War in Uganda

Meeting chaired by Geoffrey Catchpole

Roger Bolton

Composer and former Senior Lecturer at Bath Spa University College

29 September 2004.

The parents of the speaker worked for the Christian Missionary Society in Uganda and he returned to the country in March 2004 for a holiday, then knowing little about the north. He became interested in the north, however, and through links with government resulting from his parents’ work, he was able to travel there under escort on three visits, during which he made video recordings. There are 56 tribes in Uganda, but the war in the north, which has been raging for over 18 years, involves mainly one – the Acholi.

Despite some cultural disturbance arising from missionary work, a century of British rule was relatively peaceful. When the British authorities selected the Acholi for army recruitment on the basis of their aggressive style of dance, they served the British well – over 77,000 fighting for it outside Uganda in WWII. After Ugandan Independence in 1962 Britain provided much aid, but without sufficient controls, which brought considerable corruption. Under both Amin and Obote, his successor, the Acholi were prominent in the army.

In 1986 a southern guerrilla leader, Museveni, seized power, but the northerners continued to resist and in 1991 Joseph Koni took over the rebels. Currently Museveni is supported by the Americans and Koni is supported by the Sudanese government, because he helps their fight against the Sudanese rebels being supported by the Ugandan government. The speaker described the situation as being basically ‘Christians versus Islamics’.

Museveni gave the Acholi 2 days in which to abandon their farms and villages in 1995, forcing them into ‘Internally Displaced People’ (IDP) camps, nominally for their own protection by his army, the ‘Ugandan Peoples Defence Force’ (UPDF).

The speaker gave a graphic account of what he had learned from his visits through direct experience with the people and children abducted to serve as soldiers for the rebels. Joseph Koni, the rebel leader, is uneducated but acts in the name of God and is treated as holy by his followers in the ‘Lords Resistance Army’ (LRA). Children are forced to join him as ‘disciples’. He originally wanted to overthrow the government by reference to the ‘Ten Commandments’, but the speaker pointed out that he then added another, designed to prevent any escape or informing to government, namely not to take any transport. Riding a bicycle is punishable by machete removing buttocks. There are many other peculiar prohibitions, based on superstition and voodoo. Koni assured his soldiers that if they wore stones in bags round their necks and carried water they would be invulnerable to government soldiers, which has, of course, proved disastrous for the children. Any abducted children trying to escape, however, are killed. Over 18 years rebels have burned houses, destroyed crops and camps, abducted children from the age of 8, cut off ears, legs and lips, have padlocked mouths and plucked out eyes. They have killed people and forced others to eat them. Many thousands have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep.

Over 1.6 million Acholi in 218 northern IDP camps are virtually in ‘concentration camps’, said the speaker. Since 1992, 50-60,000 children have to leave home every night for protection from abduction, often moving for up to ten miles to be near barracks and to sleep rough. Many camps contain over 20,000 and one has 63,000, but on average there are only 170 government soldiers per camp. The logic is not protection but denial of farms to rebels, so the rebels attack camps for food and recruits- soldiers of both sexes, porters and girls for sex-slaves.

Recruits are force-marched to training camps in Sudan, any sick or reluctant being killed, then given two weeks training before their return to raid IDP camps. In the training camps the youngest of each abducted family of three or four children have to kill their siblings, as an initiation rite. They must then return to their own family to kill their own parents and abduct children from other families.

Southerners take little interest in the peoples of the north or of the interminable war. The prosperous south ends at the Victoria Nile. Two-thirds of Uganda’s income comes from the World Bank and from foreign donors. Since coming to power President Museveni has received £740 millions and little of the foreign aid finds its way to the north. Museveni has convinced foreign donors that he has fought the HIV crisis effectively, since the relevant figure in the south has now fallen from 38% to 12%, but he does not mention that in the north the figure is now around 85%. Because his soldiers were told that it would cure them, his HIV positive soldiers in the north rape female children in the camps, as well as pillage and rob residents. He does spend around 800,000 dollars daily, however, mainly on fuel. While the average income in the south is no more than around 1$ a day, there is virtually no income in the north, so many women attach themselves to paid soldiers and children sell sex.

There are 700 relief workers for 2.2 million people in the north and humanitarian access is very difficult, since there is little infrastructure and few roads, save those made by and for the UN World Food Programme. Their workers supply camps on a four-monthly visit basis, under armed protection, but they are reducing supplies to around two-thirds of basic survival needs in order to drive inhabitants out of the camps to resume farming, while the soldiers of both the LRA and the UPDF subject them to attacks out of the camps. President Museveni needs the status quo until June 2006, when his presidency nominally ends. He has retained that status so far by ignoring his own constitution, which prohibits such successive presidency. So, although he used a minor southern incident some years ago to declare a temporary ‘international disaster zone’ through which to secure foreign intervention, he will not do that now for the northern situation. While the aid organisations claim that communication with the rebels is so difficult that peace cannot be negotiated, the speaker found it relatively easy to contact them. So the war drags on. It should be noted that the northern land is more fertile than that of the south, providing three rather than two harvests per annum, so the elimination of the northern Acholi would leave the land free for southern occupation.

After ‘9/11’, Museveni informed the American government of his battle with the ‘terrorist’ Lord’s Resistance Army and subsequently secured their support when the Americans also opposed the ‘fundamentalist’ Islamic Sudanese rebels. American naval and air force bases are now being established in both Ugandan and Sudanese areas where there happen to be oil supplies. (The speaker commented in passing that while no ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ have so far been found in Iraq, the appellation could surely be applied to the infection of children through HIV, when a war status and inadequate medical facilities prevent any alleviation.)

Schools in the north are shut and dispensaries are raided, so the people revert to traditional remedies, such as the purging of ‘demons’. In order to avoid abduction girls seek to become pregnant as early as possible and there are large numbers of unwanted babies, often infected with HIV. Since 1992 children have been hiding at night, abandoning their families, so the speaker has set up a charity which provides a night shelter in one camp, covering 3,000 children at a cost of £60 a month. An amnesty in operation for the last two years brings some LRA children back and with the training camps in the Sudan now reduced to five there is a growing influx of escapees, which is rapidly swelling numbers at the two ‘rehabilitation’ camps so far available. The speaker stressed, however, that the psychological damage to the children is immense and long-lasting, while their cultural background has been lost over the past twenty years.

(At intervals through his exposition the speaker showed video sequences of camp situations, where there is no drainage or sanitation or water and where huts are crowded together in close proximity, while families become dispersed. He showed children’s artwork, full of horrific images, and of children singing to white ants in attempts to bring them to the surface of their holes, in order to be eaten. He showed escaping LRA children who had walked 250 kilometres to give themselves up, without food. He also played some child soldier chants celebrating their ‘soldier’ status and some music he had composed to accompany his graphic exposition.)

Geoffrey Catchpole