Africa's forgotten war
Margaret Okello was nine months pregnant when soldiers from the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) came into her village outside the Northern Ugandan town of Gulu.
They dragged her deep into the bush of the surrounding savannah and cut off her nose, ears and lips.
Speaking in a Gulu rehabilitation centre for the many victims of northern Uganda’s 18 year war, Okello says her life was only spared because she was pregnant.
She had watched the rebels hack to death her husband’s two other wives. Blood streaming from her face, she then staggered on her own several kilometres to the nearest hospital.
“I don’t know why they did it,” she says, peering out from the skull-like features of her face.
“We gave them the money and food they demanded.
We knew that it’s dangerous to defy the LRA.”
Okello gave birth to a healthy son two weeks after the February attack, but her husband, appalled by her disfigurement, abandoned her and her three children.
For the past 18 years, the LRA has waged a war against the government of Uganda, largely by carrying out similar atrocities against the local population.
Led by Joseph Kony, a man who believes that he is host to the holy spirit, the LRA’s stated goal is to install a government based on the Ten Commandments.
The result of their reign of terror is that 1,4-million Northern Ugandans, or 80% of the area’s population, have been forced into cramped, squalid refugee camps where disease and malnutrition pick up where the LRA has left off.
The UN attributes upwards of 100 000 deaths to the war, calling the situation here one of the worst and most under-reported humanitarian crises in the world.
Part of the LRA’s success lies in its recruitment policy. In the past decade, the rebel group has abducted about 20 000 children—some are as young as eight years old, who are then forced to fight and work as sex slaves.
Many manage to escape, though many are also killed. Ten thousand formerly abducted children have been processed through child soldier rehabilitation camps run by Unicef and World Vision.
At one such centre in Gulu, with the help of counsellors, 17 year-old Patrick is trying to rebuild his life after six years in the LRA.
“After I was captured,” he says, “there was a boy from my village who was caught trying to escape. Eight of us from the village were told to beat the child to death”.
“But when we reached him, he had already been killed. So they made us beat his dead body. After that we were told to smear ourselves with his blood.”
This is a normal LRA tactic, to terrorise and shame children so they won’t try and desert.
Until 2002, the LRA were supported by the government of neigbouring Sudan. That support was withdrawn after the September 11th terror attacks in New York, when the United States government declared the LRA a terrorist organisation.
The result has seen the LRA weakened from a fighting force of several thousand down to an estimated 500 hundred armed men.
Despite this, and the presence of 20 000 Ugandan Army troops in the north, the LRA’s reign of terror continues.
“Why doesn’t the UN Security Council do something here?” asks Benjamin Obillim, a
leader at Awer refugee camp north of Gulu.
The camp itself was attacked by the LRA last year. “We look at the Congo and at Darfur where they have peacekeepers, where the UN talks about sanctions, but we have been ignored for 18 years.”
On the humanitarian side, the UN has responded. Seventy-five percent of food in camps, like Awer, comes from the UN’s World Food Programme. And dozens of other international agencies and NGO’s are operating in the region.
The new International Criminal Court in the Netherlands has begun investigations aimed at bringing the senior LRA leaders to trial for crimes against humanity. But all efforts at ending the war have basically been left to the Ugandan people themselves.
While an amnesty programme has seen several LRA leaders surrender to the government in the past few months, repeated efforts at peace talks have all failed.
The military and the government of President Yoweri Museveni are skeptical of the peace efforts.
“They have no serious agenda on which to negotiate,” says Major Shaban Bantariza, spokesperson for the Ugandan army. “They are being led by Joseph Kony who is an enigma.
“He wants to fight the government and establish the rule of the Ten Commandments of Jesus Christ and God and yet they are killing Christ’s people, chopping off their limbs, it makes no sense.”
Major Bantariza believes that the army can eradicate the LRA within a year, citing the end of Sudanese support as a main reason.
But he admits fighting a force made up largely of kidnapped children makes the job difficult. “We can’t use maximum firepower to wipe them out,” he says. ” We need to scare them into surrendering.”
Whatever the reason for the LRA’s resilience, their effect on the people of Northern Uganda is undeniable. Rates of poverty, HIV infection, malnutrition, health care and education are some of the worst in the world.
And despite the army’s promises of an end to the war, the LRA continue to carry out attacks almost on a daily basis. At the World Vision rehabilitation centre in Gulu, Margaret Okello says she doesn’t know who she is angry at.
Hiding her disfigured face in her hands, she says, “I know the LRA are to blame for what happened to me, but I am also angry at my husband for leaving me.”
Mutilated, abandoned and driven into poverty, Okello’s story is, in many ways, the story of more than an entire generation of people in this forgotten region. - Sapa-DPA