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‘Dying at our roots’

Long-standing conflict in northern Uganda
has made violence, kidnapping and death a daily part of life
Sunday, August 3, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:41 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Editor’s note: Bramucci is working with Voluntary Association for International Service, a relief agency active in northern Uganda, while completing research for a master’s degree from the MU School of Journalism.

T he coughing begins again at 2:53 a.m. I wake to the sound of thousands of small lungs fighting the night air. It’s close and harsh, the sound of respiratory infections that promise to linger well beyond the rain season. Because this is one in a countless string of nights, and no one can come in from the cold.

The hospital grounds are crowded in Kitgum, northern Uganda. An experienced “night-stayer” arrives early, spreads a blanket to stake out territory and claims a space under the roof’s overhang. Those of us who straggle in late measure the sky for hints of rain, lay our scraps of plastic sheeting in the dirt and settle down for the night.

It’s my first experience as a “night-stayer.” Since I know it’s also my last, I feel an incongruous sense of adventure as I settle onto the hard ground and stare up at brilliant stars. I wrap myself in a heavy wool blanket, and I let my eyes close to the conversations around me.

After 10 minutes, the children lose their reserve. Above me is a gathering crowd of curious faces, all of them whispering, wondering what four “muzungus” (foreigners), are doing in this sad place. In our attempt at solidarity we become the children’s evening entertainment. Until the novelty wears off around 11 p.m. we’ll answer scores of impossible questions.

“Do you like it here, muzungu?” “Isn’t the ground hard for you?” “Do you see how our people are living?” “Do you see how we suffer?”

I see. But I don’t know how to answer without revealing the shame I feel before these displaced thousands. They take refuge in hospitals, bus parks, shop verandas, any guarded compound or urban center that might offer safety, and I still don’t know how to reconcile my world with theirs. Here, when the gunfire starts it will be like any other night; the children just turn over in their sleep.

It’s been 13 months now. Thirteen months of daily rebel attack, villages burned, buses ambushed, children abducted. The reports I write for a relief organization announce climbing numbers—800,000 displaced, 20,000 “night-stayers,” 8,500 abducted—and declare one more humanitarian crisis for the world to ignore.

It’s no surprise that we overlook or choose not to see. There are myriad others, more strategic conflicts to distract us. And after nearly 18 years, we’re tired of this story. The past year in Uganda’s north may have been worse than usual, but it’s all part of a cycle that never stops. What do we do when peace becomes an alien word? It’s easy to abandon hope from continents and oceans away.

The history of conflict in Acholiland, a region of Uganda named for the tribe that dominates three northern districts, is long and complex. A series of rebel movements took hold in the late 1980s, after President Yoweri Museveni fought a guerrilla war to overthrow the short-lived presidency of Tito Okello, an Acholi.

Defeated and disenfranchised, armed Acholi soldiers retreatedto the north. Acholiland became the breeding ground for several resistance movements, the most prominent of which was the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena. Claiming to take orders from a holy spirit, Lakwena won the loyalty of former soldiers as well as highly educated Acholi. Their cause was defined as a war against evil, which they identified in the government army.

The Holy Spirit forces marched toward Uganda’s capital city, coming within 80 kilometers and incurring heavy losses before finally facing defeat. During this period, a breakaway faction headed by Lakwena’s young cousin, Joseph Kony, was building momentum. His rebels, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), are still active today.

For years the LRA’s long-running insurgency has been trivialized by the Ugandan government and international observers alike. Viewed as an incomprehensible and crazed band of rebels that poses no real threat to the government, the LRA has been easy to dismiss.

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As recently as 2000, the LRA’s political arm submitted a paper at a peace conference organized by Acholi leaders in Nairobi. The LRA statement called its original and primary objective the defense and protection of civilians against the aggression of the Ugandan government army.

“Members of the LRA are ordinary[,] peaceful[,] law-abiding peasants,” it read. “LRA [is] fighting to defend their lives, human rights and dignity[;] protect their people and land[;] and assist others to liberate themselves.”

Long-time observers in the region view this sort of statement as irrelevant because it runs so contrary to LRA actions.

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The LRA moves through the countryside looting and burning villages, killing and maiming civilians and abducting thousands of children. While rebels often come up against the Ugandan army in battle, their primary victims are the Acholi people themselves.

My mind flashes to a clear day in 2001. I sit in a village that hugs Uganda’s border with Sudan. A mother, Atoo Helen, sits nearby and lets me ply her with questions. She’s marking the fourth year since three of her six children were abducted, and she now assumes they’re dead. Helen demands to know what I can do to help. I struggle for an answer and her face is angry, drained by my response. I’m determined to be honest. Honesty seems to mean I can’t do anything at all.

