of the camps by more than 2km. This makes it impossible for people to till their fields, plant crops or harvest food – making them almost totally dependent on supplies from the UN World Food Programme (WFP). We are talking about 1.5 million people.

Life in the camps is grim – in fact, one thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs) die every week in Acholi. This shocking fact is the conclusion of a survey conducted by the Ugandan Government and UN Agencies. Most of the dead are children who are dying of malaria, diarrhoea, HIV/AIDS and violence. Families living in rural areas surrounding the camps urge their children (anywhere from 4 to 17) to leave their homes and walk into a camp where they sleep – usually on the ground in the open – to avoid being abducted by the rebels. These children are called “night commuters” and an estimated 30,000 of them make this journey every night.

Ugandan Children

Ugandan Children. Photo credit www.invisiblechildren.com

What does the Lord's Resistance Army want? The leader of the LRA is a self-styled prophet called Joseph Kony who aims to overthrow the Ugandan Government and rule the country according to the Biblical Ten Commandments. In 2003 Ugandan President Museveni referred the Lord’s Resistance Army to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to determine if the LRA is guilty of war crimes. The ICC investigation opened in January 2004 and in October 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four senior leaders of the LRA.

This has caused sharp differences between various groups in Uganda. Christian Aid workers feel that the ICC is undermining traditional local justice mechanisms, and that an ICC conviction of Joseph Kony and officers would make a negotiated end to the conflict impossible. Instead, they propose a reconciliation process called Mato Oput, similar to the way enmity and resentment were tackled in South Africa to end apartheid. The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) composed of Christian and Muslim leaders also expressed concern at the intervention of the ICC at this stage in the negotiations. Amnesty International on the other hand sees it as an important opportunity to reverse the present impunity for crimes that have caused unimaginable suffering to thousands of people in northern Uganda.

Photo: Malcolm Harper

How can we possibly help? Malcolm Harper, former Director of the United Nations Association – UK, and two friends, are undertaking a sponsored walk to raise funds for ‘Friends of Northern Uganda’ (FONU). FONU’s work includes helping escaped or rescued abductees with school / training bursaries, giving them a chance of a better life. FONU works in cooperation with the UN, and local organisations to provide clean water, sanitation and other facilities in the IDP camps.

The walk may be sponsored by cheques (payable to FONU) sent to Malcolm Harper, The Cottages, Church Lane, Charlbury OX7 3PX (Tel: 07778 450 515).