Uganda: War And Suffering

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Similarly, since 1996, over two million innocent Ugandan refugees belonging to the Acholi ethnic group to which I belong have been forcefully holed up by the Ugandan government in concentration camps nicely referred to as "protected camps."

AFRICA NEWS UPDATE



I recently returned from visiting Uganda where my organization, The Africa Project works to help victims of the 20-year war there.

The Africa Project, has for the last two years and more, been working to help African refugees, women, children, the youth and those economically disadvantaged by empowering them to become self reliant.

Currently, Africa Project is running a pilot project in northern Uganda helping former child soldiers and war orphans reintegrate back into the society. Many international children and humanitarian organizations estimates that between 45-60,000 children have been abducted and most of them either killed or disappeared in the hands of the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, LRA.

Similarly, since 1996, over two million innocent Ugandan refugees belonging to the Acholi ethnic group to which I belong have been forcefully holed up by the Ugandan government in concentration camps nicely referred to as "protected camps." These camps have some of the worst human conditions on earth today with an estimated 1,000 people dying everyday due to lack of food, poor sanitation and diseases. Victims’ cries have largely fallen on deaf ears.

In 1996, a presidential order was released by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni ordering all villagers in northern Uganda to leave their homes and move into these camps. Those who resisted were bombed using military helicopters or beaten to submission by Ugandan army.

The government claims these camps are supposed to provide safety from rebel attacks but instead, these camps have become death traps for thousands of Acholi. Government soldiers that are supposed to provide security for the people in the camp have in many occasions shot and killed the campers, looted their goods, raped the women and girls leading to an alarming increase of HIV infection in this part of the country.
 
The war in northern Uganda has been going on since 1986 when Museveni took over power from a military junta government that was ruling the country at the time. Ever since then, Museveni has stuck to power and numerous rebel groups have emerged trying to overthrow him. The Lord's Resistance Army, LRA has also stuck to its guns—fighting the Ugandan government since 1987.

The LRA is headed by Joseph Kony, a former alter boy at a local village church. Kony claims he was sent to liberate Uganda and subsequently rule the country based on the 10 Commandments of the Holy Bible. The LRA do not have the support of the local people—they resorted to forcefully abducting young boys and girls, as young as six years old and use them as child soldiers.

The war in northern Uganda has failed to end because of many reasons. The Ugandan government has vowed to "crush and kill" the rebels but this have never happened Instead, the government seems to use the war as money machine. To this end, the government goes to Western countries like Britain and the USA begging for financial and military support to help fight the war.

Yet government officials in Ugandan are so corrupt that they swindle most of the money leaving even government soldiers half-fed, poorly clothed, barefooted, tattered and ill prepared for any kind of war. For the LRA rebels, the war is a source of food; it gives them access to abducted young women to rape.

Both the government and the rebels have pointed accusative fingers at each other for sabotaging various peace talks. In the 1990s, the rebels and the government were talking peace and all of a sudden, Museveni ordered the talks to end and demanded that the rebels disarm or face death. The war continued.

In March 2007, I and others received an official invitation from Riek Marchar, the Vice President of Southern Sudan in collaboration with the Acholi Paramount Chief, Rwot Achana II to travel to Juba Sudan and attend a consultative meeting. Juba is the site for current peace talks between the Uganda government and LRA.

I have been involved in many peace related conferences and seminars before. Being invited by VP Marchar was not only a privilege but recognition of the good work that my organization is doing to bring peace in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
Sudan is a very beautiful country but badly ravaged by wars. It is one of the riches countries in this world with lots of oil and minerals reserves. Ironically, sometimes, these mineral blessings are the same ones that bring a country its curses.

Juba is a big town, but quiet different from your average African city. As much as a big percentage of the residents are Christians, there is a lot of respect for Islamic Sharia Law of "no stealing." I was told that if you steal anything; your hands will be cut off. I saw proof of that law at the hotel I was staying in—people left doors open, clothes, jewelry, computers, and cameras and so on in the open. There was no theft. If anyone steals your property while you are in the Sudan, just know that the thief wasn't Sudanese.

Marchar is a very intelligent man. He picks his words wisely and carefully as if the words are fragile. He sounds like he doesn't want to offend anyone and yet be able to convey his message. When he walked into the hall to address the conference, we had waited well over 30 minutes at which he was supposed to come. The room was well about 100 degrees hot.

VP Marchar is not new in the face of war and adversity. He and the late John Garang, the long-time Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA) leader, helped mediate and bring a peaceful resolution to the war with the Sudanese government in Khartoum. This is why he decided to mediate between Ugandan government and LRA rebels. He told the conference that Ugandans helped Sudan achieve peace and helping Uganda achieve peace is his way to pay back. He advised us to feel at home in Sudan. He reiterated his commitment to saving the off-again on-again peace talks between the Museveni government and the LRA.

After Sudan, I proceeded to Uganda where the actual victims of the war live. It was not until I reached the northern Ugandan city of Gulu that the reality and the horror of 20 years of conflict struck me.

Northern Uganda is about 30 years behind in economic growth compared to other parts of the country. The average person lives on less than 50 U.S. cents a day. People are very poor and wonder when life will return to normal. They are still scared of the possibility that the LRA rebels will come and attack or kidnap their children. There are no jobs, very poor educational systems, no running water, poor sanitation, malaria, increasing rates of HIV infection and a life expectancy of less than 40 years.

I contrasted my position with the tragic conditions there—Here in the U.S. I live an easy life. I can drive my car, ride the bus, and I have running water in my house. In Uganda, I visited many of the refugee camps in Gulu. One of these camps was Alero Camp, about 25 miles away from Gulu town.

Alero has seen the worst. There are still thousands of people living there with nowhere to go even if the war were to end. I spent time at this camp, eating living, talking and sharing ideas with people. I learned that the people are tired of living in the camps. What they want is support to leave the camp. They do not have money or resources to start a new life back at their ancestral homes. They need means to transport their meager belonging. They need money to buy materials to build new homes.

My organization, Africa Project, like many others, is working to alleviate these horrendous conditions. We have donated money and bicycles to former child soldiers, orphans and adolescent mothers in Gulu. Partnering with Information for Youth Empowerment, IYEP, Africa Project also provided seed money for former child soldiers and adolescent mothers to start small businesses. The money was raised last year when Africa Project organized a picnic and dinner in Pittsburgh to support the cause.

There is much work that can be done to help the victims of the war between the Uganda government and the LRA. Africa Project needs your support, contributions and cooperation.

There is critical funding need to provide wheelchairs for children crippled by war wounds or land mines; there is need for medical supplies; need for funding for operations to remove bullets in the bodies of former child soldiers; and funding for mosquito nets to fight malaria. A little help can go a long way---Africa Project is sponsoring more than 1,000 children for education. It costs less than US $300 to sponsor a child’s education. Why not sponsor a child today under our project?

Okema Otika is founder of Africa Project. He is also a current recipient and participant in the US young leaders’ training program with Americorp Program, Public Allies Program at the CORO Center for Civic Leadership, Pittsburgh, PA. He may be reached via email at peter@africaproject.net

For more information about Africa Project, please visit Africa Project website at
www.africaproject.net 


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