Since the beginning of its insurgency, the LRA has abducted more than 20,000 children to use as porters, soldiers and, in the case of girls, sex slaves. Within the LRA ranks, around 90 percent of “soldiers” are estimated to be abducted children. They are often forced to murder family members and neighbors, and are then placed on the frontlines against the government army.

While some children are able to escape, an uncounted number die in battle or as a result of their living conditions in the bush. Girls, kept under tight surveillance, are less likely to escape. They can remain with the LRA for years, serving as commanders’ “wives” and giving birth to children who grow up with the rebels.

Human Rights Watch reports that the LRA has abducted 8,500 children since June 2002 alone. In this same period, rebels have stepped up attacks on the civilian population, massacring large groups of people; ambushing vehicles and planting landmines; and setting fire to camps for the displaced, health centers and Catholic missions.

This escalation of rebel activity came in response to an aggressive government offensive launched in March 2002. Then, with the unprecedented cooperation of the Sudanese government, Ugandan troops pursued LRA bases in southern Sudan.

President Museveni, who billed the offensive as a war on terrorism, has proclaimed his troops largely successful. He requested increases in military spending and promised that if the army had new helicopters it would be able to finish the job.

The president’s assessment is met with a mix of derision and sadness in Acholiland, where civil and religious leaders consider the LRA essentially “victorious.” The few aid agencies and Catholic missionaries who have maintained a presence in the region point to the government’s failure to protect civilians or to respond to humanitarian needs. Hospital admissions are at double capacity, the majority of schools have been closed or burned and severe food shortages are looming.

On the political front, relations between Uganda and Sudan have grown tense with renewed accusations that Sudan is supporting the LRA. Youth who escape captivity report large supplies of arms coming from elements within Sudan, and questions continue to circulate about whether Museveni is aiding Sudanese rebels. International mediators made significant progress in pushing for Sudanese peace talks in early 2003, but the inextricable link to northern Uganda is often considered a minor issue.

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In the past, Acholi religious leaders met with LRA commanders in an effort to build trust and convince rebels to leave the bush. Such attempts at dialogue have been rendered impossible by the violence of the past 13 months. Members of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), while adamant that a lasting peace will depend entirely on a commitment to confidence-building and reconciliation, now admit their desperation.

“We are dying at the roots,” says a vocal ARLPI member. “Unless the world sees, we have no future.”

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Pointing to U.N. intervention in other African conflicts, Acholi leaders now call for outside intervention, international pressure for protection of civilians and consideration of the crisis at the United Nations.

The European Union and the U.S. government have taken some notice of the upsurge of conflict in northern Uganda. In early July, members of the European parliament offered a resolution demanding greater protection of civilians and a return to dialogue. The United States is more reticent to openly criticize Museveni, a key U.S. partner in East Africa. The U.S. Agency for International Development has been active on the humanitarian front, however, and has recently launched a new peace initiative for northern Uganda.

As part of the humanitarian community here, I watch the conflict unfold with my own sense of desperation. I struggle to believe in peace as fervently as members of ARLPI, who push for dialogue despite obstacles that often appear insurmountable. I want to hear my voice be as resolved as theirs when I venture that peace could be a reality for the Acholi people. But when I catch the weariness in their eyes, when I walk through hospital wards teeming with children, when I listen to the stories of former LRA captives, I falter.

I grow impatient when I hear that seven children died in the hospital last night, just because there wasn’t enough blood. I don’t know how to respond anymore when a woman pulls back her bed sheet to reveal what a landmine left of her legs. I forget to believe in a just world when I greet a teenage boy whose lips and fingers were cut off by rebels.

Then, slowly, it all starts to sound too familiar. I realize I’m beginning to accept that this is the way things are for the Acholi. And, suddenly, I feel that the sense of normality is the greatest danger.

So I look for ways to shake myself out of blindness. On a night in late June, I put aside my attempts to make sense of history and sources of conflict. I go to the hospital for my own eight-hour taste of how tens of thousands pass the cramped and cold nights, all of them praying for safety from rebel attack. My colleagues and I sleep on the ground with the displaced children, reminded again how their laughter offers a source of hope.

One night later, no longer a “night-stayer,” I’m left with the disquieting sense of my warmth and comfort back inside. I close my eyes to see small, shivering bodies. They’re lined up against the hospital wall, squeezing for space protected from rain, pulling thin blankets around their shoulders and wondering if the guns will rock them to sleep.


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