In something seen all too often, Father Carlos Rodriguez in Kitgum, Uganda reported the story of a boy who had been abducted from his village by rebel forces that supposedly were battling the Ugandan government. Singled out as “an example,” the boy’s lips, fingers and ears were chopped off. One ear was wrapped in a piece of paper, and the boy was told to carry it in his pocket, a bloody reminder to all others in the area.
For the population of Northern Uganda, the ongoing war between the rebels and the government has displaced them from their homes, exposed them to dangerous conditions, cost thousands of lives and seen an enormous number of children abducted, murdered or forced into horrific situations.
“Few horror stories rival the humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda, where a cult-like rebel group has been terrorizing local people for a generation,” notes a recent report by Tim Large of Reuters news service.
A crisis with no clear end in sight, both the rebel groups and the Ugandan government seem to be throwing one horrific difficulty after another at the Acholi population of Northern Uganda, subjecting them to everything from raids on their homes to the murder and kidnappings of their families to resettlement in appalling camps. In 2003, Jan Egeland, UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and humanitarian relief coordinator, called the crisis one of the worse humanitarian crises on the planet and things do not appear to be improving.
“Some 146 people die each week in the northern region where rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have waged war against the Uganda government for two decades,” reported a variety of charity and humanitarian organizations in a recent Reuters news report. Overall, the conflict has claimed the death of three times as many people as have been killed in the recent war with Iraq, something that might put this conflict into perspective for many in the international community who have not heard a great deal about the situation.
The LRA is led by former altar-boy-turned rebel leader, Joseph Kuny. Early on he drew on apocalyptical spirit beliefs that utilize everything from ideas from Christianity to local beliefs that experts say he superficially utilizes to make claims to legitimacy as a leader and brainwashing captured children. As his rebel armies stormed across the northern area, calling for an overthrow of the government, thousands upon thousands of residents fell prey to their machetes as entire villages were destroyed through mutilations, murders and brutal rapes.
As the rebel forces slashed their way through the Acholi villages, butchering and raping individuals and stealing children to add to their ranks as soldiers, the residents of these villages were often left homeless or else in perilous conditions. The government (who many cite as corrupt itself) shuffled much of the rural population off to dilapidated camps, supposedly as a safety measure to protect against further rebel invasions.
“More than 800,000 Ugandans in government-run camps now rely solely on aid from groups such as the World Food Programme and MZdecins Sans Fronti?ers,” Large reports in the Reuters story.
Relying on outside aid and not planning the camps effectively has resulted in yet another problem: The Ugandan government and military did not adequately plan for the enormous influx of people in such a short time, and now, with an estimated 1.7 million people displaced, according to a UNICEF report, they seem to have even less of a plan in place.
The camps, initially seen as safe havens where the rural population could escape from the violence and raids of the rebels, do not appear free from such raids.
“Danger still threatens camp residents,” notes Kun Li in a UNICEF report, with stories such as that of a 13-year-old being abducted by rebels while looking for firewood outside the camp. Danger also comes from the Ugandan military, supposedly provided to protect the citizens in the camps.
“Soldiers in Uganda’s national army have raped, beaten, arbitrarily detained and killed civilians in camps. Some beatings are inflicted for minor infractions such as being outside the camp a few minutes past curfew,” notes the group Human Rights Watch in a recent report.
The prevalence and growth of disease in these camps is also a major concern.
“There’s malnutrition, malaria, cholera, HIV,” Keith Morrison and Tim Sandler reported on Dateline NBC.
“Representatives of those groups stated that malaria and HIV/AIDS are serious concerns, with higher disease prevalence rates in the camps than in the rest of the country,” reports a recent Reuters story.
While Uganda is often hailed in the media and among international organizations for its aggressive HIV/AIDS programs, the spread of HIV/AIDS within the camps due to disregard and abuse of residents seems to belie this so-called national progress.
It is time to pressure the Ugandan government into cleaning up these camps and putting a stop to this brutal and lengthy war. As millions continue to suffer horrific abuses on the part of both the rebels and the government forces, it is time for the international community to voice concern actively and remember what is swiftly becoming a “forgotten war.”
Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian.