Uganda and Sudan join hands to fight LRA
Once cold and distant neighbours, Uganda and Sudan are now cooperating to eradicate Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The guerrilla army, which specializes in abducting the Acholi people who live in northern Uganda as its primary recruitment method, was granted safe haven by Sudan in 1994 as part of the Sudan government’s retaliation for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's financial and military support for the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA). In 2000, the LRA lost the support of the Sudan government and moved closer to the Ugandan border, escalating its attacks on Acholi civilians.
Now, the two governments appear to be working with one another to track down and disperse the LRA. Missionary News Service reported May 9 that 10,000 Ugandan soldiers are in Eastern Equatoria, south Sudan, about 60 kilometres from the Sudan-Uganda border, and are heavily equipped with tanks and artillery. These troop movements are part of Operation Iron Fist, launched by the Ugandan military at the end of February to attack Kony’s camps south of Juba. The Ugandan military intervention has the assent and cooperation of the Sudan government. On April 27, the two countries agreed to establish a joint ministerial committee for the resumption of full diplomatic relations, which had been broken by Uganda in 1995.
Relations between the two countries began to thaw in 1999 during peace negotiations launched by leaders of the Acholi community to end the war in northern Ugandan. These negotiations involved the governments of Khartoum and Kampala, and also Kony and his commanders. From mid-January until December 26, 1999, the LRA halted its attacks on northern Uganda as part of a general ceasefire agreement.
The fledgling peace process was derailed, however, when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter negotiated a deal in December between the two governments in which they agreed not to support insurgencies against the other. On Dec. 26, two weeks after the signing of this Nairobi Agreement, the LRA resumed the war. As the Sudan government withdrew support from the LRA, Kony moved further south toward the Ugandan border--out of anyone's control.
Joseph Kony started his bush war in 1987, one year after Museveni invaded northern Uganda. He quickly gained notoriety for abducting and killing the Acholi, children in particular. From 1986 to the end of 2001, a total of 30,839 children and adults are registered as having been abducted, with one-third of them being children. Returnees report 6,074 Acholis known to be dead. The fate of 13, 611 is not known. Of these, 5,923 were abducted as children, while 7.327 were adults. UNICEF believes that 5,555 children remain in Kony's captivity today. This estimation is corroborated by reports from south Sudan that Kony currently has 6,000 troops, of which 70 per cent are children.
The LRA attacks have also caused unbelievable chaos and displacement of the population of northern Uganda as a whole. Beginning in late 1996, Ugandan troops rounded up thousands of Acholi men, women, children, and elderly from their homes and forced them into so-called "protected villages," settlements that are supposed to protect people against LRA attacks but have caused their own miseries.
"It is true," Msgr. Matthew Odong, head of the Lacor Seminary in Gulu, told AFRICANEWS, "that nearly half of the population of people in Northern Uganda live in the refugee camps, which are similar to the concentration camps that used to exist in Germany" The war has taken many dimensions, namely poverty, HIV/AIDS, the Ebola outbreak of October/December 2000, which have affected the social, moral, cultural, and economic life of the people in northern Uganda."
In contrast to the central and southern parts of the country, death rates are rising in the north. Infant mortality, according to district reports, is 172 per 1,000, compared to Uganda's national figure of 88 per 1,000. The under-five mortality rate is 276 out of 1,000, topped only by rates in eastern Congo and other war zones. The maternal mortality rate is 700 per 100,000 in the north compared to the nation figure of 506 per 100,000.
Measles, malaria, and diarrhoea are the big killers in the camps. As one health official from Kitgum district reported, "War has brought death even from minor illness, because there is no health care." General weakening through malnutrition also boosts the death rate; pictures and videos of the children in the camps show children who clearly and simply do not get enough to eat.
This latest move by the Ugandan military into south Sudan was ostensibly a response to a ferocious Kony attack on Feb. 23, in which the LRA killed eight people and abducted scores of civilians. However, observers believe that Museveni is anxious to secure relations with Khartoum as relations between Washington and Khartoum begin to thaw. Speaking to a reception of American and Ugandan supporters in Washington, D.C., May 6, during his two-day trip to the U.S., Museveni opened his speech by trumpeting his cooperation with American "intelligence" to "fight terrorism" - referring to his Operation Iron Fist.
