I saw a film the other week, “Uganda Rising”, at an evening organised by Kalabash Uganda. For more info about this film, visit www.ugandarising.com
The main reason why I wanted to attend the film show was that I know so little about what is happening in Northern Uganda. I was aware that children were being kidnapped from their homes in villages and being forced to fight for a rebel army and commit atrocities against each other. I was also aware that, as a result, many children were walking for miles every night into the cities so that they could sleep in safety.
I was subsequently told that at least one Acholi woman has told people to boycott this film because it is slanted to present President Musaveni in a favourable light. However, I found that the film does criticise Musaveni to some extent.
I have recently met two young Acholi women whom I will soon interview about a Ugandan project they are involved with, which supports women and children.
Most of the information that follows comes from the film, and a bit comes from other sources.
There were negotiations between President Musaveni and various different rebel leaders in the 1980s, but these broke down when Musaveni said he was tired of negotiating. At that time, although Joseph Kony’s forces were wandering around with guns, and with their fingers on the triggers all the time, there was no violence. Everything was peaceful until the negotiations ended.
Kony subsequently formed the Lord’s Resistance Army. Their activities seem confined to terrorising the Acholi people of Northern Uganda. This despite the fact that Kony is himself an Acholi.
Kony attacked people and abducted many children from their homes in villages, forcing them to fight for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Part of their army training involved shooting each other and many of them died in this way. A lot of their activities involve mutilating people. One woman described how LRA people cut off her lips, leaving her permanently disfigured. An ex-LRA member spoke of how he and his comrades were ordered to cut off a woman’s hands and feet before killing her.
The LRA would raid the villages at night, so parents were forced to send their children into the cities at night. The film showed children sleeping in shelters. One UN observer stated that she saw many children walking towards the city at night and, as it got darker, they didn’t walk, they ran.
Museveni’s government moved the majority of the Acholi people into camps supposedly for their protection, but did not provide adequate military personnel to protect them. Most of the people in the camps are women and children. Moving them into the camps just made it easier for LRA members to rape the women and abduct the children. Plus, the camps lacked basic provisions such as food and medicine.
So the children still have to leave the villages and camps every night and head into the cities for their own protection. They sleep in shelters, in churches and on the street. I was told by a young Ugandan woman that, even when she visits her family on holiday, by nighttime they have to be out of the village.
The children stay in the shelters without adult supervision. Some of the older ones are having sex with each other, with the inevitable consequences of pregnancies and STIs. Although Uganda is often portrayed as an African success story in terms of treatment of HIV and AIDS, the rate of infection is higher in this part of the country.
The film also depicted many children in child-headed households. Children have to care for their younger siblings and grandparents, run a household and try to get an education. I have seen pictures like this before, e.g. from South Africa, where there are so many AIDS orphans. These Ugandan children have been orphaned, not by disease but by conflict.
The children are desperate for education. The film showed children in the shelters, studying via the light of flashlights.
The Ugandan government now has a policy of extending amnesty to ex-LRA members, excluding Kony and his senior officials. LRA personnel who come out of the bush and surrender have to confess to their wrongdoings and make restitution to those whom they have harmed, and/or their surviving family members.
I was particularly pleased to see that they also perform a public ritual of cleansing. I am pleased to see them drawing on their ancient traditions, although the ritual involves cutting an animal in half, which is obviously very cruel. I would like to see them substitute a modern equivalent which did not involve the taking of more innocent life.
On the one hand, I am glad many people are leaving the LRA, coming out of the bush, making restitution and being reintegrated into the community.
But the people in the camps are not as fortunate. They are still highly vulnerable. I think of the woman with no lips. She has been offered no compensation or support to get on with her life.
I also think about the children having to travel into the cities night after night, just to be safe. Just to get a good night’s sleep. I wonder what kind of future they are going to have.
I also think of the many children who have been born in the bush, fathered by Kony and other LRA men. What does the future hold for them?
Unlike some other conflicts, we don’t get much information about the situation in Northern Uganda. It is not on the news or portrayed much in the media. This conflict has raged since 1986. A million and a half Acholi people have been displaced.