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Welcome to hell on earth: Hear the cries of northern Uganda

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The people of northern Uganda have no place to rest their head. “Since 1986, we have only had restless nights,” an old woman at Ader camp told me. “We are starving to death. Our children have been abducted, our daughters raped and our entire villages destroyed. We have no future. By the time you return, we will probably all be dead.”

The woman is right. Over the last 18 years, the people of northern Uganda have died and are continuing to die amidst silence from the international community. Since 1986, the north of Uganda has been ravaged by a war that has left tens of thousands dead, over 25,000 children abducted and more than 1.6 million people now living in internally-displaced peoples (IDP) camps of the most squalor conditions.

Images speak louder than statistics – viciously malnourished children lying naked on the dirt with flies all over their bodies, tents made of plastic bags housing more than 10 people, elderly wasting away in their own feces, 12-year-old girls forced into prostitution for as little as 500 shillings (30 cents), a people living in constant destabilizing fear.

As I walked through these camps, I was horrified by these images and the stories that followed them. I wanted to cry and vomit. The situation in northern Uganda really is hell on earth. And no one is even doing anything about it.

In most of the camps I visited, there is no government or international presence to provide food and relief to these people. In some cases, the government has not even recognized that camps – with thousands and thousands of people – exist. As one man told me, “We are forgotten. The government has successfully hidden this war. We will die and no one will ever know what happened here.”

This horror is the result of a vicious 18-year-old civil/proxy war that has pitted the government against the Lord’s Resistance Army, an apocalyptic-spiritual insurgency seeking to overthrow the current regime. The LRA has waged war on the civilian population, while the government has simply contained the conflict, lacking any commitment or will to end the war.

Since 1994, the war has become more complex and gruesome as the LRA has filled its ranks by abducting, brainwashing and manipulating children ranging from ages seven to 17. In some cases, the children are initially forced to kill their own family or burn down homes full of as many as 20 people. The LRA commanders violently instill fear into them, transforming children into the most vicious killers.

The accounts of the gruesome and horrific ways in which such children have then killed are immensely disturbing. When I interviewed one 17-year-old escaped abductee, he told me sickening accounts of his abduction. Yet even more disturbing was watching the pain as this boy recalled the dark memories. He kept looking to the floor, his hand shaking and his neck twitching. The situation really is hell on earth.

Perhaps the most disturbing element is how the war has gone on for so long with no serious action from the Ugandan government or international community. Since 1986, President Museveni has insisted on a “military solution” to the war, though his approach has only further marginalized northerners, exacerbated mistrust and fueled more violence.

Since 2001 when the United States branded the LRA a “terrorist group,” the Ugandan government has been able to abrogate its responsibility for the war. Receiving U.S. military aid, Museveni has sought to defeat Kony instead of engaging in serious peace talks. Yet, almost all independent observers believe such talks are the key to peace.

The people suffering in the north have completely lost faith in the government, so they are thus appealing to the international community for help as their last hope. “This government does not care about us. Our only hope is to the international community to come in and end this war.” One young man told me, “When you go back to your country, tell the people that they are our last hope. If the international community does not act, we will all die.”

Unfortunately, he is right. The government will only commit to negotiations if there is serious pressure from the international community, most especially the United States. One political analyst told me, “The United States is the only country Museveni cannot ignore. If the U.S. wants this war to end, it will end.”

If the American people demanded the U.S. government utilize their clout in Uganda to save lives and end a war, it would happen. And it should happen.

This summer, I will work with the recently-formed Africa Faith and Justice Network to launch a campaign to expose the silence and complicity of the U.S. government in this subtle genocide, while pushing the government to act for the peaceful resolution of the war. With enough support and commitment, this campaign, called the Uganda Conflict Action Network (Uganda-CAN) can have a massive impact on the lives of Ugandans living on the brink of death.

The people of northern Uganda are crying out for your and my attention, for the world’s attention. For too long, this war has been hidden and ignored, resulting in a situation most appropriately described as hell on earth. I ask you to join the Uganda-CAN as we demand an end to this war. The stakes could not be higher and the cause more worthy.

Peter Quaranto is a junior international peace studies major. He writes from Kampala, Uganda, where he is currently researching the war in northern Uganda. Read his running commentary from Uganda at www.peterquaranto.blogspot.com. Contact Peter at pquarant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.