After two-and-a-half months in Sudan, the effects of Operation Iron Fist so far do not indicate that the Ugandan military has gained the upper hand. The Ugandan military reported that it overran five Kony camps in south Sudan and seized a cache of arms worth more than US$2 million. According to numerous sources, the Ugandan forces suffered heavy casualties. Meanwhile, Kony has dispersed his forces. LRA forces were reportedly crossing into Kitgum district in the first week of May.
Operation Iron Fist has also brought even more war to south Sudan. The Sudan government called upon people in the mountainous zones near the Ugandan border to flee the area in the face of escalated fighting, and the Ugandan government claims that the LRA is also now striking out and killing south Sudanese civilians if they do not support him. In mid-April, the fighting forced thousands of south Sudanese to flee to Juba because of insecurity caused by the fighting.
As per the agreement with the Sudan government, Ugandan forces are permitted in Sudan until May 18. According to an Africa Rights paper issued May 9, Ugandan military forces are preparing to assault Kony in his mountain hideouts, forcing them to abandon their tanks and send forces into the mountains during a season of heavy rains. Major General James Kazini is in Gulu to oversee the operations and proclaimed in a press conference in early May: "You call me on December 31; if Kony is still alive I will resign."
However, Acholi leaders are not hopeful that Iron Fist will improve their situation or security. "Our people have lived in a state of alarm since January this year when various military leaders spoke openly of plans to attack rebel camps in southern Sudan and some formerly abducted persons were made offers of joining the Army for such a move," declared John Baptist Odama, Catholic Archbishop of Gulu and now leader of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative. The reason for alarm is not sympathy for Kony but concern that the biggest victims of Operation Iron Fist will be abducted children.
Causing further concern are reports that young boys and men are being forcibly recruited by the Ugandan military for the assault inside Sudan, as reported by the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative.
LRA child-soldiers are the first to be killed in the Ugandan military onslaught; the military is not taking prisoners nor attempting to secure the safety of abducted children. UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy told the press April 5 that UNICEF had "not seen any evidence to date that the children are being rescued. We need to find out where these children are and then do everything possible to ensure their protection and ultimately, reunification with their families."
"While it may be necessary to use some degree of force in preventing an armed attack, we cannot forget that the LRA is made up at present of at least 70 percent abductees, mostly children, and that a direct attack against their bases would end in the destruction of many innocent lives," Archbishop Odama declared in early March when Operation Iron Fist began. "In fact, recent figures of rebel casualties give us no reason for joy, since we have learnt that most of those who died were children who could have been reintegrated, as many of their companions have been.
"It is my conviction, as well as that of the vast majority of the people of Acholi, that our 16-year-old conflict will be ended by peaceful dialogue. Nobody, whatever his position or side, must refuse this avenue."
In early April, Acholi elders held a conference where they expressed their fear that intensified conflict with the LRA will lead directly to the death of Acholi children or that they would become lost in the forests of south Sudan and die. The elders called upon the Uganda government to follow up its amnesty offer more vigorously and pursue an end to the war. Since the LRA has no political agenda, amnesty, and a program of rehabilitation, leaders of the Acholi community argued, a serious peace initiative could end the war, and end it with the least loss of life.
But whether or not the government pursues its military siege of the LRA, all Acholis believe that the protected villages must be immediately dismantled and that the government must enable the people to return to their homes and protect them there.
"The most urgent requirements for the people of northern Uganda include the following," Msgr. Odong told AFRICANEWS earlier this year: "The government of Uganda should dismantle the camps so that the people can go home. The people need to be assured of their security before they can leave the camps for their homes. Once the camps are dismantled and the security of the people is guaranteed by the government, there is need to financially empower the people so that they can begin to fight poverty and diseases.
"There is urgent need to rebuild the infrastructure of northern Uganda: roads, school, health centres, etc.," said Msgr. Odong. "Most parents in northern Uganda are unable to pay for the tuition fees of their children" There is need to establish a special funds to cater for the education of children in northern Uganda. This will cover the orphans and children whose parents have been affected by the war."
But as of this writing, there appears to be no relief in sight.